Tim Bantle, global general manager of The North Face, described the brand’s transformation from a collection of technical clothing and gear for serious explorers to a label that’s in-demand in the fashion world and collaborating with Supreme, Junya Watanabe and Sacai.
Bantle began by showing The North Face rock, which appears on all of its products, “at the end of Yosemite Valley, there’s this beautiful, monolithic rock,” he said. “It captures our historical essence.”
Bantle is a climber who spent 12 years at Patagonia, and prior to that, worked in guiding and retail. Showing a photo of a frozen tundra, he said, “This is where the most elite climbers in the world go — to the middle of Antarctica to do new climbs.”
Likening The North Face to NASA, but for earthbound exploration, Bantle said, “We enable people to go there and do that. It’s given rise to our most important and iconic products. Those products are part of an Expedition System launched in the Nineties.…We developed these products basically to climb Mount Everest.
“These products basically have a place in our archive and have a cult following around the world,” Bantle added. “The most important iconic products include the Denali jacket Base Camp duffel. Not many brands have that kind of touchstone and we have several. We’ve been seeing their adoption by youth culture around the world. We just discovered that we can start the process of reissuing them.”
However, The North Face’s culture has been transforming to become more inclusive. “Cities have become worlds of their own for exploration,” he said. “Our fundamental proposition is selling guys gear that they wear. Our DNA comes from the mountains, but our customers live in the city. This was a very monolithic space, a white space and a male space. We really need to open up what exploration’s all about. It’s more than the top of Everest. You can go to the biggest city in the world and engage in a creative activity.”
A new campaign called “The New Explorer” focuses on “a loyal lover of the brand that we’ve never spoken to or invited to be part of the brand.”
“This is two halves of our brand,” Bantle said. “We’re on solid footing in the world of exploration and in cities.” The second half of the proposition gives The North Face license to step into the fashion arena, as long as it can do it “very authentically and very genuinely.”
The North Face has a leg up because of its decadelong relationship with Supreme. “We’ve quietly been working with this very cool brand and doing about three drops a year,” Bantle said. “The fusion of streetwear and fashion led Comme des Garçons to come to us and say they want to do a collaboration.
“Junya Watanabe came and spent time with us on campus. Junya homed in on the Base Camp duffel. A couple of weeks later, we get this sketch for a bomber jacket that deconstructed the Base Camp duffel and turned it into a jacket.” After that, the brand showed off its collaboration during Paris Fashion Week, which prompted Sacai to reach out. “We did this piece that’s really amazing with this silhouette — a fishtail, long parka that’s not like something we would have done on our own.”
In addition, Bantle said The North Face Purple Label, which has been available only in Japan and Korea, is being sold at the brand’s Brooklyn store. Launched in 2003 by Nanamica designer Eiichiro Homma, Bantle said Purple Label is an elevated product and more workwear-inspired.
Bantle thinks things will settle down for the brand to between two and four collaborations a year. “Some of our peers make collaborations about revenue,” he said. “They’ve massively complicated to manage. It’s all plus business, not core revenue for us.”