We all love gear, no doubt. Having worked with dozens of gear manufacturers over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to pull back the curtain on the design and development process, which is surprisingly cool. Since partnering with Rab I’ve gotten a whole new appreciation for the process of designing, prototyping, testing, and delivering high-end, technical apparel. I thought I’d share a few of those experiences, as well as discuss the industry with one of its best designers, Jim Mohan.
“It helps being an athlete,” says Mohan, who grew up surfing Rockaway Beach, in Queens, New York. He would eventually study design at SUNY-Purchase before holding creative positions at Descente, Spyder, Under Armour, Nike, and Dakine. He has always
been active, whether skiing the backcountry in Tahoe (just hours from where he lives today, in San Francisco, California), racing bikes as an elite amateur, or even in martial arts tournaments as a kid.
“Being an athlete first means knowing what a difference apparel can make—both good and bad. Any athlete wants to achieve the ‘Super Hero Effect’—that combination of fit, function, and performance that makes us better. When I worked for Dakine, we’d outfit the backcountry ski athletes, then let our discoveries inform other product lines. We’d start at the pinnacle products, then let the innovations filter down to more affordable items in the line.”
Products often start with a simple idea or sketch. For Mohan and Dakine, they imagined product, then spent three days on the hill letting ski and ride athletes dissect everything from fit, pocket placement, hood functionality, fabric performance, to the height of a collar and how it might interact with a neck gaiter or zip-T base layer.
“Once you have the fit, textiles become a critical part of the process. Do you use a laminate? Is it packable enough? Durable? Do we need to reinforce certain areas?” Mohan asks throughout the process. He adds, “We also visit how an athlete’s layers—including his or her skin—interact with one another. Does your baselayer enhance or prohibit what your natural thermoregulatory responses need to do? And do the subsequent layers such as your mid-layer and outerwear work together?”
After designers arrive at the fit and marry appropriate fabrics to the design, they create what’s known as a “tech pack,” or basically a road map for a particular factory—usually in Asia.
“It’s funny, there are a few factories in the States than can do this sort of thing, but labor costs are really high here,” explains Mohan. “The cutting-edge technology, though, is in Asia, primarily Vietnam and China.”
An apparel brand takes the tech pack, then finds the factory that can pull off the design. Some factories specialize in welded seams, others in waterproof-breathables, others in price-point (read: entry level, inexpensive) products.
Initially a brand like Rab, Dakine, or Arcteryx produces a few pieces, or prototypes. In-house and sponsored athletes then field-test these garments for tweaks before full production.
Tim Jasper, Design Director for Rab, explains his company usually produces at a minimum three, if not many more, prototypes of a garment. Athletes and in-house testers (Rab boasts a posse of climbers, hikers, runners, and skiers at both its Derbyshire, England; and Boulder, Colorado offices) offer feedback on everything from hood construction to pockets to fit and overall performance.
“We garner feedback widely through industry channels, our retailers and direct feedback from end-users also,” explains Jasper.
For more technical pieces, like Rab’s impossibly light-and-packabel “ZeroG” down jacket, relationships count. Rab’s founder, Rab Carrington, still offers guidance and feedback. A cutting-edge alpinist in the ‘70s, Carrington built the company on expertise in crafting down jackets and sleeping bags. Rab, the company, has since been a foremost producer of down equipment, so sourcing 1000-fill down for the ZeroG jacket was possible.
“You get to know the mills, who can fulfill your needs,” says Mohan. “That comes from time spent in the industry, realizing what can be done, with whom, the how and the where. You can create beautiful and aesthetically pleasing garments that perform in the backcountry. Apparel that complements the human form and supports movement, success, and excellence. Form follows function at its core.”
Ultimately it comes down to creating pieces that people want to wear, whether they’re climbing, skiing, traveling, or just hanging out. My “a-ha” moment with Rab was trying on one of their jackets at Neptune Mountaineering, nearly five years ago. They had nailed the fit—then I paid more attention to their materials, their technical characteristics, what they were doing. I’ve been head-to-toe in Rab ever since.
For designers like Mohan, the proof is in seeing consumers and athletes in the product, psyched on the performance and achieving their own “Super Hero Effect.”
“When you combine the principles of fit, form, function, and meet the needs of the athlete, you’ve hit a home run,” says Mohan. “That’s my goal with each design.”
Rob Coppolillo is an internationally licensed mountain guide, co-owner of Vetta Mountain Guides, and a contributing editor at Elevation Outdoors.