VANCOUVER, Canada — An unassuming building, in an unassuming industrial complex. It’s hard to believe that this is the headquarters of Arc’teryx, an outdoor apparel and equipment company known for its shell jackets, base layers, packs and climbing harnesses. Of course, not far away are the abundant ski runs and hiking trails of Vancouver’s North Shore, where personal experience and first-hand product testing have given rise to the emphasis on technical innovation, durability and performance that underlies the company’s success.
Arc’teryx was born in the basement of founder Dave Lane in 1989. At the time, the company was called Rock Solid. But in 1991, the fledgling firm rebranded, using a word derived from Archaeopteryx, the reptile scientists have long believed was first to climb, grow feathers and take flight.
Innovation ensued: Arc’teryx invented a harness buckle that eliminated webbing-strap slippage. In 1993, they introduced a new kind of form-fitting, thermo-moulded foam, which improved the comfort and safety of climbers. A year later, they applied a similar technology to backpack pads, straps and belts, making shoulder loads more bearable for orienteering. Still unsatisfied, they took on outerwear next, developing new materials with W.L. Gore, the makers of the well-known fabric Gore-Tex, and revolutionised seam work with a bonding agent that fuses fabrics together and eliminates stitching punctures.
But these days, Arc’teryx is on a different, decidedly more urban journey. In recent seasons, the company, whose products are made to conquer extreme environments, has taken on the notoriously volatile world of fashion with a menswear capsule collection called Veilance.
“We try to create product with some inherent truth in terms of the design or the function, but at a certain point, I became aware that a lot of people were buying Arc’teryx products without much intention of wearing them in the back country," said the company’s president, Tyler Jordan. “So, in a way, we’ve been giving these consumers a product that wasn’t ideal for their particular use,” he continued. “It’s great that they like it and it’s great that they’re going to benefit from it, but wouldn’t it be even better if we focused on what they are actually going to use it for?”
Arc’teryx Veilance draws from a familiar menswear vocabulary — field jackets, blazers, overcoats, button-down shirts — while maintaining fabrications and finishes that look and feel distinctively Arc’teryx. But for the outdoor apparel company, creating a fashion collection presented a deeper challenge. “If we are really trying to innovate and maintain [our] level of detail, you can’t do that every six months and just reinvent the product,” Jordan said. “It may have taken you two years to get there in the first place and you put everything you had into it," he added. "That’s one of the tough parts of the Veilance market — the world is constantly expecting something new. We’re very conscious of that, and very honest with people, saying that that’s not how we’re working here.”
Buyers are listening. Indeed, Veilance has secured new accounts with influential retailers Mr. Porter and Opening Ceremony and will be offered at select Barneys locations, for Fall 2011. The brand has also enjoyed a flurry of media attention, driven in part by the rising tide of Canadian and Pacific Northwest outdoor and heritage-inspired menswear labels that has swept Veilance along with it. And though Jordan is quick to dismiss any affiliation with this trend, the company has certainly benefited from it, earning multi-page features in magazines like 032c, Inventory, and Obscura, as well as product endorsements in L’Uomo Vogue, GQ Style, Monocle, Wallpaper*, i-D and Details.
“We’re designing products for a market that we believe will exist in the future,” said Jordan, referring to the Veilance line. “We believe that people buying product for city life are going to want everything they are getting from their city product today, plus they are going to want improved performance over time," he continued. "I think that is inevitable. But with Veilance, we weren’t in a hurry to try and drive a lot of sales because we realized we couldn’t change the world overnight in that regard. It’s a question of whether the world is on the cusp of shifting in that direction or not. And if it does, we want to be on the forefront of the wave.”
Indeed, Jordan sees Veilance as the starting point of a long-term vision for the company, one that extends well beyond his tenure as president. “When we think of fashion, we think of brands that have built a reputation over 50 or 100 years," he said. "We’re trying to replicate that with Veilance a little bit, so the decisions we make today ensure that Arc’teryx carries the same meaning and has the same ideals a century from now.”
In more ways than one, this is a brand that’s built to last.
Craig David Long is associate editor of Montecristo, a Vancouver-based lifestyle quarterly, where a version of this article first appeared.