When Yvon Chouinard originally started Patagonia as a small supplier of climbing tools, bright colors did not have a place in activewear. The year was 1957, and Chouinard, a native of California, began fastening pitons in his parents' backyard in Burbank where he could forge two in an hour. By 1965, demand had grown so steeply that he could no longer create the tools by hand, and by 1970, his company — then called Chouinard Equipment — was the largest supplier of climbing tools in the U.S. Back then, climbers most often wore tan chinos and white dress shirts, a far cry from the technologically advanced polyester that dominates sportswear today.
By 1973, Chouinard's company was selling climbing shirts, then rain jackets, then bags, then accessories... and the rest is history.
Quite a lot has happened in Patagonia's life cycle in the decades since. Though the privately held company does not formally release its financial figures, a 2014 Fast Company profile revealed that Patagonia has "doubled its scale of operations and tripled its profits" since 2008, bringing in about $600 million in revenue in 2013. As the activewear market continues to surge into 2016, the brand's aesthetic remains influential, with the likes of Thakoon and Altuzarra noticeably riffing on the company's more signature designs. While a growing number of sportswear brands are working overtime to capitalize on athleisure, Patagonia isn't getting sidetracked. Instead, the company is focused on delivering what it does best: well-made, effective apparel for the outdoor life.
In a visit to Patagonia's Ventura, Calif. headquarters, Creative Director Miles Johnson speculated that the company's products resonate as widely because they're able to bridge a gap between the urban dweller and the granola-munching outdoor enthusiast. "You want to broaden people's expectations of the brand," Johnson said. "Patagonia is an outdoor company and it promotes outdoors living, but we have all our stores in big capital cities. People will often come to product by being in the middle of a big city, so we've been thinking a little bit more about how people would buy product and wear it five days a week living in an urban environment and then go crazy-rural on the weekends, which is what we really love, passionately."
That's not to say it hasn't taken note of trends in the wider apparel business: As with any clothing company, Patagonia relies on extensive market fieldwork to inform its design team. Laura Kinman, Patagonia's Product Line Director, discussed looking to luxury fashion retailers like Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue, and vice versa.
In early 2014, Patagonia became a major, unsuspecting player in the "normcore" movement, providing what The New York Times described as "anti-fashion attire" for "scruffy young urbanites." That "frump-chic" throttled Patagonia's classic Retro-X fleece jacket into the stuff of luxury alongside Birkenstocks, "Mom Jeans" and Teva sandals. A nickname lovingly emerged — "Patagucci" — that remains in use by the same hipster-types who were normcore's earliest adopters. And in Dec. 2015, a satirical online store opened, providing "Patagucci"-branded T-shirts and accessories en masse. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery; just ask Vetements and its similarly off-brand "Vetememes."
But Patagonia is not a fashion brand, nor does it have any intention of becoming one. Kinman explained that each product is built for a specific sport, and it has to be one of its core sports — climbing, skiing and snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing and trail running — at that. "I think there's a lot to be acknowledged and learned from those brands," Kinman said, in reference to Lululemon and Nike. "We aren't those brands. I can look at what they're doing and see if there are certain things that apply to our customer. A lot of what we've learned about the women's active phenomenon is more about how we merchandise product and how women want to see product, [rather than] how we build product."
It's not just Patagonia's physical goods that have established the label as a distinct player in the market. Brand loyalty, especially among millennials, has been on something of a roller coaster, swerving between shoppers seeking a strong connection to product to being anti-label and back again. As retail consultant Robert Burke told Fashionista earlier this month: "It's not just enough for [the customer today] to run out and buy, say, a ruffle top. They want to know everything about it: what it stands for, who's behind it, how it was made and the type of person it represents."
Indeed, that lifestyle Patagonia has created in its 40-plus years is tangible. Both environmental and social responsibility have been in the company's DNA since the start, now visible through a growing number of channels that range from six Fair Trade-certified factories around the world to an ambitious grants program, the latter of which donated $6.2 million in the last fiscal year to fund environmental work. Its Worn Wear project offers repair guides for consumers looking to keep their gear in tip-top shape so they can buy — and waste — less. And then, there's its mission statement: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
"There is a problem going on with the way the industry makes clothes," Kinman said. "What we want to show is that you can have a really profitable business with having recycled fabrics, with doing the right thing with Fair Trade. If every company out there could add a little bit of recycled content — or every company [got all of its factories Fair Trade-certified] — what a different world we'd live in or our kids would live in."
While shoppers, millennial or not, are seeking a deeper connection with their goods, Patagonia doesn't exactly fit the profile of the young, modern start-ups that encapsulate brand loyalty in 2016. The company may be four decades older than, say, Outdoor Voices, but it does succeed in giving consumers what they want: a do-gooder sense of community. The woman walking down Bowery on a Saturday afternoon carrying Whole Foods bags and wearing one of the brand's windbreakers probably didn't just spend her weekend spelunking in Yosemite — but there's certainly a market for people in urban areas who desire to.
So, has Patagonia begun capitalizing on its popularity in the activewear space? In a word, no. It just isn't a fashion brand, Johnson reiterated, though it doesn't hurt business when a certain item becomes engulfed in a larger trend. Kinman pointed out the Snap-T Fleece Pullover, which recently became the subject of attention for many otherwise off-brand retailers. "We wanted to protect that specialty store business and the relationships we have with those dealers that have been with us for a long time," she said. "We knew that it was just because that item was just a 'hot item' of the moment and it felt a little artificial to open up an account that might just want us for a few seasons."
As Patagonia continues on its course, younger, similarly message-driven companies can learn from its authenticity, which hasn't changed since Chouinard started out in that backyard. For all parties involved, that's a good thing. "We always strive to do better," Johnson said. "In respect to the environment, it's not just hippie tree-hugging. You don't get to choose anymore — you have to be responsible. It's about leading by example. If you can show really excellent product that's going to last a very long time, but it happens to be environmentally friendly, what's the harm in that?"
Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Patagonia currently operates six Fair Trade factories, rather than 13, as well as that the company's original name was Chouinard Equipment, not Chouinard Experiment.
Homepage photo: David Walter Banks for "The Washington Post" via Getty Images
Disclosure: Patagonia paid for my travel and accommodations to visit the brand's headquarters.