It's no secret that the fashion industry has inspired many to build out impressive wardrobes of designer labels. But for some fashion fanatics, only one brand will do. In Collectors' Edition, we'll look into why certain designers inspire obsessive collections in its fans.
The early days of Patagonia, the brand, have become something of retail lore among pockets of impassioned customers — present company included. We know that when rock climber Yvon Chouinard began his operations in Southern California in 1957, it was as a small supplier of climbing tools which he later called Chouinard Equipment. We know that, at first, Chouinard didn't even sell clothing — that came later, in 1970, when he was inspired by rugby shirts he found in Scotland. We know that Patagonia's logo is of the Cerro Fitz Roy skyline, and that Chouinard wrote a book ("Let My People Go Surfing") about all of that.
It's also abundantly clear that Patagonia has grown into something much bigger than an apparel company, that it's different from other outdoor retailers and that it has some of the most fiercely dedicated consumers in the marketplace — all elements in which the brand's fans take great pride.
In the last four-plus decades, Patagonia has built a following on the eco-conscious, anti-capitalistic premise that it cares — about our planet, about activism, about politics, about people. In the case of the latter, it's Patagonia's in-store customer service that has drawn in many of its most loyal collectors. One such example is Gavin Watson, a social media and content manager based in Michigan. Watson, who grew up on the South Coast of England, was first introduced to Patagonia while working at a camp in Western Michigan that's largely attended by children and teenagers from the North Shore of Chicago. He had never seen the brand before that summer. "I think my first opinion was, 'What the heck is this brand, and why is everyone wearing it like it's a staff uniform?'" His curiosity led to research, which led to store visits, which led to what he now calls an "obsession."
Watson's former sleepaway camp also has an extensive adventure trip program for those in grades six-12, with excursions like backpacking North Cascades National Park and kayaking Canada's Georgian Bay. He says that Patagonia served as a great resource when he was less familiar with the gear required for such outings.
"I learned so much about outdoor clothing by just spending hours talking about, 'Hey, if I'm going to the backcountry in Iceland and there's going to be these temperatures, what would you recommend?' Just having those conversations [with sales associates] that I don't think I would ever have with any other clothing brand," says Watson. "And always knowing they're going to answer me and get me the best gear."
Two summers ago, for a story, I visited Patagonia's Ventura, Calif. headquarters. I was pleased to learn that the brand's customer service initiatives begin at the very top with Chipper "Bro" Bell, Patagonia's receptionist and an 11-time World Freestyle Frisbee Champion. As the first person you're likely to meet upon touring campus, Bell may even invite you surfing, as he did then with our group. (We accepted, of course.) He's given lectures on happiness, honesty and gratitude, and as the so-called "voice" of Patagonia, he embodies the company's values wholly.
Other collectors, like Alexandra Hollman, a social worker at a children's hospital in Washington, D.C., were first brought into the Patagonia fold generationally. Her uncle, an outdoorsman whom she calls a "gearhead," repped the brand from when she was young. "I remember he was always wearing something that had the Patagonia logo on it, with the little mountains and the name," she says of her uncle. "It stuck with me from an early age."
Growing up in the Maryland suburbs, she began wearing Patagonia, too, and it only intensified when she moved to Vermont for college. She learned quickly that Patagonia's messaging falls in line with all the values her new friends, classmates and neighbors took seriously. "When I got to Vermont, it solidified how great they were," she says. "They have this little shop down off of the main pedestrian street in Burlington. I remember going in there and being like, 'These are all the clothes I want to wear forever,' especially given how cold it gets up there." The first product she bought herself in college, she remembers, was a dark grey Retro-X fleece she wore every day. "I love it dearly; I still have it and wear it occasionally," she says. "It has stood the test of time, obviously, making it through four years in Vermont, and it's been almost 10 years since then."
Hollman, like her uncle, has become something of an outdoor buff herself. When we spoke, she had just gotten back from a two-week hiking trip in Nepal; last September, she hiked Banff in Alberta, Canada with her parents and brother, and also peppers in weekend hiking trips along the East Coast. In Nepal, Hollman "brought all [her] Patagonia stuff," including a weather- and water-resistant Black Hole Bag and a lightweight, synthetic down Nano Puff Jacket, about which she was particularly thrilled. ("It was amazing," she says. "You'd be amazed.") She wore her Nano Puff both at the base camp of the Annapurna massif in the Himalayas, which can drop to sub-zero temperatures at night, as well as after the descent, which hits in the high-50-degree (Fahrenheit) range.
In terms of Patagonia's more cultish products, the Nano Puff is up there, alongside its R1 Regulator Fleece Pullover (which celebrates its 20th anniversary next spring), Snap-T Pullover (which has seen up to 17 styles in 61 colorways) and Baggies Shorts. The Baggies — fast-drying and Fair Trade Certified with roomy front pockets, which are enjoying something of a moment on the menswear scene thanks to the popularity of "dad fashion" — are some of Watson's favorites, which says a lot. Of the 60-80 pieces of clothing he estimates he owns and wears on a daily basis, 80 percent of that figure is made by Patagonia. ("I mean, the only things that aren't are my suits that I wear for weddings and some nice shirts I wear for work, and shoes," says Watson. "Basically, stuff they don't make.")
Beth Kessenich, a journalist and producer for Vanity Fair's The Hive, has long been partial to the Snap-T herself. The fleeces were a staple at her Connecticut boarding school, and her collection has only grown in the decade since she graduated. "I think I had every single color, and I threw them on over anything," she says. "I used to wear them to class, because we had a dress code, but you could also just wear them for sports or anything you needed."
Like both Watson and Hollman, Kessenich — who estimates to have owned at least a dozen Patagonia fleeces and eight-10 pairs of Patagonia shorts and pants — is an active person: She grew up skiing and played golf until college, and now practices yoga and plays tennis while living in New York City. Patagonia is her go-to for those more sports-adjacent activities, but she also wears it for what she calls "everyday activewear": picking up laundry, going grocery shopping, doing dry cleaning.
"Overall, it's versatile as a brand. I can wear it on the streets of New York City as much as I can wear it on the golf course or hiking in upstate New York. I think the versatility and the style and the overall great quality of the products makes it a brand you can really wear in any situation," says Kessenich. "And like I said before, I've had these products for 10-plus years now and they haven't worn out or fallen apart. That says a lot about them as a company in general."
Patagonia — which doesn't release its financial figures, but as of 2013, was estimated to have brought in about $600 million in revenue — is about as anti-corporate as a company of that size can be. (Patagonia also commits 1 percent of its total sales, or 10 percent of its profit, whichever is greater, to environmental groups each year.) It doesn't want you to buy more stuff. It wants you to buy less, actually, and for all of us to cut down on our consumption. Patagonia has an Ironclad Guarantee, resembling a lifetime warranty, surrounding repairs, replacements and refunds. Its Worn Wear program is Patagonia's "hub" for keeping pieces in use: Trade in your used gear at any Patagonia retail location for store credit or take it in to get repaired.
Watson is enthusiastic about that, telling me about a down jacket he plans on getting re-downed for next winter. He's also passionate about using his knowledge about Patagonia as an educational platform, to help inform others about, say, the harmful natures of consumerism and irresponsible production — or anything else for which Patagonia advocates.
"It's a such great brand to be associated with," says Watson. "From a customer standpoint, I feel like part of the mission — and that's weird, because I have no personal connection to anyone there. They do have expensive gear, but it's there for a reason and you get so much more than just a jacket. You get that lifestyle mentality."
Homepage photo: Free bikes available for employee use at the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, Calif. Photo: David Walter Banks/The Washington Post via Getty Images