Sarah Wallace, the lead designer for Arc'teryx's high-end Whiteline ski apparel, spends a lot of time thinking about the details. She and two co-workers, for example, went through three meetings and built more than 50 mock-ups in the Vancouver design headquarters while trying to decide which thread to use around a zipper on a single jacket.
Michael Blenkarn is even pickier. Blenkarn, who's been a designer with Arc'teryx for almost two decades, has a table in the back corner of the R&D building that's covered with new products he's tinkering with, like ultra-thin seam tape. Several years ago he convinced Gore-Tex to let Arc'teryx cut the standard seam tape in half because the new thinner tape would save weight. Now he wants to go even skinnier because he's convinced there's still weight to be saved, even if it's just fractions of ounces.
Several years ago he convinced Gore-Tex to let Arc'teryx cut the standard seam tape in half because the new thinner tape would save weight. Now he wants to go even skinnier because he's convinced there's still weight to be saved, even if it's just fractions of ounces.
A couple miles across town in the company's Canadian manufacturing building (some products are made in North America, others overseas in places like Asia, Central America, and New Zealand), Keith Cotman, the factory manager, has his own passion project. Cotman has built a quality control system to check every single one of the company's Alpha SV Gore-Tex jackets—their flagship piece that they've used over the years to roll out their new technology—several times before it ever lands on a sales rack. Every aspect, from the seams to the zippers, is guaranteed by hand.
And on it goes. If you try to put your finger on why Arc'teryx makes such nice (and expensive) stuff, people like Wallace, Blenkarn, and Cotman are where you start. They're just three of several hundred employees, but as I found out last month when I toured the company's headquarters, they represent what appears to be a brand-wide preoccupation with quality. Their drive to make sure everything is perfect is a large part of the reason Arc'teryx jackets sometimes get locked to the rack at REI and the reason why those jackets cost more than your monthly rent.
Carl Moriarty, design director for apparel, puts it best.
"When you get the cumulative affect of being totally obsessed with all the different components of something like a jacket, that's when you make significant steps to elevate the brand," he says. "Or more simply, we really care and never want anyone to hold up one of our jackets and say 'Who the fuck designed this thing?'"
This paradigm around quality started with Arc'teryx founders Dave Lane and Jeremy Guard in 1989. Back then the company was called Rock Solid and their first product was the Vapor harness, which brought something new to the market by using lamination as a lighter and more durable construction technique. Lane and Guard also used a three-dimensional foam design so that the Vapor molded to the climber's body. Next they built the Bora backpack, which added onto the three-dimensional design process by using a curved foam suspension system.
Their first product was the Vapor harness, which brought something new to the market by using lamination as a lighter and more durable construction technique.
Those two products put the company, which changed its name to Arc'teryx in 1991, on the map as a place where alternative and creative thinking flourished and it's been a well-known brand ever since. In 1995 they signed a contract with Gore-Tex and started producing apparel pieces like the Alpha SV. By 2001 they'd attracted the attention of larger brands and were bought out by the Adidas-owned Salomon Group. In 2005 they were sold to Amer Sports, which took over the Salomon group, and they're still with that conglomerate today.
According to Arc'teryx, the company is approaching $300 million (Canadian) in total sales per year between their outdoor goods and their LEAF line, which is sold in law enforcement and armed forces markets. In terms of revenue and volume, Arc'teryx is smaller than The North Face and Patagonia, but larger than Marmot.
Growth can affect a company's character, and Blenkarn, who started at Arc'teryx in 1996, before it was bought by Adidas and then Amer.
Blenkarn still believes Arc'teryx makes the best product on the market, but says that back in the day the sky was the limit in terms of development. No idea was a bad one and everyone was pushed to think outside the box. That's the kind of culture that helped him come up with innovations like thinner seam tape and even more famously, the waterproof zipper (he took a normal zipper, flipped it backwards and coated the outside with urethane).
These gloves will often last a couple seasons even if they're being abused, but Blenkarn thinks they should, and can, last twice as long.
Nowadays, he says, designers are still given the freedom to tinker, but, as is the case of most growing companies, he feels like creativity and innovation sometimes take a back seat to profit.
For example, the company's Alpha SV Gore-Tex gloves are some of the burliest out there, and they're used by ski patrollers and others who work in the snow. Blenkarn, however, thinks they still need improvements, like tougher, thicker leather on the palm and fingers. These gloves will often last a couple seasons even if they're being abused, but Blenkarn thinks they should, and can, last twice as long.
That said, for fall 2015, Arc'teryx is releasing a new, beefed up, and more durable glove.
Unlike some brands that have gone through growth spurts and tried to produce products that have a wider appeal, Arc'teryx has refused to release a middle-tier product line and you won't find their stuff in general sporting goods stores.
"We've always tried to jump from the top of one pyramid to the next instead of sliding down to the bottom," Moriaty says.
Wallace, who's worked at other outdoor apparel companies, says the grass is still pretty green inside Arc'teryx as far as she's concerned. Unlike other lager outdoor companies, which often send computer drawings to manufacturers in China and then wait weeks for samples, she says Arc'teryx insists that all of its design samples be made in Vancouver so the designers have absolute and immediate control.
"That's a luxury," she says.
The Arc'teryx bird is never just floating out in space, for example, but is always placed at the intersection of seams or someplace where's it's boxed in because that looks better.
As always, the staff is encouraged to test the products themselves in the mountains that surround Vancouver and the company has set a precedent for sponsoring athletes like Eric Hjorleifson and Christina Lustenberger who not only have athletic ability, but are also articulate and mature, which ensures better product feedback.
Appearance might seem like a secondary concern behind functionality, but Arc'teryx spends an inordinate amount of time making sure their stuff looks as good as it functions. There's an entire department dedicated to color and the same kind of attention to detail that's paid to the manufacturing process is applied to things like logo placement. The Arc'teryx bird is never just floating out in space, for example, but is always placed at the intersection of seams or someplace where's it's boxed in because that looks better.
"If you're going to going to put that much effort into the [functional design of the] product, it should also beautiful," Moriarty says.
This same type of hyper-attentiveness is also applied to all of Arc'teryx's advertising. The company has come up with its own aesthetic—more contrasty images, fewer people doing "rad" things—because they want you to know that they know their gear is different, and in their opinion, better.
"One of the phrases we use when talking about imagery is 'it's all about presence not noise," says Tom Duguid, the brands' creative director. "Or in other words, you're the coolest guy in the room until you say 'I'm the coolest guy in the room.' Steve McQueen walks in the room and doesn't say anything because he doesn't have to. That's what we're always going for."
The plan down the road is to keep being Steve McQueen, according to everyone I talked to. Blenkarn might be slightly disillusioned, but almost every day you'll find him at his table cutting, sewing, and laminating new designs he's come up with. If he doesn't get his newest project through a meeting, he'll move onto the next one.
It's no secret that the company is building an avalanche airbag (they weren't ready to show it to me when I was there) that will likely use a battery and fan like the Black Diamond JetForce.
You'd think it would be tough to constantly keep coming up with new products but Moriarty says there's always a niche to fill. People are getting faster at climbing mountains so they're designing products that adapt to those needs. Interest in backcountry skiing continues to explode so you'll be seeing more products aimed at those users soon.
Cotman over in the factory hopes to eventually apply his more rigorous quality control process to every product the company makes. Wallace is currently making sure all the inner pockets on forthcoming jackets will fit the new, larger iPhone 6.
It's no secret that the company is building an avalanche airbag (they weren't ready to show it to me when I was there) that will likely use a battery and fan like the Black Diamond JetForce. Based on the company's history with product development, the bag will likely command a lot of attention when it launches and move airbag product design forward in important ways.
"It's a relentless pursuit," Moriarty says. "There's always a way to make things better."