By John Clary Davies
On Saturday, Tripp Frey boarded an airplane from Portland for Hong Kong. For the third time in three years, Frey is looking for somebody to manufacture TREW outerwear, the company he and his friends, the brothers John and Chris Pew, started designing three years ago in Hood River, Ore.
TREW had expected their 2011/12 line no later than September. But now, with the lucrative holiday shopping season all but behind them, the entirety of their shipments are still a couple weeks out. TREW's plight exemplifies the challenges for startups entering the ski industry. In TREW’s case, Frey said, their orders are too small for a big factory but too technical for a small one.
"When North Face or Arc'Teryx or Patagonia is in one of the factories and say, 'Oh, we need 5,000 more of the Powder Storm Jacket,' then they write me an email—'By the way, you're not getting your stuff for another month," said Frey. "There are dangers either way, being a small fish in a big pond, and ironically, being a big fish in a small pond, which we thought would be better, but it wasn't."
TREW had their first pants and jackets manufactured in a factory in Vancouver. When that became too expensive, due to a weakening dollar and increased production costs, they switched to a factory in China. There, they lacked the quality control they sought. The 2011/12 line is being manufactured in a small factory in Nepal. Frey says the technical detail of their gear overwhelmed the production crew.
There is a reason the TREW gear is so expensive. (The Pow-Funk jacket retails for $480, while the Trewth bib pant costs $420.) The company insists on using materials that will last, and unique color schemes, so the product is both technical and stylish. Frey said the result is a very labor-intensive manufacturing process.
Justin Harvey, a TREW sales rep who covers Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, said that while retailers are frustrated with the delays, they'll stick with the company in the long term because it's high-quality gear. Harvey said he asked TREW to rep their gear because he "wore the shit" out of a pair of their pants he bought, and they barely looked worn.
"I originally thought it would be [a problem with retailers]," said Harvey. "Then, this product we just got in went to Greenwood Ski House and Round House in Bozeman, and the product is so kickass. Once they see it, it reminds them why they order."
Just before Frey took off for a tour of factories in China and Vietnam, he said he was determined to find a unique approach to manufacturing their gear. He hopes to find a factory that will work with TREW for the long-term.
"Then I'm coming back," said Frey, "and I'm getting in the RV and I'm going to go skiing."