One of the most surprising trends in Portland's burgeoning maker movement is a return to locally sewn apparel. Domestically produced outdoor apparel, however, remains a tougher industry to develop because of the number of cuts and stitches generally required to assemble a finished product. I remember one of my earliest conversations about domestic apparel production with Bill Amos, founder of NW Alpine. I asked him if he saw a new business plan that would make domestic manufacturing more profitable than off-shoring it, or if he was just crazy. "I'm just crazy" was the answer I got, and after a chuckle he proceeded to explain just what he was up to. And that was how I started my personal love affair with his brand.
At the time, Bill had just begun manufacturing NW Alpine's line of clothes at a factory in Newberg, the heart of Oregon's wine region and a short drive south from Portland. He said that local manufacturing allowed him to better control his supply chain, make smaller runs of clothing for his loyal and growing customer base, try new patterns, colors, styles and performance improvements, and allow him to do more of what he loves: make great clothing for the Pacific Northwest's cadre of world-class climbers and mountaineers. The biggest challenge was the pressure local manufacturing puts on his margins.
In general, making clothing in the United States costs a lot more per unit than making it in a large factory in Southeast Asia. So much more, in fact, that it's cheaper to ship clothing around the world than it is to make it right in your own backyard. Retailers take a fixed cut of all sales, regardless of where the item is produced. There is no discount for paying a living wage in your community, as much as we pay political lip service to creating local jobs. Even when a consumer says they're willing to pay more for locally made goods, the percentage of people willing to pay a significant amount more quickly goes to zero when comparing two seemingly identical products. To successfully produce goods locally, those products have to be different, and they have to be sold in a different way. With NW Alpine, Bill is doing both.
We live in an era where most consumers will evaluate a product less on its standalone features and more on whose name is on the label. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a well crafted product and a well defined brand, and this makes it harder for smaller, newer companies to compete with the market share controlled by more established players. But even given this challenge, Bill saw an opportunity: The technical climbing apparel offered by the established mountaineering brand names wasn't providing the quality Bill was looking for. He wanted clothes that were simple, functional, light, and that used the highest quality materials. To compete with brands like Patagonia and Arc'teryx was a crazy idea, put on a Black Spider Hoody for your next summit push and you'll see why so many people are becoming fans of the brand.
Fast forward three years, and NW Alpine now owns the factory where its clothes are made. The factory makes apparel for other brands as well, brands cued in to the same desire to make things better and sell them differently. Bill invited us on a tour to see his work in action.
The small factory handles a lot of output. Rolls of fabric lined the walls, patterns for each piece of NW Alpine's Black Spider Hoody were out on the table with fabric being cut to size. Upstairs, eight sewing machines were assembling the final product. These sewing machines will soon move downstairs and the cutting table upstairs as the factory is reorganized to double the number of sewing machines going at any given time. As more small brands build direct sales channels, more business keeps coming in to the factory.
Starting today, Outdoor Project will be carrying a men's and women's version of the Black Spider Hoody embroidered with an Outdoor Project logo on our General Store. Chances are you may have seen one of our employees or contributors wearing one of these hoodies around town or in photos on Outdoor Project. Now you can have one for yourself.
And keep an eye on NW Alpine. New lightweight, simple, and high performing products specifically tailored to mountaineering are coming soon. We think you'll like what you see.