Outdoor at War
By Peter Kray
Just 10 years ago, the majority of outdoor brands didn’t want to be associated with the military. Steely-eyed guys with automatic weapons and buzz cuts just didn’t play well against the industry’s assorted imagery of hippie athletes, Kumbaya-singing campers and environmental warriors who saw in nature a source of purpose and peace. Scott Williams, assistant program manager for Special Operations Survival and Support Equipment Systems for the Natick Army Research and Development Center, remembers approaching the industry in the late 1990s in search of a better backpack. He said Jeff Knight at Granite Gear, Dana Gleason, who was launching Mystery Ranch, and now Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan, who was president of Kelty at the time, were among the few who would return his calls. And even then it felt as if he were speaking a foreign language when he told them what he wanted out of a pack.
Williams needed a product that could carry 120 to 150 pounds of tactical equipment; food and critical clothing through blizzards, deserts and jungles, and the first packs he received for testing had been loaded with 60 pounds of gear, at the most. “So we started grabbing spare tires, tire irons and jacks out of the car and tying and strapping them on to get it up to weight,” Williams said. “Then we went out on the trail. And within an hour the stitches were ripping out of this
Williams wasn’t impressed. But he also didn’t have a lot of resources to fund an improved product. Defense spending at the time was focused on hardware—including tanks, bombs and weapons systems – not on the actual soldier himself. And Williams said he has the utmost respect for those first brands that helped him out. “They were really trying to do something for the sake of the soldiers,” he said.
David Costello, who was with Malden Mills in 1999, remembers a meeting he had with the Army and Marine Corps when he asked to see their cold weather apparel, and “What they brought out was Korean War era stuff. It was really cardboardy and bulky,” Costello said, “and I knew that right at the factory we had stuff that was enormously better than what they were showing us.” Now managing director of ADS Ventures, a consulting and lobbying firm that helps manage military relationships for outdoor-based brands such as Polartec, Cascade Designs, New Balance and Primaloft, Costello said the entire market has undergone a sea change in the decade since. Right here on the floor at Summer Market, numerous high-tech innovations in everything from baselayers to backpacks to headlamps have been driven by an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the military and outdoor manufacturers.
So what happened to bridge the gap? The same single event that so scarred the American psyche, made air travel suck and radically altered the tone of U.S. politics—the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which will mark their 10-year anniversary in a little more than one month.
In the grief-stricken aftermath of 9/11, at least in terms of equipment, the American soldier may have been the first to benefit. As thousands of troops were deployed— first to Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, then to Iraq on March 19, 2003—Williams said, “We started to get a wave of new money for equipment. I remember how it felt when I walked onto the show floor with over a $6 million bank account, and spent all of it on operational equipment to protect the soldier from the elements— which is what the outdoor industry does best.”
Which came first
“Creating that viable financial space was a big turn” in creating new business relationships between the military and the outdoor market,” Williams said. And brands such as Malden Mills were the first to appreciate the difference. In 2004, the textile manufacturer received a $21 million order to supply the military with Polartec products. The same year, Arc’teryx was awarded an “Improved Load Bearing Equipment” (ILBE) multi-year pack contract from the United States Marine Corps, after soldiers had reportedly bought new Arc’teryx packs to test right off the retail shelf.
In 2006, Arc’teryx formed its own in-house LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Forces) division specifically for military business. Many outdoor brands have similar divisions, or personnel, who focus on the tactical market and the often multi- million dollar contracts it can represent. Apparently, business is budding, too, as a review of the thousands of government contracts reported on the FedSpending.org website would indicate.
Created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the site lists more than 101,000 reports from prime recipients of more than $260 billion in federal contracts. Under fiscal year 2008 (the latest data the site has published for Department of Defense contracts), there are listings of $5.7 million contracts for moto- cross brand Fox Apparel, $4.9 million for Oakley, $4.27 million for Dana Gleason’s Mystery Ranch Ltd. backpacks, and $3.2 million for Outdoor Research Inc., albeit far, far below the multi-billion contracts reported for Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Outdoor Research has been doing business with the military since the 1990s, according to vices president of sales Alex Kutches. A majority of that business has been in cold weather gloves. “Building modular handwear is something we have been doing at our manufacturing facility in Seattle since the company was founded,” he said. “And having that capability in the same location as our headquarters (i.e., the U.S.) is a strategic advantage for us.” By law, military orders must be made in the United States.
Brands as diverse as Princeton Tec, Darn Tough socks (which reports that “tactical sales” account for approximately 25 percent of its revenue), and Metolius are also enjoying increasingly brisk military business. “Our military sales volume has traditionally been 1 percent to 2 percent of total sales, mostly comprised of small orders with Special Forces, because they’re capable of buying what they want in smaller quantities,” said Doug Phillips, Metolius founder and president. “This is changing. We’ve been working with the Army, USMC and relevant contractors to address the needs of the modern warfighter and it’s been a great learning experience.”
Some people still seem surprised at the connection between the outdoor industry and military. But it was likely military campaigns that gave birth to the outdoor industry. There almost certainly wasn’t much business for camping and rock climbing in the Roman Empire, but somebody did have to make blankets for the soldiers in the field, and sandals for their feet. And in true specialty shop style, somewhere in Paris, some sixth- generation cobbler probably holds a receipt from when his great-great-great grandfather repaired Napoleon’s soldiers’ boots.
Here in the U.S., Woolrich has been working with the military since the Civil War, when they supplied blankets for Union troops. For the past 10 years, any soldier deploying overseas has received a Gerber Multi-Tool and Knife, a practice built from the relationship Gerber established during the Vietnam War, when the brand’s Mark II tactical knife was the American infantryman’s blade of choice. And it’s hard to imagine Primaloft being on the show floor if the U.S. Army hadn’t first commissioned Albany International Corp. to develop a synthetic alternative to down, asking specifically for increased properties of water resistance.
Once established, those military relationships can easily create new opportunities according to Brent Hollowell, vice president of marketing at Woolrich. Not only does Woolrich also supply the black wool broad cloth for the iconic Marine Corp officers dress uniform, but “Sikorsky used our wool to line the seating and headliners in Marine 1 helicopters,” Hollowell said.
Battle for innovation
Of course some outdoor brands are still reluctant to promote their military relationships. Whether to protect proprietary information, or because they prefer not to discuss the subject with the outdoor crowd, when contacted for this article, there were brands that did decline comment. Which may become harder to do in the future, as the level of demand for military equipment innovation—and the money the government brings to the table—seem to be increasingly driving the market.
Because the military tends to order in such large quantities, and because they pay in government dollars, brands are able to commit more resources to building next generation gear that might take them considerably more time to develop solely for a particular climbing, skiing or even hunting demographic. Which has fast- tracked the product development process.
“The military now spec fabrics based on very defined performance attributes and end uses. And if they don’t exist, then they develop new fabrics,” said Nate Simmons, global director of marketing for Polartec.
As an example, Simmons said that when IED attacks against U.S. soldiers began to become prevalent in Iraq, Polartec was asked to develop “no melt, no drip,” baselayers, because soldiers were getting severely burned by their existing apparel’s synthetic fabrics. “This led to the commercial launch of Polartec FR fabrics for industrial and safety applications,” Simmons said. “So the military development benefited a more mainstream consumer market.”
You hear the same thing at Arc’teryx, where military needs will result in the introduction of new Multi-cam Gore apparel for 2012, featuring a camouflage “Wolf ” color for urban and water operations. While new headlamps aimed at the professional market such as the Remix Pro MPLS from Princeton Tec have been developed in conjunction with their military products.
“Having the ability to test our military products in the field with end-users has been invaluable for our production of high performance lighting products,” said Ryan Ditta, Outdoor Division manager at Princeton Tec. As to which market drives innovation most, outdoor or military, Ditta added, “We take some aspects from both fields. It’s great synergy and a perfect match.”
As with every Outdoor Retailer Show, the level of innovation and experimentation on the show floor generates as much excitement as it does anticipation, especially in regard to that age old gear question: “What’s next?” Though budget battles on Capitol Hill are likely to result in cuts to Pentagon funding, at least for now, having a military cadence help push the pace for new products will only broaden the breakthrough prospects.
“We are creating new things that then trickle down to the consumer market,” Simmons said. “My best example of this is still classified. But it’s coming to an outdoor retail store near you in the next couple years.”