A Small Technical Apparel Company with Big Dreams

Seiji Ishii

Names like The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Patagonia dominate ad space, and social media feeds but “cottage industry” brands are lurking in the shadows. These small labels are born out of passion from outdoor lifers who stick their necks out into the fray, usually with substantial personal financial risks. Many stay small, servicing a small flock of loyal customers, and that may fulfill the business plan. Some brands may be aiming for the fences, hoping one day to grace mountainsides and magazine pages worldwide.

NW Alpine is a brand conceived, launched and operated by climbers in Oregon. David Larsen was a public-school teacher who sensed a void in the outdoor apparel market: a transparent brand selling domestically made technical apparel. He took a small cash investment from friends and family to launch NW Alpine in 2010 and initially sold the “Fast and Light” pant (precursor to their current Thielson Pant) to climbing friends and early adopters. Cash flow from the sales of this first item allowed the generation of their second product, the Black Spider Hoody. This lightweight, warm hooded baselayer has become their most popular product, crossing over for use in both aerobic and adventure sports. The Black Spider Hoody proved pivotal in the brand’s timeline, helping launch the brand into sustainability.

 a hoody hanging from a treeNW Alpine's flagship product, the Balck Spider Hoody, Photo Credit: Seiji Ishii

I tested the Black Spider Hoody in the Pacific Northwest and at home in Texas, using it for alpine climbing in the North Cascades and during training activities over the last two months. The Polartec High-Efficiency Power Dry fabric proved versatile; it acted as an expedition weight base layer in the alpine and a standalone piece for aerobic pursuits down to freezing. The body-hugging fit, tailored for an athletic frame, and ample stretch delivered warmth without being noticed during high output activity or aggressive movements. The design is pointedly minimalist; features included the hoody, half-length main zipper, small zippered chest pocket, and thumbholes at the wrists. Breathability was extremely high, and the material dried quickly. The Black Spider Hoody has proven durable during the testing period, both material and seams showing no signs of abrasion or other wear. The piece demonstrated a fully functional garment without unnecessary bells and whistles. Verified weight for a large was 9.4 ounces with an MSRP of $110. 

“We were all climbers before NW Alpine, and still are. We had envisioned most of our products long before the company was created to deliver them to market. We continue to personally design and redesign each product we make not only in the Pacific Northwest but throughout North America.” This quote from Larsen summarizes their product development strategy, made possible because the owners, designers, and manufacturers are all one in the same and testing grounds lie out the back door. All garments are cut, sewn, and finished at the NW Alpine facility in Newberg, Oregon. This facility also offers contract sewing services to generate funds to help grow the brand.

clothing being sewn with sewing maching

An NW Alpine employee sews together a new hoody. Photo Credit: Seiji Ishii

Although NW Alpine’s humble beginnings of sales to local climbers and the namesake hint of a regional brand, sales figures display the name has spread beyond the Pacific Northwest. 2017 data show the Pacific Northwest accounting for 30% of the sales, Colorado and Japan 40%+, and the remainder of sales from other regions. A unique statistic is that an estimated 60-70% of customers self-report as having a high degree of proficiency in their respective sports – NW Alpine is not a “lifestyle” brand, the majority of sold goods contributing to bona fide adventures and not mall strolling.

NW Alpine does have goals to compete with the bigger names in the outdoor space but intends to keep the transparency and core values by keeping all steps of bringing technical apparel to market rooted in the USA. Their in-house production and direct to consumer business model offset paying the higher labor costs of domestic manufacturing. Owning their production facility, omitting distribution and retail outlets, and their associated markups, allow competitive pricing with brands that manufacture overseas.

Compared to the more prominent brands, NW Alpine offers a limited number of pieces: eleven technical items and three lifestyle-related products. Expanding the number of styles is forthcoming with the soon to be released Fortis line. Fortis will use Honeywell’s Spectra fiber; this will be a cutting-edge industry first and a focal point for NW Alpine in 2018. Long-range plans also include a more extensive production facility housing a more diverse range of cutting and sewing machines.

When considering gear choices, it’s easy to go on autopilot and investigate the big brands; they all produce excellent products, the competitive marketplace demanding such. Smaller brands like NW Alpine can deliver equal or better products at similar prices, with added values not present in products produced overseas. Keep an open mind; these brands may surprise you!