UUA Sports >Extreme Sports >Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world – one puffer jacket at a time | Retail industry

Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world – one puffer jacket at a time | Retail industry


The retail giants are not only competing to sell outdoor gear – they are rivals in the contest to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the urban masses

by Marisa Meltzer
Tue 7 Mar 2017 06.00 GMTLast modified on Wed 27 Oct 2021 05.00 BST

On the night of his 30th birthday, after a few drinks, Dean Karnazes decided that he would celebrate by running all the way from San Francisco down the coast to the town of Half Moon Bay, a distance of 30 miles. So began a career as an endurance runner. He has run 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days in all 50 states, and taken part in such extreme competitions as a marathon to the South Pole and a 135-mile race through Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth. Karnazes once ran 350 miles in 81 hours and 44 minutes, without stopping to sleep. His account of his feats of distance running, Ultramarathon Man, is a bestseller. Karnazes’s superhuman exertions are sponsored by The North Face, the company that make the kit he wears in his coaching videos.

The North Face, a Bay Area-based outdoor clothing manufacturer, sells garments and gear for climbing, backpacking, running, and skiing. Its stores are decorated with huge photographs of people climbing icy peaks and running through meadows. Central to the brand’s ethos are the professional athletes it sponsors, people not widely known but celebrated in their fields – names such as Karnazes and Pete Athans, who has climbed Everest seven times. The North Face sells the idea of adventure – of pushing limits – whether running long distances, climbing an untried rockface, or sleeping outside at sub-zero temperatures. Its tagline is “never stop exploring”. (“We have actually been approached with partnerships about spacesuits to Mars and things like that,” one publicist told me recently.)

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This canny marketing of adventure has made The North Face the dominant player in a booming outdoor-wear market – a $4bn industry in the US alone. And its closest rival in the contest to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the masses may be a company whose origins and history are tightly intertwined with its own: Patagonia.

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If The North Face aims to appeal to the overachieving weekend warrior, Patagonia is for the slightly more mellow soul who wants to soak up the fresh air and enjoy the view as he ascends a craggy mountain. The company’s ethos is encapsulated in Let My People Go Surfing, the memoir-cum-management classic about Patagonia, by the company’s founder Yvon Chouinard – reissued last year in a 10th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Naomi Klein. The book contains lavish colour pictures of people in genial communion with nature. To browse the book is to dive into a world of life-affirming outdoor feats followed by nights around the fire, swapping heroic tales.

Unlike other billion-dollar sports brands, neither company sells balls or bats. They do not cater to team sports. They are, above all, selling the allure of the great outdoors, offering their customers technically advanced gear for going off into the wilds with a friend or two. (Or, if you prefer, alone: the cover of the winter 2016 Patagonia catalogue features a man on a motorbike – carrying a pair of skis under one arm – smiling at a squirrel as it crosses the road.)

Both companies understand that the appeal of endurance sports has something to do with acquiring kit that boasts the most advanced technology. For genuine adventure, their marketing implies, you need top-quality gear. And top-quality gear designed to withstand the harshest conditions and last a lifetime does not come cheap. You can buy an Inferno sleeping bag from The North Face that will, for $729 (£593), keep you warm in temperatures as cold as -40C. For $529 (£430), you can get a neoprene-free, natural rubber, hooded wetsuit from Patagonia for use in water temperatures down to 0C.

Both companies also understand that the largest market for their products is not explorers stocking up for Arctic expeditions. The real money comes from selling products designed for hardcore outdoor adventure to urban customers who lead relatively unadventurous lives. For the most part, people wear North Face and Patagonia gear while doing everyday things: cycling, shopping, walking the dog. “You can take a backpack to school but you feel like you’re in Yosemite just because it says North Face,” Dean Karnazes told me one afternoon in San Francisco. “I think that aspirational element is really big.”

It’s a sales pitch that has yielded big profits. The North Face reported annual revenue of $2.3bn last year, with 200 stores around the world. Patagonia is smaller, but growing more rapidly. The company had sales of $800m in 2016, twice as much as in 2010, and has 29 standalone stores in the US, 23 in Japan, and others in locations such as Chamonix, the French ski resort.

While The North Face sells $5,500 (£4,480) two-metre tents and Patagonia sells $629 waders for fly fishing, many of the most popular products for both companies are everyday wear: waterproof anoraks, leggings, fleeces, and, most important of all, puffer jackets. “Everyone is trying to reinvent and reinterpret the black puffy jacket,” said Jeff Crook, the chief product officer at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, an outdoor department store that has 20 stores across Canada, “whether it spends most of its time on the mountain peak or at the bus stop.”

Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face, and Yvon Chouinard were lifelong friends and brothers in adventure

The flagship jackets for both companies are the product of decades of technological refinement to make them increasingly warm, durable, and light. The most advanced models today have been engineered to solve the problem of how to insulate the wearer against cold and wet while remaining “breathable” – so you don’t overheat while you’re scaling that cliff face. At Patagonia, there is the Nano-Air ($249; £180 in the UK), a quilted, but not very puffy, water resistant jacket that uses a trademarked synthetic insulation that the company described as “revolutionary” upon its release in 2014. The North Face Thermoball ($199; £150) has its own proprietary synthetic insulation, which uses clusters of fibre to trap heat in a manner that mimics down. Both jackets are fit for a mountaineering expedition, but are each more likely to be bought to keep warm while taking the kids to the park.

Neither company regards the other as a rival – at least not publicly. But aside from the fact they sell the same kind of stuff to the same kind of customers (urban, affluent), the two companies have quite a bit of shared history. Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face, and Yvon Chouinard were lifelong friends and brothers in adventure. Both men started out making their own specialist equipment; both went on to found companies selling outdoor wear; both felt distinctly uncomfortable doing office jobs, and still more uncomfortable running companies.

“I’ve been a businessman for almost 60 years,” Chouinard writes in the introduction to Let My People Go Surfing. “It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit being an alcoholic or lawyer.” And together, while promoting the glories of exploring the unspoiled wilderness, both men have been central to the mass popularisation of outdoor activities such as hiking and climbing, which may, in turn, make nature a little less unspoiled.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isn’t exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah don’t use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration – ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff – and fills the world with more and more stuff.

You might call this the authenticity problem. And for all their similarities, the two companies are taking radically different approaches to solving it.

Doug Tompkins and Yvon Choiunard were the kind of outcast adolescents who found a home in the great outdoors. Both men became passionate about climbing and surfing in the American west in the middle of the last century. Back in the 1950s and 60s, climbing was “an unusual sport with just a small group of renegades who were, you know, misfits”, said Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer and adventurer. (Rolling Stone magazine once called him “The Real Indiana Jones.”) An old friend of both Tompkins and Choiunard, he is now vice president for public engagement at Patagonia.

Both The North Face and Patagonia have their roots in exploring the sort of remote places about which guidebooks had not been written. In those days, getting back to uncorrupted nature and reading Thoreau by the campfire slotted in well with the nascent counterculture. “We took special pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value in society,” Chouinard wrote in Let My People Go Surfing.

Tompkins opened the first The North Face retail store selling mountaineering equipment in the North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco in 1966. The Grateful Dead played at the opening, and there was a fashion show featuring Joan Baez and her sister, the late singer and activist Mimi Fariña.

In Southern California, Chouinard, who was among the pioneers of what has since become known as the “golden age of Yosemite climbing”, had begun making his own equipment in the late 1950s. At first, he created and forged reusable steel pitons that were hammered into rock faces and then removed. Then, to help preserve climbing routes from disfigurement, Chouinard changed to aluminium chocks that could be wedged in by hand and did not leave a trace behind. The ambition at the time was to do as little damage as possible – as the Sierra climber Doug Robinson put it: “Organic climbing for the natural man.”

The two men met in the mid-60s when Tompkins began to distribute Chouinard’s equipment through The North Face. Early in their friendship, a white-water kayaking trip together in California ended with Chouinard getting 15 stitches in his face. And in 1968 the two drove a Ford Econoline van from Ventura, California, to the remote region of Chile and Argentina named Patagonia.

That same year, Tompkins sold his stake in The North Face for $50,000, and with his then wife, Susie, founded the San Francisco-based casualwear brand Esprit, whose hip version of sportswear became synonymous with 1980s style. After reading Bill Devall’s environmental call to arms Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered in the 1980s, Tompkins decided to leave the apparel business and devote himself full time to saving the environment. By the time Esprit was sold in 1990, its annual sales were estimated to be $1bn.

The opening of the first North Face shop in San Francisco, 1966.View image in fullscreen
The opening of the first North Face shop in San Francisco, 1966. Photograph: Suki HIll / The North Face

Chouinard had also branched out from mountaineering equipment. He had begun to import climbing wear, for sale, and in 1973, founded a new company named Patagonia. One of his earliest employees was Kris McDivitt, a downhill ski-racer. She became general manager and then CEO of Patagonia, before she met Doug Tompkins, who was then divorced.They married in 1993, a union of sorts between the two companies. Together the couple eventually bought 2.2m acres in Patagonia to conserve and live on full-time. They planned to protect this tract of wilderness, using the fortune he made from fuelling people’s ambitions to explore the outdoors.

If Tompkins’s response to his dawning realisation that the apparel industry was damaging the environment was to sell his business and take direct action to save the Earth, then Chouinard, by contrast, decided to keep his company in private hands and run it in a way that might minimise environmental damage – a nearly impossible task that seems to weigh very heavily on him. “Evil always wins if we do nothing,” he writes in Let My People Go Surfing.

The challenge of taking the moral high ground while still making and selling things is something that Rick Ridgeway also thinks about a great deal. “Our mission is to build the best product, causing no unnecessary harm, then that second part of our mission is essentially saying that we’ve got to do less bad,” he said. “We’re going to make our product with the smallest footprint possible, but it is a footprint.”

For both men – who would not disagree with the radical environmentalist Edward Abbey’s famous remark that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” – running an ethical business is an almost impossible challenge, if not a contradiction. Populating the world with more stuff that will eventually get thrown away is bad for the planet; the popularising of outdoor culture of all sorts is bad for specific places of natural beauty, which risk being overrun with people; and finally – and most difficult – the entire ethos of growth and profit and consumption is unsustainable for humanity and the health of the planet.

Jill Dumain, the director of environment strategy, who has been at Patagonia for more than 27 years, can easily list all the ways the company is trying to do the right thing, among them the decision, in the 1990s, to use only organic cotton, and in 2013 to switch to torture-free goose down. (The North Face made the same move in 2014.) It has tried to replace as many of its synthetic materials as possible with recycled ones, although finding recycled zippers and buttons has been a struggle. Socially, it is committed to fair trade in its supply chain, in the mills and sewing factories it works with. This has led to the company splitting up with suppliers who were not willing or able to make the changes it demanded. These are the sorts of problems that Patagonia has chosen to explore to an almost obsessive degree. The idea of businesses being “transparent” is wholly overused but, in Patagonia’s case, it is fitting.

Over time, Chouinard and Ridgeway matured into their roles as aging renegades: they appear as delightfully cranky old friends in a 2010 documentary, 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless, which follows a young writer and photographer as he attempts to retrace their now-legendary 1968 trip from California to Chile.

Their adventures continued into December of 2015, when Chouinard, Ridgeway, Tompkins, and three other friends went on a seemingly gentle five-day kayaking trip to southern Chile. Ridgeway, who is 67, and Tompkins, 72, shared a kayak and it capsized in heavy waves in 4C water. The six men were rescued via patrol boat and helicopter but Tompkins suffered from severe hypothermia. He died in a hospital that night.

“Doug had a visceral dislike for authority and always relished breaking the rules,” Chouinard wrote. It was a heartfelt tribute to his old friend. In his book, Chouinard comes off as a grumpy, seasoned old-timer, constantly bemoaning the lack of credibility in everyone, everywhere. “Yvon calls himself the biggest pessimist in the world,” says Dumain.

Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face.View image in fullscreen
Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face. Photograph: Reuters

Chouinard and his wife Malinda divide their time between Ventura and their long-time home in Jackson Hole, a mountain resort town in Wyoming now known as a playground for the super-rich – Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock and Dick Cheney all have homes there.

Patagonia employees talk about Chouinard with the devotion usually reserved for cult leaders, but with a tone that suggests that they also view him as a somewhat mercurial genius. “He spends a lot of time outdoors like he always has,” says Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s CEO, “a lot of time fishing, or teaching kids how to fish.” When I called, he was always off somewhere; no one seemed to know quite where.

By keeping Patagonia as a privately owned business, Chouinard has been able to run it in a way that stays true to his values. (Patagonia is organised as a for-profit company, known as a B-Corp, with certification for its social and environmental commitment.) “When the company becomes the fatted calf, it’s sold for a profit, and its resources and holdings are often ravaged and broken apart, leading to the disruption of family ties and the long-term health of local economies,” he writes in Let My People Go Surfing. “When you get away from the idea that a company is a product to be sold to the highest bidder in the shortest amount of time, all future decisions in the company are affected.”

Patagonia’s competitors, The North Face included, are mostly public companies driven by shareholders. “The mission and the values of Patagonia have never been really about that,” says Marcario. “They’ve been about how much influence we can have on preserving and conserving the wild places that we love and play in, and how much influence we can have as a business to help change the model.”

But, while Tompkins left business altogether to save the wilderness, Chouinard seems like a man who will never stop being conflicted about what running a successful business entails. “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible,” he has written. “It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.”

Patagonia’s headquarters are in Ventura, a small beach town in Southern California in between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The buildings occupy a 5.5-acre campus and are painted in a signature buttery ochre colour used in most of the Patagonia retail stores around the world. There’s a large playground for the onsite creche – an employee benefit so rare in the US that Patagonia published a book last summer about its child-friendly philosophy. The company prides itself in hiring relatively few people but looking after them all.

There is something about being on the Patagonia campus that feels like being in a Scandinavian country – albeit one with banana plants, blooming agaves and jacaranda trees. There are solar panels, piles of surfboards for employees to use, and a car with a licence plate that reads BUMKIN. Offices have bean bags and stability balls to sit on, and the canteen serves organic kale blackberry salad. Then there’s the shed that originally housed Chouinard’s blacksmithing workshop, where he made climbing gear. It now feels a bit like a museum piece, frozen in the 1970s, but apparently Chouinard still tinkers around in it from time to time.

The campus is the setting for many ostentatious efforts to do good. “One day I was walking down the steps and there were pieces of paper all over the sidewalks, and they all had arrows [on them] and said, ‘Careful. Watch out. Butterfly chrysalis,’” Dean Carter, the vice president of human resources, told me.

If this conspicuous altruism is grating to some people, they do not work at Patagonia. Still, the company says that it does not only recruit environmentally conscious do-gooders. “If we picked people who fit a specific mould, it could feel really culty,” Carter said. “But we’re just looking for threads; we’re not looking for the entire quilt. We’re looking for threads of caring for the environment, threads of caring about the outdoors, and threads of caring about families, collaborating, working.”

In a not-necessarily-cultish way, a lot of Patagonia employees go on to marry other Patagonia employees, and family members often work there too. Carter’s own daughter is a receptionist.

Yvon Chouinard in his workshop at the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California.View image in fullscreen
Yvon Chouinard in his workshop at the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California. Photograph: Victoria Sayer Pearson/AP

Companies wishing to improve their public image drop by to see if a little ethical stardust will rub off on them. Coca-Cola flew in a team from South Africa. There was even a visit from Chick-Fil-A, the US fast food chain famous for taking a public stance against same-sex marriage in 2012. I registered my surprise. “Exactly! And I have a partner. So they asked me if they could come. I was kind of like, ‘Are you sure?’” Carter says. “And obviously we don’t share their values. But they have their very specific culture that they’re living. And they were really sweet and kind.”

When Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of the fashionable eyewear startup Warby Parker, came to visit, he was impressed by how much work went into research and development – he mentioned the way Patagonia tests its raincoats with waters of various alkalinity to mimic rain in different parts of the world. But what really struck him, he said, was the venue for his meeting with two Patagonia executives: “Instead of taking the meeting in a conference room, we took a walk to the beach. For me it was pretty special; for them it was quite ordinary.”

Ridgeway – whose job as vice president of public engagement is to represent the company, whether at conferences or universities, or to executives who come to the Ventura headquarters – described the process of meeting visitors: “They go on a tour, we walk around and talk about the values and how we live the values. Usually we get some local organically grown food and we answer questions and share a story,” Ridgeway told me. “And then we are curious what their story is.”

Ridgeway can sometimes sound a little weary at having to explain to outsiders a way of life that comes quite naturally to him. “We don’t want to hold ourselves up in some arrogant exclusivity,” Ridgeway said, but then described the kind of customer that Patagonia does not “necessarily want to invite under our umbrella”. Namely, people who want to climb Mount Everest for bragging rights – the sort of affluent adventurers, drawn to climbing in part by Patagonia, whose impact Chouinard now regrets so much. “Someone who has paid $100,000 for a guided climb where the sherpas put the route in and risked their lives fixing the lines and carried all your stuff up for you and positioned your oxygen balls so you could go up and come back and say you climbed Everest. That doesn’t work for us,” Ridgeway says. “And we don’t mind saying it publicly.”

In its pursuit of authenticity, Patagonia tries to avoid malls, and only takes over spaces that mean something to the community. (One of its four Manhattan stores is located on the Bowery, next to the former location of the punk club CBGB, which is now a John Varvatos boutique.) It prides itself on pushing up against the limits of how ethical a company can be while actually still selling things: quality goods, ethical labour and manufacturing, no debt, even a tax strategy, according to Chouinard’s book, “to pay our fair share and not a penny more”.

The company is hyper-aware of these contradictions, perhaps to the point of tying itself in knots. In 2011, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the US, Patagonia ran an ad featuring a photo of a plush blue fleece, and copy that read DON’T BUY THIS JACKET. The advert invited customers to make a commitment to reduce what they buy, repair their gear and recycle the stuff they no longer need. (Patagonia’s campus in Reno, Nevada houses the largest garment repair facility in North America.) But it had the opposite effect: Patagonia’s Black Friday sales increased by 30% over the previous year. The anti-sales message, as they might have expected, made consumers feel better about buying more.

Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket advert.View image in fullscreen
Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket advert. Photograph: PR

The company’s attempts to expand into new markets have a similar blend of moral commitment and financial savvy. In 2013, it launched a venture fund to invest in environmentally and socially responsible for-profit startups. In 2012, the company launched a food line named Patagonia Provisions, which includes buffalo jerky, smoked wild Sockeye salmon and, beginning last October, a beer made with a grain called kernza, which can be grown year-round. The target market is “concerned moms that want to make sure they’re giving their kids organic, non-GMO food”, Rose Marcario told me. The new food division, she added, has won the company “a whole new set of customers”.

At the headquarters of The North Face in Alameda – just across the bay from San Francisco – there is a similar preoccupation with being green and avoiding waste. During a visit last summer, I had a lunch of sustainably raised salmon with Todd Spaletto, who became president of the company in 2011. The building where we dined was insulated with recycled blue jeans, and there were composting bins, solar panels and free charging stations for electric cars. One building housed a vast area dedicated to repairing clothes under the company’s lifetime warranty. As we ate, a team out on the lawn was testing out the set-up of a large, complicated-looking hexagonal tent.

A visitor to The North Face campus encounters the same sporty feel as at Patagonia HQ – but instead of Patagonia’s crunchy “soul surfer” vibe, here there is an edge of elite athleticism, whether in the form of employees doing bootcamp workouts and agility drills in the well-equipped gym, or a casual mention that Dean Karnazes was there just the other day, leading a group run along the water.

“One of my first weeks on the job, I was talking to somebody and they were like, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’” Spaletto recalled, smiling. “I was like, ‘I’m pretty excited, I’m running a half-marathon.’ And they were like” – and here he adopted a tone reserved for motivating small children – “‘That’s great, you gotta start somewhere!’”

Lately The North Face has been focusing more and more on a younger, casual customer whose main interest in hiking is the part where they get to drink beer around a campfire. “Why does the youthful millennial consumer go outdoors?” Spaletto asked. “They value one thing above all else. It’s this whole idea of these genuine experiential moments that you share with your friends.”

These youthful consumers may even decide they can afford to skip the hike and go straight to the beer. But as The North Face positions itself as a fashion brand as much as an outdoor wear company, a new dilemma arises. The casual customer is drawn both to style and to the authenticity of owning real technical gear – but if the gear itself announces its technical utility too loudly, it ceases to be fashionable.

“The outdoor industry has prided itself on showing the technology on the outside – seams sealed, zippers taped. That is very much core to this industry, everybody does it,” said Sumie Scott, the senior product director for “mountain culture” at The North Face. “But the more youthful consumer wants hidden technology. So that’s the challenge, how do you get them to know that technology exists?”

“What The North Face tries to push is this high, high performance extremity,” said Cathy Begien, who worked in visual merchandising at The North Face a decade ago, and has since gone on to work at Prada, Opening Ceremony, and Warby Parker. “They would say, ‘Cathy use Everest imagery or rock climbing.’ But I’m in a mall and people are pushing strollers around at 8am. I don’t think they care about whether an alpinist would want this, or an ultra-marathoner,” Begien recalled. “Holiday season was the only time I didn’t have to talk about mountain climbing or water rafting and could just show a bunch of jackets in a way the typical mall consumer can understand: this one is gonna keep you warm, this one is gonna keep you warmer, this one is gonna keep you warmest.”

The high cost of North Face gear creates high expectations: “You get a fairly affluent customer who expects meticulous service. You have to behave as though you’re working at a Vuitton or a Gucci,” said Caitlin Kelly, a journalist who took a job at a North Face outlet in suburban New York after losing her reporting job during the 2008 recession, and wrote a book, titled Malled, about the experience. “It was a long, narrow store. And when you walked in, half the store was fashion, half was ‘Let’s climb Everest’. It was massively confusing to the shopper.”

The North Face wants to do style and adventure. It has collaborated on slippers and puffer jackets with Supreme, the skateboarding brand with a cult following. (Drake wore a jacket from the collection in the video for his 2011 single The Motto.) The trend among makers of serious technical gear is for designs that don’t look like you are about to climb to Camp 4 on Everest – while at the same time, couture designers are increasingly showing items inspired by authentic outdoor gear. Patrik Ervell, Steven Alan and Louis Vuitton have all designed fleece jackets that appear to be a riff on Patagonia’s Retro-X; puffer jackets have started to appear on the covers of fashion magazines, thanks in part to Balenciaga’s $3,000 parkas.

The desire to broadcast a sense of adventure while still looking good may have something to do with the biggest trend in athletic gear in recent years: the rise of “athleisure” – clothes that suggest, rather than insist on, performance, designed to transition from workout to sofa. Leggings – whether made by The Gap or Alexander Wang – are the most popular form of sporting loungewear (or is it lounging sportswear), having replaced denim as the preferred casual wear for women. The UK sportswear market will surpass £8bn by 2020, fuelled by the rise of athleisure. In addition to gear for high-altitude camping and open-water diving, both The North Face and Patagonia sell leggings and sweatpants and T-shirts and all manner of gear best suited for hanging out.

North Face has the misfortune of being east-coast prep-school girls wearing black puffers and UggsMatt Langer

But for The North Face, exercising feels like an urban moral imperative, much as recycling does at Patagonia – a duty to care for oneself in tandem with caring about nature. While The North Face nominally shares the same ethos as Patagonia in terms of protecting the planet, its status as a publicly traded company means it has to maximise profits, which goes with the company’s type-A branding – you are not going to see any North Face slow-growth manifestos or “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ads. In fact, after The North Face announced in October that its third-quarter revenue had dropped 1%, Spaletto, my summer lunch companion, quietly departed the company.

If the risk for Patagonia is to be seen just like any other company – one that cares as much about profits as the environment – then the comparable risk for The North Face is to be associated with suburban parents and college students whose greatest trek is across the quad, rather than trailrunners, mountain climbers and the occasional well-dressed rapper. It has to remain authentic enough to represent authenticity for the casual customer, without being so authentic that those people stop buying.

“North Face has the misfortune of being east-coast prep-school girls wearing black puffers and Uggs,” says Matt Langer – a cyclist, New Mexico resident and Patagonia customer. He’s a friend of a friend whose Instagram looks like a real-life recreation of the Patagonia catalogue, complete with fly-fishing, long-distance mountain biking, an adorable dog and waterfalls. Patagonia’s marketing is spot on, he says, a bit sheepishly. “I am a bearded white guy drinking beer around the campfire.”

For the committed outdoorsman – who styles himself a rugged individualist, untouched by the whims of fashion – there’s an ambivalence at being so accurately cast. That stereotype, says Josh Contois, who I met on a group hiking trip in California last year, “is to be a dirtbag and live frugally and also wear a $250 jacket”. (Outside Magazine once called Chouinard “King of the Dirtbags”.) Both Contois and Langer wear Patagonia in a way that would make Chouinard smile, even though much of their actual equipment comes from niche brands. For the real dirtbag, who now regards The North Face somewhat like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, even Patagonia has mostly sold out to the urban yuppie.

The true adventurer instead buys even more expensive, precious, and specialised gear – from tiny companies owned and operated by fellow mountaineers in outdoor meccas such as Boulder, Colorado or Bend, Oregon.

“Let’s be honest, Patagonia appeals to – I don’t want to sound like a smartass – but people driving Range Rovers who shop at Whole Foods,” said Doug Heinrich, an executive at the Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment – Chouinard’s original climbing equipment company, which was renamed after he sold it to an employee in the 1980s. “That doesn’t mean they don’t appeal to core climbers, but we’re going to appeal to that hardcore climber more than Patagonia would.”

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On the other end of the spectrum, there is another crop of companies who appeal to the super-rich (or design fetishists) by trying to out-fancy Patagonia and The North Face on both technical sophistication and price. The small Canadian brand Arc’teryx produces a high-end line called Veilance, which promises “minimalist style with total performance”, and looks as if Prada made high-tech outdoor gear, with prices to match. Canada Goose, whose “Arctic luxury apparel” is worn by scientists at the South Pole, offers a “Kensington” Parka priced at £850.

There is something undeniably alluring about the lengthy descriptions of the technical merits of all this cutting-edge gear: the insulation that traps air for reduced heat loss and increased warmth, the underarm vents, the wrist accessory pocket, the reminder that your jacket is coming with a lifetime warranty, even if it isn’t destined to leave the borough of Manhattan. That, after all, was always the bedrock of high fashion – people justified the prices of a cashmere sweater or a leather jacket because what they bought was well made, beautifully crafted, and lasted for ever.

This may be what appeals to such customers as the man who recently came into the San Francisco North Face store and bought a Himalayan suit, which is filled with goose down and costs $1,000.

The sales copy describes the item thus: “Technical, insulated full-body suit for climbing 8,000-metre peaks, the Himalayan Suit is a necessity for athletes aiming to reach the top of the world.” It looks like a yellow and black sleeping bag with arms and legs and, according to the catalogue, includes “critical features based on Conrad Anker’s feedback and proven on Mount Everest, where the athlete team successfully reached summit”. The staff at The North Face store asked the customer where he was planning on going with his Himalayan suit. Nowhere, he said. He was just buying it because it was cool.

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This article was amended on 9 March 2017. An earlier version misnamed Rose Marcario as Rose Marciano.

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