Reflecting on the rough weather thus far in 2014, and our New Year’s resolution to get some fresh air in spite of it, we decided to take a closer look at one of our favorite outdoor brands: The North Face.
You probably know that The North Face protects you from frigid conditions so that you can enjoy all manner of al fresco pursuits—from extreme sports to a corner-store beer run—in comfort and style. You might also guess that the brand has outfitted explorers, researchers, and daredevils on journeys to the furthest (and highest) reaches of the planet, from the Arctic Circle to Mount Everest. But did you know The North Face’s roots reach back to 1960s San Francisco, and that The Grateful Dead helped launch the brand’s first store?
Keep reading to learn more about The North Face’s nearly five-decade history of counterculture, innovation and environmentalism.
Above: The North Face Director of Equipment, Sally McCoy,
hard at work in 1987. [Photo: Chris Noble]
All photos and quotes are courtesy of The North Face.
1966: A Rebel with a Cause. “In 1966, the outdoor sports and gear industry was still in its infancy in the US. Alpinists were forced to buy heavy military packs, tents and outerwear in Army surplus stores. The word ‘backpacking’ did not exist. Nevertheless, Doug Tompkins, a passionate skier with a flair for merchandising, along with his wife Susie Tompkins, decided to open a high-end ski and camping gear store at 308 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach—an area otherwise known for Beat-poet bookstores, Italian espresso bars and strip joints.” [Photo: Suki Hill]
1966: What’s With the Name? “Any climber knows that the most challenging ascent on a mountain is the frozen wall facing due north. The name Tompkins chose for his business speaks to the same mission at the heart of The North Face today: unrivaled performance to explore the world and test the limits of human potential. The name itself is based on the north face of the Eiger.”
1966: The Kids are Alright. “The North Face store in North Beach featured a museum of hardware donated by Yosemite rock climbers, and soon became a hangout for local outdoor enthusiasts. America was undergoing enormous social changes, and San Francisco was the epicenter. The Grateful Dead played the store’s opening party; the following summer would become widely known as the Summer of Love. The Vietnam War had disaffected an entire generation, leading many to reject conventional values in favor of alternative lifestyles. The idea of ‘getting back to nature’ grew from a [small] movement into an all-encompassing culture. Young people began seeking wild places in search of peace, adventure and personal growth. The North Face was there to serve this expanding awareness of the environment.” [Photo: Suki Hill]
1968: Factory Life. “In 1968, Kenneth ‘Hap’ Klopp acquired The North Face and shifted focus from retailing a variety of products to designing and manufacturing the best outdoor gear under The North Face brand. The first production facility was squeezed into the back of The North Face store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. A year later, a full-fledged factory opened at 1234 Fifth Avenue [pictured above] in Berkeley’s warehouse district. Creedence Clearwater Revival rehearsed next door, providing a soundtrack for the factory floor.”
1969: Take It to Go. “Research, design and development became our springboard to success during the 1970s. Kicking off decades of innovation was the ‘Ruthsack,’ which premiered in 1969. It revolutionized load-carrying by slashing a pack’s weight. The ‘Ruthsack’ was a rucksack with lighter suspension features than a traditional frame pack and a unique, patented zipper arrangement that was exclusively used by The North Face.”
1975: Modern Geometry. “Tents, too, were ready for a rethink. Prior to 1975, the A-frame tent was standard, but suffered in wind and heavy snow. That year, The North Face unveiled the ‘Oval Intention’ geodesic dome tent based on the ideas and assistance of R. Buckminster Fuller, the originator of geodesics.” [Pictured: Fuller marveling at the design The North Face team created from his concept.]
1975: Green Before Green was Cool. “While showcasing these groundbreaking products, The North Face catalogs promoted wilderness conservation, environmental stewardship and sustainability, earning the attention and respect of customers.”
1977: The Proof is in the Pudding. “The North Face has forged direct ties with adventurers, whose vital feedback has improved existing designs and inspired innovations. In 1977, we adopted ‘Expedition Proven’ as a tagline to express the spirit behind our products. This tagline would endure for two decades.”
1970s: From Alaska to Everest. “Over the years, the company has supported hundreds of expeditions, [from scientific research to] exploratory wilderness journeys. Adventurer Ned Gillette was part of many expeditions. Among those, he co-led a 300-mile ski traverse through the Brooks Range in Alaska, following the path of the proposed Alaska Pipeline. Eight years later, The North Face stood behind the Karakoram Ski Traverse, Gillette’s 300-mile winter crossing of high-altitude Pakistan. And in 1981, Ned partnered with [several others] to complete a multi-sport circumnavigation of Everest by skiing, ice climbing and hiking.”
1983: Extreme Measures. “The company launched ‘Extreme Gear’ in 1983, a skiwear line built from GORE-TEX® fabrics. Product testers at Squaw Valley, California, included freeskier Scot Schmidt [pictured] and the Egan brothers. They formed the nucleus of the ‘Extreme Team’ featured in Warren Miller ski films.” [Photo: Chris Noble]
1987: Field Research. “Himalayan expeditions, with their treks to lofty altitudes, have been a perennial inspiration at the company. One success story can be found in the 1987 Snowbird Everest Expedition, when Director of Equipment at The North Face, Sally McCoy, joined the climbing team and returned with the inspiration for the ‘Expedition System’ line. Outerwear classics created from this trip brought superior protection and durability in the most extreme environments, and include the Nuptse®, Lhotse, Khumbu, and Sagarmartha jackets, all named for peaks and glaciers in the region.” [Photo: Chris Noble]
1989: All the Rage. “By 1989, snowboarding had carved out its place as a worldwide phenomenon, and The North Face helped people push their limits with ‘Rage,’ our first snowboard clothing line. When snowboarding graduated to the big mountains, we partnered with Jim Zellers on his successful 1995 expedition to ride from the summit of Pumori (23,494 ft) in the Himalayas.”
1997: Never Stop Exploring. “In 1997, the company adopted a new tag line: ‘Never Stop Exploring.’ It reinforced the spirit of adventure that would continue to guide The North Face. The ‘Athlete Tested’ line also emerged that year, initiating an approach still in use today, in which equipment and outerwear prototypes are sent out with athletes for rigorous, real-time field-testing.” [Pictured: Pete Athans crossing a crevasse bridge in the Khumbu Icefall, near Mt. Everest. Photo: Chris Noble.]
1998: Don’t Look Down. “The North Face has sponsored quests to climb new routes on the biggest walls, a category where determination and durability are crucial, as teams and gear must survive for weeks in vertical environments. In 1998, Greg Child [pictured] and three others achieved first ascent of Great Sail Peak, a 4,000-foot big-wall ascent on Baffin Island near the Arctic Circle—a 20-day climb.”
2011: A Breath of Fresh Air. “In 2011, The North Face issued its first public sustainability report. In 2012, The North Face moved into new headquarters designed with the goals of becoming both LEED certified and a net-zero energy building.”
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Editor’s Picks: Below are our latest favorites from The North Face—including “The International Collection,” which lets you rep your country with jackets, accessories and more designed to commemorate winter sports and the international teams.
THE NORTH FACE FOR MEN
UPDATE: Shop limited-edition survival gear from The North Face as part of our new, menswear-only Pop-In @ Nordstrom: Heartbreakers Club.