In case you don’t already know this CANADIAN DESIGNER LABEL. And yes, I said designer, and yes, I called it fashion! Reading through this article about the work going on in Arc’teryx’s production studios relates in my mind directly to the video’s currently being shown by Chanel and Dior of the “petit mains” at work in their Haute Couture studios. Surely this is what Andrew Bolton is saying with his latest fashion story at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”, where, in the website for the exhibition, in the overview, he states “The Costume Institute’s spring 2016 exhibition explores how fashion designers are reconciling the handmade and the machine-made in the creation of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear.” The fashion world moves forward into the 21st Century and the CANADIANS are there. BRAVO ARC’TERYX!
Embodying the Pinnacle | Arc’teryx Veilance
Words: Nguyen Le | Photography: Norihisa Hayashi
Dialogue | Issue 02 | p.026
If necessity drives adaptation, then evolution must be the result. This is the logic and central focus behind the DNA of Arc’teryx. Formed during the revolutionary boom of the outdoor industry throughout the ‘90s, founders Dave Lane and Jeremy Guard sought inspiration through Archaeopteryx Lithographica – the transitional and now iconic fossil linking prehistoric reptiles to modern birds- crucial in defending Darwin’s theory of evolution. In the case of Arc’teryx, this need for adaption is what drives their design aesthetic and virtually every component from material sourcing to production. In the last 20 years they’ve successfully infiltrated and in some ways dominated the industry with their progressive pursuit for the refinement of form.
Alongside their globally accessible mainline, Arc’teryx produces a special category of tailored outerwear and apparel specifically marketed to city dwellers. Originally named System-A, The Veilance division – now into its 14th season takes full advantage of the performance pedigree that birthed it and reapplies the technologies innovated for extreme outdoor conditions to an urban context. This may come across as superfluous, yet the genre has strongly resonated with a core group of devotees and garnered attention at a fanatic level. I’m curious as to why they would implement this degree of functionality to garments that may never go through the wringer by those who wear them, yet brands like Veilance, ACRONYM® and Nike’s recent ACG revamp have managed to find a lucrative niche in this market.
In the burgeoning days of mountaineering, climbers scaled ice covered peaks in nothing more than modest layers of wool, silk and cotton- this was standard alpine garb during the early 19th century. At the time, an enthusiasts’ main concern was conserving warmth, even if that meant restricting movement; this was widely accepted as part of a summit’s many challenges. Fast-forward to today, and if you examine any high performance piece of clothing it generally reveals a wealth of attributes where safety, comfort, utility and style converge. It would seem that most, if not all of the demands of outdoor finery had been addressed, which has now motivated brands to focus on tackling the challenges associated with the complexities of urban terrain. Practically speaking though, technical apparel for the city runs the risk of being labelled gimmicky, and maybe even convoluted despite its minimalist aspirations.
The question remains: Is there a need for modular, avalanche resistant and articulated armour to aid us in conquering the activities that consist our daily lives? Or are they simply here as a novelty- to satisfy the void in our never-ending thirst for status and luxury? To better understand this growing fascination in the men’s fashion category, I traveled to the West Coast in hopes of visiting one of the pioneers in “wearable tech”. Located at the foot of Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains, the Arc’teryx corporate office and headquarters lay just minutes away from the Sea–to-Sky² corridor. Home to World Class skiing, climbing and harsh mountainous environments, this unique backdrop serves as the brand’s elite testing grounds, and is a short commute to their massive production facility, engineering department and design center. Their team was gracious enough to grant me access to the campus, where I witnessed the great lengths to which they dedicate toward innovation along with their unconventional approach to sustaining a high level of craftsmanship moving into the future.
Inside the main compound occupying a modest corner of the reception area is a museum commemorating the brand’s incremental evolution through lacquered plagues and photographs in black and white. PR and Marketing rep Jo Salamon expresses the collective regard employees have in preserving the spirit of Arc’teryx.“ There is an underlying appreciation for the past, though we want to make it clear that our goal is to bring the line into the future. This means taking a modern approach to everything, yet still sustaining ways to resonate with our clientele who have grown to trust the Arc’teryx name.”
Taking into consideration the level of success and notoriety Arc’teryx has acquired within its illustrious timeline, they still don’t possess immunity to the obstacles and risks presented by the current fashion landscape; most notably its strict revolving calendar- which dictates a consumers desire for the latest and greatest. Innovations regarding performance however, are traditionally incremental and require thousands of man-hours in research and development often to no avail. It’s for these reasons that Veilance designs were strategically initiated from the familiar menswear vocabulary of dinner jackets, car coats, military parkas and blazers. In subsequent seasons the line would evolve to offer precision tailored trousers, “next- to- skin” base layers and a small series of hard-goods all of which remain entirely manufactured in Canada.
Currently, Arc’teryx employs 305 workers at their primary manufacturing facility with skill sets ranging from fabric handling, cutting, pressing, sewing, taping and machine operating. This number is expected to increase by 90% in the coming months as production of Veilance is projected to double by the year 2020. This scale of commitment and investment in the line tells me they’ve found an ace in the hole. Factory Manager Keith Cotman points out to quality standard initiatives that place strict mandates on time values and assembly costs for everything that leaves his facility. The amount of spreadsheets and pie charts his staff is required to reference is dizzying, yet he assures me there’s a premise in all this madness. “There is a right way and a wrong way to make things in respect to what a brand is. Whether we’re building Audis or backpacks, they have to function properly. It’s imperative that the people who work on it recognize the level of perfection it needs to attain. It’s not just rebranding an existing product with a clever name, the understanding of our customer and their expectations is what we’re training our people on. It’s got to be perfect, this is Veilance.”
Recruited by Arc’teryx 18 months prior to our meeting, Keith brings with him nearly four decades of first hand experience in the apparel industry. Having worked in various factories in England and then Sri Lanka he retains extensive knowledge of what works in basic line assembly and the adjustments necessary to implement modular production. “I was brought in here to change the perspective of what modular production could achieve and in turn train the workers to capitalize on the efficiency of this method. Prior to this shift, workers for the most part carried out their tasks independently.” Unlike line production, modules are reliant on a team-orientated scenario where the balance and trade of skill sets among workers is essential. This results in a better understanding of garment construction as a whole where everyone benefits mutually.
Given the amount of in-house technology engineered to streamline their production, an overwhelming volume of apparel is still handcrafted here. In addition to their tribe of experienced garment workers, Arc’teryx has recently implemented a specialized training department that sources and instructs prospective employees in various skill sets required at the factory. This strategy is in place to ensure a sustainable growth initiative while encouraging a low turnover rate in human resources. Keith affirms that their first employee – recruited to help sew climbing harnesses in 1991 is still on staff and currently works as their main office receptionist. “She should have retired years ago, but insists on staying- she’s a rock star.”
I notice a rolling rack just a few meters ahead, it flaunts a line of impeccable long coats all shrouded in black- a surefire sign of Veilance. Keith points out that 17 of his staff are currently working on an order of GORE-TEX® down jackets with a tight deadline looming. Their goal is to ram out 20 units today while typically it takes seven hours to complete a single jacket from start to finish.
“Having our own manufacturing facility here allows us to do these kinds of special orders and remain cost effective. We can complete small orders if needed in a short turn around time. An added bonus is we don’t have to deal with minimums, we can produce as much or as little as we please and still hang on to all of our intellectual property. This sets us apart from our competitors and is a testament to the success of an in-house operations mandate.” I’m told that having a factory within close proximity to their design center also ensures that ideas can be tested quickly with prototypes usually making it to the sampling stage within days and up on a mountain for testing by the end of a week. What a time to be alive.
In order to stand out in a climate saturated with design models synonymous with utility and function, Veilance has prioritized its innovations through material sourcing and acute fabric customization. Strong partnerships with textile developers like GORE-TEX® and WINDSTOPPER® facilitate reliable assessments ensuring new materials perform flawlessly to their unique design scheme. Unlike other companies where the production team manages the fabrics, Arc’teryx adopts a method where R&D in materials is bound to the design process; a scenario typically affiliated with automotive engineering. As a result, designers acquire insight on a textile’s potential and how far they can push its boundaries. At the time of my visit, the Veilance team had already been working on their collection for S/S 2018.
Prior to joining this division, lead designer Lars Mckinnon worked as a creative assistant at LEAF; another subsidiary of Arc’teryx- specialized in devising tactical outdoor gear for the law enforcement and armed forces. Along with chief director of design- Takanori Kasuga, the rest of the Veilance unit consists only of a small team of pattern makers, sample sewers and product developers. When asked if this team is expected to grow as a result of future expansion in production he admits a desire to keep the group tightly knit. “It allows everyone involved to become very specialized and adept in their roles. For the past two years we’ve been running this ship as is, it has its share of challenges but don’t get me wrong it’s been a lot of fun too.”
Along with Jo from PR, Lars and Taka take me on a tour of the design center, which consists of two open concept floors where all fabric development, prototyping and sampling is done. Contrary to my assumptions of it being streamlined and minimal, the design studio is surprisingly cluttered; with loud hammering and echoes of machining noise bouncing off the walls. “I know it’s sort of a mess in here,” Taka admits nervously. “It’s not just illustrations taking place here, people are constantly making and building things. Before we had a specialized trailer, all the testing of our avalanche packs took place in the parking lot, eventually everybody got fed up with the noise.”
We enter a calm corner of the room next to a large window with a dramatic view of the mountains. The weather is mild for this time of year, but it’s expected to rain for the entire 36 hour duration of my stay in Vancouver. I ask Lars about the potential design bias Veilance product possesses in it being conceptualized and tested in this specific geography. “We’re aware of the bias, and we’re working with a forward focused plan to address that. I think we’re really privileged that we have an extensive team who work in sales as well as other facets of the company whom are very opinionated, and we also take into consideration demand and feedback from consumers. Our overall goal is to have solutions for every climate in terms of every condition. However warm, or cool it is, we want to have a solution for that. Due to the fact that we can’t be everywhere and test everywhere we rely on trusted sources.”
Though rather young by the looks of it, Mckinnon has an assured aura about him. His knowledge and understanding of the audience his brand has garnered shows maturity beyond his years. Not only does he have a comprehensive grasp of the history that sums up Arc’teryx, Lars expresses tenacity in carrying Veilance forward without compromise. “I want to be more experimental to be honest, finding new ways to be functional is what I’m always trying to do. Whether it’s for an audience of 200 people or 200,000 the approach is the same, the goal is the same- finding new ways to improve the activities in peoples’ lives. Sometimes innovations and breakthroughs in the mainline transfer really well and work seamlessly in Veilance, but we have to be careful not to make it feel forced. It has to make sense in an urban environment, and stay relevant and functional. That being said, it has to look great too, but aesthetics are meaningless if an overall design doesn’t perform or solve a problem.”
While the hypothetical urban jungle presents an infinite cache of obstacles and design possibilities, there is still the underlying issue of functionality in excess when everyday apparel is concerned. I’m curious to hear what Mckinnon’s thoughts are on this. “We make a lot of garments that I wouldn’t recommend you do certain outdoor activities in, because there are products available out there that are better suited and designed specifically to be in those conditions. Having said that, the performance you can get out of a Veilance piece is very comparable. I always feel very comfortable knowing that most people will never push their Veilance garment to the limits, even though it embodies the pinnacle in performance. Think about it like this- you might want the best car, best footwear or best watch, you might not use it to the extreme, but there’s a sense of comfort knowing that you could, and I like that a lot.”
When I implied Veilance as being a luxury brand, Lars was reluctant to agree. Though in my short time touring HQ I witnessed parallels in the level of craftsmanship and consideration to detail that easily defines the word. Though it remains uncertain how Veilance will fair entering the volatile future of fashion, a sense of pride can be justified in managing to continually innovate and re-invent without sacrificing ones genealogy. Like Arc’teryx, our inherent need to adapt and evolve stems from a simple desire to improve. Rather than resist change, it should be embraced as it leads to the extinction of lesser ideals within us.
If you ask me now where the true value lies behind a Veilance product, I would say it might not be in its futuristic approach to construction, its extensive understanding of human movement or even its obsessive refinement of performance fabrics. I see value in its ability to go beyond the expectations of what a piece of clothing can achieve, and in turn allowing us to experience and interact with our environments in the most dynamic ways possible.