To the Summit The North Face story by ethan cardinal

When one thinks of the North Face it almost instantaneously brings up visual cues of one’s own personal relationship with the outdoors. The North Face has garnered a global following through its unassuming dress code favouring practicality over flamboyance, comfort over an aversion to style, and garments that require no thought besides the necessary materials and technology.

From hikers wearing the iconic half dome logo on the highest summits in the world to a collaboration with Maison Margiela during London’s Fall/Winter ’20 showing in January earlier this year, North Face has endured the fashion industry’s thirst for the next trend through its cult status in pop culture today.

And yet, while certain fashion-savvy people respect the brand’s pedigree amongst the streets, North Face’s introduction and rise to popularity in the fashion industry could not have been predicted.

Photo courtesy of hypebae.com Maison Margiela x The North Face Fall/Winter 2020

The founder of The North Face, the late Douglas Tompkins envisioned a brand that could lead the way in outdoor sports performance. As his relationship with the outdoors manifested in his love for hiking and mountain climbing, Tompkins grew tired of scavenging for quality gear amongst army surplus and mail orders and thus in 1966 started a brand that would later reach global icon status. Named after the hardest side of a mountain to climb, Tompkins sought to create garments that could withstand the harshest climate for hikers and mountain climbers.

Photo courtesy of bloomberg.com

By 1968 the production for the iconic The North Face backpacks begun, with the Sierra Parka coming a year later in 1969 symbolising the brand’s first production of an apparel item.

Photo courtesy of oipolloi.com

Equipped with a few thousand dollars, Tompkins opened the first The North Face store in San Francisco’s North Beach neighbourhood, a community that housed the wandering bohemians that San Francisco would later develop in its own history.

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The grand opening saw a performance from the legendary band The Grateful Dead and alleged rumours that Hells Angels were watching the door that night circled among North Face fanatics.

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As the brand continued to develop products throughout the ‘70s with notable revolutionary technology such as the Oval Intention tent model (debuted in 1975), a lightweight tent with a high level of strength and thermal resistance along with introducing a line of shingled sleeping bags, the brand became the norm for mountain climbers and hikers alike.

However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the brand started to acclimate in relevancy. With the rise of the ski jackets era that dominated most of the ‘80s, colour clashing came in the form of abstract shapes. The North Face along with the continuation of their already popular products such as the Mountain jacket and Gore-Tex clothing, introduced an entirely new skiwear range and gear that enabled the brand to reach mainstream culture.

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The success of the extreme skiwear line gave way to the company launching an expedition line by 1988 which would go onto become a heavily influential line in The North Face’s evolution in the ‘90s going into the ‘2000s.

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While the brand was set for continued projections up the relevancy ladder, Odyssey Holdings acquisition of the brand in 1988 saw the brand file for bankruptcy five years later as a result of the company unable to keep up with the demand while investing heavily in new equipment. The brand was saved a year later following an auction in which a group which would later be named The North Face, Inc purchased the business and would guide the brand back to profitability.

With most collectors considering the ‘80s and ‘90s era of The North Face jackets a grail in one’s collection as a result of rap’s subsequent adaptation of the brand since the late ‘80s, the outerwear pieces would clothe rappers and musicians from the streets of New York and America’s East Coast where the youth, motivated by late night illicit activities saw a number of utilitarian brands like Carhartt and Timberland along with North Face become staples for the street.

As much as all brands alike continue to pour a concentrated effort into marketing in the digital landscape, a brand’s success amongst pop culture is inherently dependent on its ability to attract a subculture; a face to represent the intended aesthetic that a brand aims for. For The North Face, the brand has garnered a level of subcultural significance in the sense that they’ve made garments of clothing that are perfect for the street.

The brand’s propulsion into relevancy over the past few years can be largely attributed with the monotonous referencing of ‘90s culture with streetwear giant Supreme spearheading the youth’s newfound taste for The North Face brand with their collaborations each season.

Streetwear has provided a long list of vintage brands an opportunity for revival in this trend dominated landscape and North Face has seen a new subculture willing to add to its legacy since the collaboration between North Face and Supreme started in 2007.

Critics of streetwear have long maintained their stance on the notion that streetwear as a genre of fashion is heavily rooted in logos to carry design, where up and coming “streetwear” brands rely on a logo rather than the discipline of fashion design in order to sustain their brand. This model for brand creation is hazardous not only from a business perspective but one should also be conscious of the ethical issues that comes with mass production of cheap garments.

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Supreme has been attributed as the main contributor to this aesthetic, with their simple red box logo design fetching absurd second market value despite the lack of design most critics scrutinize the brand for since their creation. And yet, the results are hard to ignore. As much as traditional fashion elitist continue to look down on streetwear as a new sub genre, it is almost impossible to notice how it has become the uniform of the 21st century youths.