The North Face: From Summits to Sidewalks
The North Face has been helping us conquer the outdoors since 1966. Be it a wet urban operation or a full-scale alpine expedition, The North Face has designed products to keep us warm, dry, and comfortable. In doing so, they have built an enterprise of innovation and become one of the world’s most renowned outdoor brands. With The North Face being such an established household name, it can be easy to overlook the brand’s rich heritage. Today, we’re delving into the story of The North Face to explore how the evolved from a singular West Coast outlet to a publicly traded outdoor powerhouse.
History of The North Face
The North Face was founded in 1966 by Douglas Tompkins and his then-wife Susie. Tompkins was born in Ohio in 1943. His family eventually settled in Hudson River Valley, New York, where Tompkins would learn how to climb in the Shawangunk Mountains.
Tompkins never settled into the education system and instead, became a keen climber with a passion for all things outdoors. He spent the early 1960s skiing and rock climbing in Colorado, South America, and Europe. It was in these years that Tompkins met Susie Russell, an out-of-town casino employee who picked him up as he hitchhiked to Lake Tahoe. They moved to San Francisco together and married in 1964.
Both Doug and Susie were avid explorers and adventurers. They made it their mission to create a company that could supply the best outdoor equipment on the market to their fellow hikers and climbers. Doug approached his bank, acquired a loan of $5,000 and the couple founded The North Face in 1966.
Operating out of the North Beach area of San Francisco, the company began as a small retail and mail-order business specializing in high-performance backpacking and skiing gear. The Tompkins’ opened their doors on 308 Columbus Avenue for the first time on October 26th of the same year. With a live set from California rock band, Grateful Dead—and the biker gang Hells Angels working the doors—this small retail space jammed between neon-lit bar fronts and restaurants was buzzing from the start. Jack Gilbert, a North Face Employee from 1968-1988 describes the Columbus Avenue store:
Doug saw the future. His original store in North Beach, San Francisco, was old barn wood and green carpet, ahead of its time. He combined backpacking, skiing, and climbing. It was decorated with climbing gear from his friend Yvon Chouinard.
Regardless of the warm and sunny West Coast location, the couple named the company after the north face of a mountain, the face which is typically the coldest and most challenging to climb. The brand name reflected Tompkins ambition to equip mountaineers and rock-climbers with the finest gear for their expeditions.
The first North Face mail order catalog came complete with a letter from Doug Tompkins himself, stating his aims to stock ‘the most practical gear’ with both ‘beginners and veterans in mind’. The Tompkins’ sourced the finest tents, jackets, sleeping bags, backpacks, and everything in-between, and The North Face soon gained a solid reputation for supplying high-performance climbing and backpacking equipment, trusted by outdoor enthusiasts across the country.
Just two years after its creation, The North Face was acquired by businessman and adventurer Kenneth ‘Hap’ Klopp. Doug Tompkins sold his stakes in The North Face to Klopp to pursue his dream of adventure film-making. Immediately looking to expand the brand, Klopp relocated The North Face to Berkeley, California, and began overseeing the design and production of the brand’s own apparel and equipment.
Under Klopp’s management, The North Face continued to grow throughout the 1970s. In 1975, the brand was recognized for its creation of the geodesic dome tent. The term geodesic is used to describe a tent with poles that criss-cross over its surface. This construction distributes stress from adverse weather across the whole structure, making geodesic tents the most suitable for extreme conditions. The North Face’s 1975 creation was named the Oval Intention.
This revolutionary piece of outdoor equipment featured leading technology that soon became an industry standard. The North Face worked with the Easton aluminum company to produce the first flexible aluminum tent-poles, a feature that put the Oval Intention in a league of its own.
The 1980s saw The North Face expand even further, adding collections of extreme skiwear to their already extensive range of outdoor gear. Endorsed by athletes and professionals, The North Face became a household name, and the brand was in pole position to steam into the 1990s in style. And that it did.
As well as sustaining its commercial success throughout the 1990s and fighting off competition from newer brands like Patagonia, The North Face acquired a cult following in the New York hip-hop scene. The bitter East Coast winters saw rappers like LL Cool J, Method Man, Notorious B.I.G. pictured in The North Face’s most insulated gear.
The Nuptse Jacket, first released in 1992, has become the archetypal ‘bubble jacket’ and an undeniable streetwear classic. Other silhouettes including the Mountain Parka, Nupste Vest, and Sierra Parka also rose to prominence.
The North Face Today
“From our infancy as a single storefront, to our rise as a global year-round brand, we’ve remained focused on practicality and the spirit of adventure with a single mission in mind — get outside and never stop exploring.”
– Todd Spaletto, President of The North Face.
51 years after its establishment, The North Face stands as one of the largest names in outdoor products today with annual revenue of over $200 million and more than 70 retail locations across the globe. Headquartered in Alameda, California, The North Face produces a plethora of high-performance products, ranging from its celebrated outerwear to tents, bags, and much more.
The North Face founder Doug Tompkins passed away in a kayaking accident in December 2015. After leaving The North Face, Tompkins went on to co-found multi-billion outdoor retailer Esprit, and purchase over 2.2 million acres of land across South America as part of his ongoing conservation efforts.
The North Face was acquired by the VF Corporation in 2000. Founded in 1899, the VF Corporation is one of the leading apparel, footwear, and accessories companies that owns a host of well-established brands such as Vans, Timberland, Dickies, Lee, and Wrangler.
Mirroring the environmental ethos instilled into the company by Doug Tompkins, The North Face makes a concerted effort to champion sustainability within their operations. As well as powering their headquarters with renewable energy sources, The North Face created their Clothes the Loop program, an initiative which invites customers to trade their used apparel and footwear and any participating The North Face store, in exchange for coupons which can be spent on North Face product.
All used items are either re-purposed or recycled into raw materials for future clothing production. The North Face also donates to a range of non-profit conversational organizations, including The Conservation Alliance, a company that raises annual contributions from outdoor companies and places those funds into conservation organizations to support their efforts to protect outdoor spaces.
The North Face is committed to reducing its carbon footprint. From the solar installations at our facilities to the energy saving practices in our textile mills, we are constantly looking for ways to reduce our impact. It is more than ‘doing the right thing’ – it is our brand heritage.”
– Conrad Anker, Alpinist and The North Face Athlete
The North Face Labels
In addition to their core mainline, The North Face has a whole host of other labels that offer more tailored product specifications.
Marketed by The North Face as ‘The world’s finest alpine equipment’, the Summit Series is the brand’s top-end range of alpine-based clothing. The Summit Series was established in the Fall of 2000 as a platform to produce the brand’s most advanced kit for climbers and adventurers operating in the harshest of conditions.
The Summit Series label offered lighter-weight garments designed to be combined and layered to form a suit of technical alpine-armor that featured technology like Gore-Tex, Polartec Micro Fleece, and DryVent. The Summit Series range was eventually expanded to make the label more accessible to the masses, but this change of focus saw the Summit Series lose its identity.
The North Face relaunched the Summit Series in 2015 as a smaller collection of advanced mountaineering equipment for experienced climbers. To keep the collection as focused as possible, The North Face introduced a six-layer system, and now market Summit Series product with a code of L1, L2, L3 to indicate their respective layer. Tents and bags have been added to the Summit Series collection in addition to the Himalayan Parka, a beastly Gore-Tex down jacket built for the most extreme expeditions.
Japanese sports manufacturer Goldwin Inc. acquired distribution rights of The North Face in Japan in 1978. As well as introducing The North Face to the Far East, Goldwin’s licensing rights allowed them to create a Japan-exclusive sub-brand, The North Face Purple Label. Established in 2003, The North Face Purple Label was conceived to offer a more lifestyle-focused take on The North Face that would reflect Japan’s urban styling of mainline North Face products.
Headed by Eiichiro Homma, a technical designer for Goldwin and the founder of technical apparel brand Nanamica, Purple Label looks to heritage outdoor styles to inform their fresh adaptations of classic North Face silhouettes. The North Face had certainly become a household name in the Far East, but Homma recognized the potential to apply Japan’s sartorial appreciation for heritage Americana to contemporary outdoor wear. Homma reflects on this to Hypebeast:
Before we launched PURPLE LABEL, all [The North Face] garments which were worn as city wear looked exactly same as outdoor gear. Our view was different – at the time people not only wanted very new styles but also heritage styles too. They couldn’t be just an exact replication of historical designs, but had to incorporate a modern understanding of these historical designs.
Instead of gallons of Gore-Tex and oceans of Cordura, Purple Label chiefly utilizes time-honored fabrics like 60/40, ripstop, heavy duty fleece, and denim. Some Purple Label products even enter the realms of casual wear with garments like skirts, button-downs, and rugby shirts adding to the brand’s versatile collections.
A typical example of Purple Label’s design process is their rendition of The North Face Sierra Parka. As outlined below, the mainline TNF Sierra Parka (left) comes in a slim fit, constructed from soft brushed cotton nylon, with understated down quilts. The Purple Label Sierra Parka is built from polyester ripstop, with a heavy down fill construction and brown leather toggles at the hood. The differences are subtle, but the aesthetic of the Purple Label Sierra Parka is clearly influenced by the original TNF Sierra Parkas of the 60s and 70s (as pictured below).
Until 2019, Goldwin’s comprehensive licensing rights meant that The North Face Purple was only available in Japan and difficult to obtain in the West. This exclusivity has shrouded Purple Label in mystery to some westerners who don’t have the know-how of using Japanese proxy services, and one could argue that the brand’s exclusivity has contributed towards its esteemed reputation and cult following. Fortunately for those in the U.S.A, The North Face Purple Label has launched in The North Face store in Williamsburg, NY.
The Steep Series was created in 1991 in coalition with professional extreme skier, Scot Schmidt. As a hugely successful and inspirational skier, Schmidt was hired by The North Face to design a line of outerwear that would blend techy slope-style with new levels of functionality. The Steep Series became the range of first athlete-inspired skiwear products and birthed the iconic outerwear line, Steep Tech.
The Steep Tech range played an integral part of The North Face’s rise to the forefront of New York style in the 1990s. The collection of zipper-laden, pocket-smothered jackets came in a host of garish colorways that saw Steep Tech gain a passionate cult following. The Steep Tech ‘Work’ Jacket famously appeared in the music video for the Wu Tang Clan’s M.E.T.H.O.D M.A.N and became a firm favorite of the collection along with the Smear and Apogee Jackets. The Steep Tech range also offered full ski suits, caps, and gloves, with all products using a blend of slope-ready materials like heavy-duty Cordura and Kevlar.
The Steep Tech line was discontinued in 1998 but remained a reference point for technical outerwear for many years to come, so much so that it was reintroduced only a few years later. Today, the Steep Series label is designed in collaboration with a number of alpine athletes, including Swedish professional skier Evelina Nilsson. The current Steep Series offerings are a far cry from the iconic mid-90s pieces, but The North Face have been sure include numerous zippers and super bright colors to add hints of the original collections designed by Scot Schmidt.
Original Steep Tech jackets have become highly sought after by TNF enthusiasts and a 2016 collaboration with Supreme paid homage to the original Steep Tech collections of the Steep Series label.
Goldwin Inc. also holds the licensing rights for The North Face in South Korea and The North Face White Label is South Korea’s equivalent to Japan’s Purple Label. Just like the Purple Label, The North Face White Label is an entirely separate brand with an independent creative design director, Christian Lee. Recognizing a spike in the popularity of outdoor fashion in South Korea, Lee launched the White Label in 2014. Speaking with Hypebeast, Lee reflects:
The outdoor market in Korea grew consistently and remarkably from the early 2000s to 2012, not only in the actual number of mountain climbers but also the number of people wearing outdoors gear in their everyday lives. White Label is for daily lifestyle, yet is still produced using the same quality test processes as The North Face.
The North Face White label follows the successful blueprint set out by the Purple Label, but to date remains exclusively available in Asia. In terms of aesthetic, White Label is informed by urban trends in South Korea, and blends these inspirations with staple North Face silhouettes. The current collection appears to be inspired by modern sportswear, featuring a lot of minimal black, white, and grey product with clean construction.
The enthusiasm surrounding the Purple Label and the success of the White label saw The North Face delve deeper into the fashion-lifestyle market by establishing the Urban Exploration label in 2016. After debuting as small capsule collections available solely in Chinese TNF stockists, the Urban Exploration label was expanded in 2017 in a collection that included a collaboration with Japan’s MASTERMIND WORLD.
Urban Exploration draws inspiration from urban trends and The North Face’s extensive archive of technical outerwear to create collections that find a balance between outdoor and city lifestyles. The label has been keen to collaborate with other designers.
In addition to MASTERMIND, Urban Exploration has collaborated with Cash Ca‘s Kazuki Kuraishi to from The Black Series, an exclusive offshoot of the Urban Exploration label. The Black Series offers tech-heavy products with clear military influences which sees its collections sit nicely in stores like HAVEN and END.
1996 Nupste Jacket
A time-honored reproduction of the mid-90s icon, the 1996 Nuptse jacket is a classic, insulated down jacket. Coming in a boxy fit with a stowable hood, adjustable cuffs, and two external hand-warmer pockets, the Nuptse is a versatile jacket that’s ideal for cold weather conditions.
Available for $249 at The North Face.
1990 Mountain Parka GTX
Another reproduction of a 90’s classic is the 1990 Mountain Parka. Constructed from windproof 2L Gore-Tex coated Polyester, the 1990 Mountain Parka comes in a relaxed fit with zipped armpit-vents, adjustable cuffs, and host of internal and external pockets. This piece comes in a variety of two-tone block colorways, each with the iconic half-dome branding on the chest.
Available for $299 at The North Face.
The North Face revolved around outdoor gear and the Dome tent has established itself as of their most iconic expedition products. Demonstrating the original geodesic dome principle introduced by The North Face in 1975, the 2-Meter Dome tent is now part of the Summit Series as the fundamental base camp tent for arctic expeditions. Constructed from heavy-duty nylon, the 2-Meter Dome features Easton aluminum poles similar to that of the aforementioned 1975 Oval Intention.
Available for $5,500 at The North Face.