A decade or so ago when The North Face first really started to appear on the high street as much as on the hills, there was a strong feeling amongst many in the industry that they had sold out, gone fashion, or whatever. Back then I used to think that was a little unfair. As a buyer I’d always get excited about what I was going to see prior to viewing a new TNF range. Even now I still hear many people refer to the brand in the same derogatory way – saying that they don’t make stuff appropriate for the mountains anymore or that they have lost their relevance as a technical brand.
I think it’s worth thinking about the kind of products TNF have released in recent years and the kind of design concepts and technologies they’ve been responsible for creating. If you then compare them to their peer companies it’s easy to see that TNF are in many ways one of the most progressive technical brands out there.
A good example is ThermoBall insulation, which has been hugely successful since its launch a couple of years ago. ThermoBall was arguably the first of the new breed of synthetics aimed at being more ‘down like’ than in the past. This will be a big trend in the next few years as synthetic insulation becomes even more popular. For winter 2015 TNF in conjunction with ABS will take avalanche airbag design to a new level by making it more accessible than ever with the new Modulator ABS system – an ABS airbag that can be used with any pack.
Last winter The North Face introduced a tight range of products that use their latest and most significant development – FuseForm Technology. FuseForm is a potentially revolutionary way of making stuff. That sounds like a pretty fundamental thing to say but it really could be that influential on the way outdoor clothing and equipment is made in the future. FuseForm takes the well developed idea of bonding fabrics together – as opposed to sewing them – one step further. During the fabric production phase, yarns with different weights and properties are mapped out and seamlessly woven into the body of the fabric. The traditional boundary between different fabrics on a garment, ie the seam, is therefore eliminated and what you’re left with is a product made from a single piece of fabric with varying properties depending on how the different yarns are mapped out.
The first product that showcased FuseForm technology was the Brigandine Jacket which appeared last autumn. The Brigandine is a hardcore backcountry ski shell that incorporates FuseForm construction to great effect. It enabled The North Face to build a jacket that combined a soft and supple 70 denier fabric in the main body with a very tough 320 denier fabric over the high wear areas. Due to the FuseForm construction the entire jacket is made with one piece of fabric without need for seams or seam tape.
It’s probably at the lighter end of the garment spectrum that FuseForm has most benefit though. The seamless construction that FuseForm enables should work perfectly on lightweight waterproofs and windproofs where more supple, breathable fabrics can really make a difference. For Spring 2015 that is exactly where TNF have concentrated their efforts. The Originator Jacket is the key style in Europe (there are a few other garments that use FuseForm in North America) and is a great example of the benefits of FuseForm technology.
The Originator is a lightweight waterproof shell made from The North Face’s own Hyvent 2.5 layer fabric. Total weight is a very light 300g which is achieved despite the jacket still having features like a helmet compatible hood, 3 pockets and a Cordura yarn added into the fabric to increase durability.
Assuming the technology can be incorporated into polyester fabrics it could also be very suited to producing things like fleece and, in particular, legwear. Imagine a pair of mountain trousers or soft shell pants that have the usual reinforcements at the seat, knee and cuffs but without any seams to chafe and rub. They would presumably be lighter, more flexible, more durable and more comfortable that an equivalent trouser with a conventional sewn construction.
However, it’s not just in clothing where FuseForm could be revolutionary, its benefits could be felt in equipment construction too. In fact any product that is made better by using 2 or more different materials to build it would benefit. The most obvious areas that come to mind are in footwear and rucksacks.
Footwear with uppers made of one fabric could be revolutionary. Getting the shape right could be a tricky and quite complex process but assuming it could be done the resulting shoe or boot could be more durable, light and comfortable due to the lack of seams.
Again, assuming a ‘3d’ pattern could be achieved using FuseForm, making a rucksack lighter and more waterproof would be easier than using cut and sew methods. Sewing a more durable fabric to the base of a pack would no longer compromise the overall water resistant qualities of the pack as with FuseForm there are no seams. The high wear base would simply be woven into the nature of the fabric in that particular area. In fact when you think about it there are so many potential applications for FuseForm it’s crazy. Pretty much any and all the soft goods we use whilst outdoors would benefit from the use of the process.
As you’d expect, The North Face have made sure FuseForm has been pushed hard from a marketing perspective and it’s fair to say that most people in our industry, along with a decent percentage of users, will be aware of the technology and what it facilitates. However, I’m featuring it as part of the FutureProof series because I don’t think many people realise just what a potentially revolutionary and important technology it could end up being. Looking back at how a typical top end hardshell was constructed say 15 years ago, it’s easy to see that technologies like skinny seam tape, water resistant zips and fabric bonding have become the norm, even on lower priced products. FuseForm, or something akin to it, could contribute to a similar scenario a decade or so from now.
FutureProof is a series on The Path Less Trodden that takes a look at the most exciting and progressive outdoor products and technologies around.