Years in the making, The North Face’s US Freeskiing Olympic uniforms were unveiled this evening at EZ Studios in downtown New York City—the showcase coming 100 days from the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. With a slew of TNF athletes and staff on-site, the highly anticipated event drew a strong group of media and industry folk to the Big Apple, and with expectations and excitement running high, TNF delivered a vast, inspired collection of clothing and accessories that had most wishing those 100 days were more like 100 hours.
My Monday kicked into gear with a lunch at the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, adjacent to the Ace Hotel—just around the corner from the ever-so-fancy NoMad Hotel, where most of the TNF crew are shacked up. The casual lunch (I recommend the lamb burger) provided a first opportunity for me to pick some of the athletes’ brains, to inquire about the Olympic apparel and the extensive production process—but, more on that in a minute. From Breslin, I ventured to the 86th floor observatory of the Empire State Building with young-gun Aaron Blunck. It’s important to balance work and play, yes?
Later, after regrouping briefly at the NoMad—Aaron and I having returned from the ESB, and the rest coming back from various video/photoshoots and other media rounds—we made our way over to EZ Studios. We arrived well before the official start time and I was able to catch a sneak peek of the gear while the athletes and TNF staffers rehearsed some of their presentation. I loved what I saw and I was anxious to learn more.
Come 6:30, the doors opened and friends, family and freeskiing fans streamed into the white-walled studio. Red, white and blue were prevalent in the décor, of course. Folks enjoyed a snow-cone bar, scrumptious appetizers and gratis libations. And nearly an hour later, the space now full of life, the show kicked off.
“There are many different styles you can choose from, you have options. Even though it’s a uniform, you can still personalize your outfit.” – T. Wallisch
Sage Cattabriga-Alosa—who graciously played the role of MC tonight—introduced TNF’s Aaron Carpenter, vice president of marketing. Carpenter touched on TNF’s rich skiing history and the privilege of crafting these uniforms. He remarked:
“It’s the first time our brand has made an outfit for an Olympic team… The uniform project taught us something unique: We decided when we began working on this project that we were going to make this uniform in the U.S.—and not just in the U.S.—but in our backyard near Alameda, California. By doing that, we could be super nimble. We could make prototypes, look at things quickly, change things quickly… It also taught us we could take the pride in developing this uniform back to our home office, where it spread like wildfire.” Carpenter went on to explain how The North Face can use this homegrown “fire” to power other projects down the line.
He also pointed to TNF’s partnership with USSA, and attributed much of the project’s success to the two brands’ great relationship. Carpenter introduced Mike Jaquet, CMO of the USSA, who spoke a few short words.
“I want to congratulate The North Face on taking this to the next level,” Jaquet said. “We have apparel partners in each of our teams and each of our sports, and I say this—not because I’m at The North Face party—but because these guys have done something with this project that none of our other partners have done—they’ve really taken it to the next level.”
Jaquet passed the mic back to Carpenter, who introduced the individual who—according to many I spoke with tonight—was the crux of this entire effort.
“The project has really inspired us,” said Carpenter, “and the real inspiration behind the uniforms is a woman by the name of Jasmin Ghaffarian, who has moved mountains to bring this [project to fruition.]”
Ghaffarian, a 10-year employee of The North Face, who worked formerly as product manager for outdoor sportswear and now serves in capacity as product director in the action sports category, had the privilege of introducing the athletes and the apparel. After receiving a round of applause, she gave some insight into the themes that were prevalent throughout the collection, and also touched on some of the finer details.
“There were three things we looked at when we talked about this process,” Ghaffarian told the audience. “First, culture, and the athlete culture. We do this every day… The North Face motto is ‘Athlete tested, expedition proven,’ and this is no different. When you think about the Olympics, you might think about people suffering, and doing a lot of hard word. In this case, it’s a lot of hard work, but I’d replace the word suffering with the word fun.”
Next up, innovation. “Our brand stands for innovation,” she exclaimed, as she pointed to world renowned athletes like Conrad Anker and Scot Schmidt, both present among the crowd. “Halfpipe and slopestyle, they’re all about visibility, and we did more than 1,300 hours of color block testing—not only to see how the products look against snow, in the pipe and on the slope course, but also at night and during the day. Some of these events take place both night and day, and it’s important for the judges to be able to see the athletes well. That can be the difference between a gold and silver medal.”
Lastly, Ghaffarian shared one of TNF’s Olympic slogans, Rebel Americana. “This is a time for patriotism and excitement,” she said. “We talk bout the U.S. and we’re proud to rep’ these athletes and the whole sport of skiing. Rebel Americana speaks to the subculture of rebellion, and we think that will be the underlying presence of these athletes in Sochi.”
The fashion show kicked into gear, with Ghaffarian and Sage calling the shots, introducing each athlete three-four times, and each go-round, the athletes displayed new threads.
From the get-go—and this idea was only made stronger as the fashion show unfolded—one thing I noted was the all-encompassing nature of the uniforms. That is to say, there’s more to the kits than outerwear alone. Tom Wallisch, Devin Logan, Maddie Bowman, Blunck and skier cross star, John Teller, showed off everything from the men’s and women’s slope and pipe outerwear, to the skier cross getups, to hoodies, to tall-t’s, to balaclavas, gloves and mitts, hats, special suspenders in the pants, base layers and more.
L-R: John Teller, Maddie Bowman, Aaron Blunck, Devin Logan, Tom Wallisch.
While the athletes expressed pleasure with the overall look and fit—it’s the attention to detail that I believe makes these pieces special. The snaps? Adorned with an assortment of messages, from “Rebel with a cause,” to “Old Glory,” an homage to the U.S. flag. The men’s halfpipe jacket—eagles and stars are embroidered in the lining. You’ll find laser cut stars under the velcro on the cuffs, the hoodies are made of partial cashmere, and the five stars you see across much of the line feature a blacked out star—that particular one, in the upper right hand side of the arrangement, corresponds to the Olympic ring representing North America.
Cooler still, each of the athletes’ uniforms include a piece of fabric that summited Mt. Everest in May 2012, part of Kris Erickson’s Himalayan Suit. The fabric is cut into the shape of a star, and stitched inside are the words, “Bigger than me.” The line reflects the athletes’ shared sentiment that the Games are bigger than individuals, bigger than brands—the saying unites the team under one common mission: to perform well in the name of the Red, White and Blue.
“If we use the men’s competition pant as an example,” Ghaffarian said to me after the fashion show wrapped up, “we took the big idea—the fit, color, fabric, graphics, trims, pockets and ventilation—and we broke down every piece and said, ‘If we’re going to build this, how can we do it so it represents America, so it represents the sport, and so it’s innovative?’ To have every single piece go through those filters… you know, it took a long time; I’d say this “war room” we created took over six months of thought process, and it required people to not think about anything else but the details. That’s so important. We wouldn’t want to represent America any other way.”
An Everest-sized piece of inspiration, sewn into each athletes’ uniform.
In speaking with the athletes throughout the day, and also post fashion show, I learned how their input proved instrumental in the ongoing production process. Most of the group pointed to two important moments:
First, TNF hosted upwards of 30 athletes in Breckenridge amid the Dew Tour in December 2011. “They had a bunch of people together in a room,” said Tom Wallisch. “A lot of really good opinions were shared there before they even started designing. They heard what we had to say, both The North Faces athletes and non-TNF guys, too. And they went with those ideas and dwindled it down from there. It’s been amazing to have been along for the ride from start to finish.”
Second, many of the guys and gals spoke of the US Freeskiing team gathering on Mt. Hood in July 2012.
“We freaked out,” said Maddie Bowman, the 2013 X Games champion. “The stuff looked so weird. [laughs] We got these crazy looking outfits to test colors, against night, day and different backgrounds. There were the most outrageous patterns and brightest colors, and we were like, ‘No, no, no!’ Little did we know, it was just testing.”
“They were stars and stripes, basically like wearing an American flag on your body,” said Aaron Blunck about the testing experience in Hood.
“They were the brightest red, white and blue color schemes you could ever imagine,” Torin Yater-Wallace explained—one of many US Freeskiing athletes present at the unveiling. “The whole US team had a big talk,” he continued. “We spoke with the designers, and gave a ton of feedback. It was nice to have our voice heard.”
“Being able to go to the Olympics and not having to wear something goofy… to be able to feel comfortable is so important in regards to how you’re going to ski on competition day.” – T. Wallisch
Nick Goepper, also in attendance, told me, “The US is going to have the best uniforms of any of the teams, hands down. It’s the best style, best ideas, it’s so sick, all around.”
And Maddie, despite those early fears, was thrilled with the final outcome. “It’s so awesome,” she said. “They put together great outerwear, but they’ve done everything we wanted, down to face masks, down to the fact that the boys like to wear basketball shorts under their pants—so they’ve designed basketball shorts for them. We have everything we could possibly need and more. I think my favorite thing is actually the hoodie. I’ve never had a cashmere hoodie.” [laughs]
Wallisch also elaborated, “I’m real stoked on how [the products] turned out. They bring all the aspects of freeskiing into the outfits. There are many different styles you can choose from, you have options. Even though it’s a uniform, you can still personalize your outfit. I’m real’ stoked about the hoodie option.”
“Finally getting to see the finished product is amazing,” Tom said. “We’ve been involved with the design process for so long, and to finally feel it, touch it, put it on, it’s awesome. The colors are great, not screaming America (the colors are in fact red, blue and a subtle grey), while still supporting the country in a great way.”
Tom also touched on the “extra mile” aspect of the collection. “The ‘Bigger Than Me’ inclusion, including a piece that’s been to the top of Mt. Everest, they’re details I never would have thought of. It’s amazing. It doesn’t really hit home until you see it in the tag and touch that fabric. Having been with The North Face for a while now, and hearing from guys like Conrad about their insane trips, you really get a sense for what it means for that little piece of fabric to have summited that mountain. It means so much more than people might realize.”
I also asked Tom about the fit of the apparel.
“Looking good and feeling comfortable is so essential,” he said. “It plays a huge role in how it was all designed. It’s a longer, baggy fit on the jacket. The pants have a built-in suspender system that you can use or not use, but allows you to wear ’em loosely—they’re not constrictive around the hips and waist, allowing for freedom of movement. And, again, it looks good. Being able to go to the Olympics and not having to wear something goofy… to be able to feel comfortable is so important in regards to how you’re going to ski on competition day.”
Having seen the clothing up close, having had the opportunity to run my fingers along the fabrics, and to get a look at the minute details, I’m blown away. Pouring over all that was on display, from the clothing to the aforementioned “War Room,” it’s evident how much time and effort went into this project, and I compliment The North Face on a job well done.
Ghaffarian summed up the collective feeling of the evening when she told me, “Last night, we got to show [the athletes] the ‘final final,’ and it was so fun to be in the room with them and feel their energy and excitement. That energy is here in the [studio] tonight. It feels like it’s time, you know? We’re going to the Olympics. It’s so fun to be a part of the beginning of that feeling for everyone. I just hope our US team kills it, whoever that might be.”
To see the athletes sport the official threads, it makes the idea of freeskiing in Sochi a bit more tangible. We’re reminded tonight, the Games are right around the corner and I, for one, look very much forward to seeing team USA rocking these outfits on the world stage, dropping in, and making history.
And to loop back to one of Ghaffarian’s first comments, we’re not doing this without having a bit of fun along the way. Torin—like all others on-site tonight—was thrilled with the tall-t option. He wondered whether he’d be able to potentially compete in Sochi wearing just the tall-t and a pair of mittens. Or, at the very least, perhaps he could compete with an unzipped jacket? Time will tell.