Question Madness: The North Face celebrates 50 years of exploration, opens Fifth Avenue store

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October 26 marks the 50th anniversary of The North Face’s founding; the company opened its first retail store in the North Beach area of San Francisco on the same date in 1966. In honor of the historic occasion, The North Face (TNF) today opened the doors to a new flagship store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. This store opening won’t include a performance by the Grateful Dead nor Hells Angels working the door, as did the store opening a half-century ago, but it will include an acoustic performance by the Brooklyn-based musician, St. Lucia.

The new store offers an interactive climbing wall, community seating and a custom embroidery service. Additionally, the outlet features custom products—available only at the Fifth Avenue location, including collaborations with brands like New Era and Lot, Stock and Barrel. The brand’s push into the realm of urban exploration aims to engage the 80 percent of the U.S. population who live in and around large cities.

Athletes representing TNF will be on-site for the grand opening, and this comes as no surprise—athlete support and feedback has always been integral to TNF’s success.

The company’s new “Question Madness” campaign speaks to an ethos of exploration and examines individual motives for adventuring and the gratification that comes from pushing norms and boundaries.

“This campaign comes at a time in our brand’s history when exploration, of all kinds, matters more than ever,” says Todd Spaletto, TNF president. “We rally behind and celebrate those who have the courage to take on the unknown and define success in their own way.”

FREESKIER’s 2015 Skier of the Year and TNF athlete Angel Collinson describes why she never regrets pushing it on skis, even when it involves tomahawking 1,000 feet-plus down a mountain while filming for TGR’s 2015 film, Paradise Waits:

“I don’t know anything different,” she says. “There’s a component like mediation, when you’re not thinking, you’re just existing… an intense stillness of being even when you’re going 70 mph.”

The company’s longest-standing athlete is skier Scot Schmidt, who has been pushing the envelope since the ’80s and ’90s, when he pioneered extreme skiing and influenced a generation of skiers. Schmidt remembers saving up for a coveted three-ply TNF anorak before he joined the team 34 years ago. When he inked a contract in 1983—just before a Bay area talk show filmed him skiing the Chimney chute at Squaw Valley—he became the first professional freeskier in the industry.

“Athlete feedback has always been a huge part of the program,” says Schmidt. “The designers are proactive with athletes, and that’s always been the case.”

Schmidt first presented his idea of a ski mountaineering suit in the mid ‘80s, when no apparel on the market met the demands of his new style of skiing. He needed strategically placed pockets and durable fabric that wouldn’t rip on trees or rock. When TNF finally launched the Schmidt-inspired “Steep Tech” line in 1991, its success took the company by surprise. A decade later when they discontinued the line, East Coast dealers demanded it be brought back, and it was. As further testament to its popularity, TNF partnered with NYC streetwear staple Supreme on a Steep Tech Collection earlier this year.

Photo: Chris Noble

Scot Schmidt showcases Steep Tech in 1991. Photo: Chris Noble

“Our snowsports apparel has always been built around user-focused design insights—that’s really what set our brand apart from others in the industry in the early days of technical ski apparel,” says Paxton Madison, creative director of mountain sports for TNF. “Collections like Steep Tech were completely new to the marketplace, and embraced an aesthetic that was driven purely from the needs of snowsports athletes. These products and the thinking behind them built the foundation for our brand’s DNA in the space.”

“They’ve always been focused on what athletes want,” says longtime TNF skier Ingrid Backstrom. “They figure if athletes are using the product on Everest, then it will be good enough for people on the street in New York.”

Backstrom climbed and skied Denali and also claimed first descents on Canada’s remote Baffin Island and also in China thanks to expeditions sponsored by TNF. The company has sponsored some 280 such trips, many for female athletes like ski mountaineers Kit DesLauriers—the first person to ski the Seven Summits—and Hilaree O’Neil, who has embarked on 35 noteworthy expeditions over the past 15 years.

TNF’s design team spent a great deal of time with athletes like Collinson and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa developing this fall’s Steep Series line.

“Perhaps the greatest single resource our brand has is our athlete team, and the way it has been fostered through the years,” says Madison. “The concept of ‘Athlete Tested, Expedition Proven’ is a principle that ensures the legitimacy of our products, and something that is embedded in our design process.”

For collections like Steep Series, athlete feedback is directly applied to every product in the kit. TNF uses a variety of different touch points throughout the process to ensure they capture insights into every aspect of how they use the products. “The North Face has always been receptive to designing ski jackets and pants with regards to safety equipment,” says Backstrom. “They’ve always accommodated backpacks and beacons with reinforced fabric and strategically placed pockets for everything we need. I basically live in and use this stuff all year round every day in one form or another, so good gear makes a huge difference to me.”

Backstrom adds, “I love being a part of a company that truly is involved in the outdoors. Everyone [at TNF] is super passionate about making great stuff and the majority of people there really like to get out and get after it. And it’s incredible to be on an athlete team comprised of some of the most inspirational mountain and outdoor athletes in the world.”

“We understand and respect the seriousness of the lines [our athletes] ski,” confirms Madison, “and we push ourselves to build products that create zero distraction on the mountain.”

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An official partner of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and a charter sponsor of the U.S. Freeskiing Team, TNF collaborated with Tom Wallisch, Maddie Bowman and Devin Logan in designing the 2014 U.S. Freeskiing competition uniforms for Sochi. The company is already working on uniforms for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea and is also supporting the U.S. Grand Prix and Revolution Tours leading up to the Games. And since 2010, The North Face Park and Pipe Open Series has provided a valuable platform for pro, amateur and junior athletes hoping to reach the elite competition level.

Furthermore, TNF’s new industry partnership with Whistler Blackcomb loops instructors and patrollers into the design process. TNF designers spent time in Whistler with employees and learned the ins and outs of making better uniforms; those efforts resulted in a Fall 2017 line targeting people who work in the mountains.

For the design team, the insights gained from these types of projects are invaluable and are another place where the brand stands out.

“The team is forced to think differently, approach our process from new angles, and apply unique points of insight in new ways,” says Madison. “Not only does this keep the team energized, it leads to ideas and concepts that push our brand forward and helps to lay out our vision for the future.”

After 50 years of pushing boundaries in the pursuit of exploration, The North Face has built a reputation on creating athlete-tested, expedition-proven products that help people test the limits of human potential and help us all reach our own Everest, whether that’s a local ski hill, a bigger cliff, or the ski trip of our dreams.


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Related: Two million people entered the backcountry last year—how do we control that kind of growth?

Associated gear:

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The North Face men’s Fuseform Brigandine 3L Jacket and Pant

“The FuseForm Brigandine kit, used by The North Face athletes like Sage Cattabriga-Alosa and Sam Smoothy, got an update for 2016-17. The revamped jacket and pant are 28 percent and 17 percent lighter, respectively, than last year…” Read more

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The North Face women’s Fuseform Brigandine 3L Jacket and Pant

“This bombproof combo from The North Face was developed with input from FREESKIER’s 2015 Skier of the Year, Angel Collinson. The Utah native is consistently exposed to extreme conditions and the Fuseform Brigandine 3L kit protects her from everything thrown her way…” Read more

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