pretty interesting read. also, i didn't know that mountain hardwear is now owned by columbia...link to the article: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor....html?page=all
Insane in the Membrane
The iconic brand Gore-Tex is under siege from newcomers who want a piece of the billion-dollar market for waterproof-breathable fabrics. The battle is both wonky and intense, complete with arcane science, trade secrets, industry flame wars, and confidential government-run investigations on two continents. MIKE KESSLER steps into the wet room.
THE BIANNUAL GATHERING of the gear tribes is typically a magnanimous affair. Held each winter and summer in Salt Lake City's 675,000-square-foot Salt Palace convention center, the Outdoor Retailer trade shows (OR for short) draw some 20,000 industry types—an assortment of hyperfit gear wonks who pal around, show off their wares, and tout their stuff to resellers and the press. At OR, VPs wear Keen sandals and sales guys balance on slacklines; even ambitious young marketers rarely speak ill of the competition.
That's why the banner at last summer's show was so striking. Ten feet tall and 30 feet wide, it was the first thing people saw when they walked through the convention-center doors. Next to an image of a professional climber who’d been Photoshopped to look like someone from a “Faces of Meth” poster—vacant stare, yellow pallor—was the explanation, spelled out in massive, no-nonsense type: "Endured Constant Overheating and Freezing for 12 Years." And below, the payoff: "Liberated by NeoShell." While the message would probably seem cryptic to industry outsiders, everyone here knew exactly what it meant: NeoShell is better than Gore-Tex.
Similar advertisements for NeoShell, a new waterproof-breathable material made by Polartec, the Massachusetts-based fabric manufacturer best known for popularizing synthetic fleece, were suspended throughout the Salt Palace and plastered on billboards around town. They’ve subsequently appeared on websites and in magazines, including this one. NeoShell, which debuted last fall in top-of-the-line jackets from the likes of Marmot, North Face, and Mammut, is the company’s first-ever waterproof-breathable product. “We did tons of research,” Nate Simmons, Polartec’s marketing director, told me at the company’s booth. “We wouldn’t have come into this space unless we were confident we could compete.”
While NeoShell was Gore-Tex’s most conspicuous new challenger at OR, it wasn’t the only one. At the elaborate Columbia booth, staffers were just as determined to upstage Gore-Tex by touting the breathability of their own new proprietary fabric, OmniDry, which the company launched last year with a marketing video vowing to “take down Gore-Tex.” Woody Blackford, Columbia’s VP of global innovation, was dressed in a white lab coat for theatrical effect. He guided me to a display that looked like something out of a well-funded high school science fair, with two hot plates sitting side by side. Blackford squeezed a drop of water onto each plate, then placed a cutout from a jacket that features OmniDry, among other exclusive technologies, onto one and a swatch of a generic jacket with an ePTFE membrane, the main ingredient in Gore-Tex, onto the other. He then placed a shallow glass cup atop each swatch. Within minutes, the cup on the OmniDry sample had fogged up. The one atop the generic swatch, meanwhile, remained mostly clear. (Several minutes later it was cloudy, too.) The reason the OmniDry cup fogged up so much faster, Blackford explained, is that the fabric is better at passing moisture vapor. In other words, it’s more breathable. “If you’re going to be out sweating,” he asked, “which one would you want to wear—the one that stays wet or the one that gets dry?”
A few years ago, this kind of brazen, taste-test marketing against Gore-Tex would have been unheard of. Over the past three decades, Gore has become one of the most powerful and recognizable brands in the world, transforming its proprietary membrane into a household name, as synonymous with waterproof-breathable as Coke is with soda. That transformation has been very good for the outdoor industry. Some of the largest companies on the OR floor were literally built through their affiliation with the Gore-Tex brand. According to some estimates, Gore now commands more than 70 percent of a waterproof-breathable outerwear market that didn’t even exist before its membrane was developed, a market that now, by some estimates, tops a billion dollars.
Gore-Tex might be a cash cow for gear manufacturers, but you wouldn’t have heard a lot of gratitude by surveying last summer’s OR crowd. I asked dozens of industry veterans and designers about the unprecedented marketing attacks from Columbia and Polartec, and the first thing I noticed was the fear. Hardly anyone was willing to speak about Gore-Tex on the record. When I asked one manufacturer why people were being so coy, he told me, “Everybody hates Gore, everybody needs Gore, so everybody’s afraid of Gore. They can make or break you.” He was referring to an open secret among industry insiders: that Gore’s licensees are afraid to work with non-Gore technologies, lest the market leader terminate their contracts.
Whispers about Gore’s heavy-handed tactics have been circulating for years, but allegations have recently gotten serious enough that both federal and international regulatory agencies are involved. In the fall of 2010, Columbia and its Italian subsidiary, OutDry, a small company that specializes in waterproof-breathable technology, submitted a 55-page complaint to the Commission of the European Union. While the complaint is confidential, the grievances are said to be straightforward. “In order to maintain market dominance,” Peter Bragdon, Columbia’s lead counsel, recently told me, “W.L. Gore and Associates engages in unfair business practices, intimidating footwear and glove licensees into loyalty and violating antitrust laws by excluding the competition.” In other words, Gore is being accused of systematically preventing manufacturers from gaining access to competing products.
At almost exactly the same time, a “non-public” complaint against Gore was put forth to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. While the complainant’s name (or names) is confidential under federal law, and no one has publicly taken credit, the grievance was convincing enough for the FTC to launch a follow-up investigation last spring, a fairly uncommon response. “While antitrust complaints are filed at a rate of several hundred per year, only around 10 percent become full-scale investigations,” a former FTC lawyer, who requested anonymity, told me. “The government is picky.” In the meantime, outerwear heavyweights are waging a battle on terms unfamiliar to this crowd, and the otherwise collegial outdoor industry may never be the same again.
SEVENTEEN OF GORE’S 60 worldwide facilities are scattered between Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Delaware, a distinctly American, almost contourless triangle of former farmland that’s gracelessly yielding to modern industry and metastasizing strip malls. This is Turnpike Country. Factory Land. The last place you’d expect to find captains of the outdoor industry. That is, until you step into the company’s Capabilities Center in Barksdale, Delaware. Nestled tastefully beside a woodsy ribbon of blacktop, the center is essentially a curated display of Gore’s contributions to the gear world and beyond. My guides were Cynthia Amon, an amiable spokeswoman with unflappable company loyalty, and engineer Tim Smith, a fit 32-year-old with a knack for decoding complicated science.
“Like many great innovations, Gore-Tex wasn’t so much invented as it was discovered,” Smith explained, pointing to the first of many displays. It was 1969, and a man named Bob Gore was in his Newark, Delaware, basement experimenting with a piece of polytetrofluoroethylene, or PTFE, a fluorocarbon solid that’s impervious to water and UV rays—and best known by its popular trade name, Teflon. Bob worked for his father, Bill, a former DuPont engineer whose 11-year-old company, W. L. Gore and Associates, had been making PTFE housing for cables and wires used by the burgeoning airline and telecom industries.
Down in his basement, the younger Gore wanted to know what would happen if he gave PTFE a powerful yank, rather than apply the slow-stretching process required to make Teflon. Expanded PTFE (ePTFE), he learned, could be manipulated into a virtually weightless film, like a trashcan liner but exponentially thinner. This synthetic skin, or membrane, contained billions of microscopic pores that turned out to be auspiciously sized: water droplets couldn’t fit through, but moisture vapor—the steam that comes off your body when you sweat—could. In other words, Bob Gore discovered that ePTFE was waterproof and breathable.
In 1976, one of the first jackets with a Gore-Tex membrane debuted in the Early Winters catalog, which touted the garment as “possibly the most versatile piece of clothing you’ll ever wear.” This wasn’t bombastic marketing-speak. “Before Gore-Tex came along, recreating outdoors was not always especially comfortable,” Michael Hodgson, the former president of the trade-news website SNEWS, which publishes the OR Daily newspaper, told me. “The advent of Gore-Tex brought us to a place where we stay drier, and thus warmer, for longer periods of time. This, of course, made wet-weather activities a lot more enticing, which in turn made people more apt to get outside.”
The outdoor industry and consumers were quick to embrace the new technology. By the late eighties, thanks in part to Gore’s well-funded and savvy marketing efforts, Gore-Tex had become a household name and a mandatory part of every outdoorsman’s gear closet. Gore required its licensees to use the term “Gore-Tex” somewhere in the name of the product (or on the actual item) and encouraged them to affix its now famous diamond-shaped black hangtag to the garment on the rack, a suggestion that licensees were happy to follow. “In the eighties, using Gore-Tex didn’t just help businesses,” a former designer with one of the big outerwear companies told me, on condition of anonymity. “It took our businesses to another level. When you’re selling thousands of units at $450 each, you’re very aware of the value of the Gore-Tex brand.”
Gore thrived beyond the outdoor market, too. As Amon pointed out, “Gore products are everywhere. Even inside of us!” She walked me through the company’s mini museum, a collection of exhibits replete with an astronaut suit and medical displays, noting that Gore-made PTFE or ePTFE is found in million-dollar ropes for oil rigs, guitar strings, dental floss, hernia patches, fake arteries, aneurism stents, and hundreds of other products. It’s no wonder that W. L. Gore and Associates is a $3 billion operation as of 2012. (Gore, a privately held company, declined to disclose how much of its revenue comes from its fabrics division.)