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Making The North Face FuseForm: a Q&A

Today, we’re excited to be one of a very select group of retailers chosen to launch The North Face’s new “FuseForm” fabric technology.

If you’ve ended up on this page because you’re already trying to buy one of the men’s or women’s Dot Matrix shells for yourself, head right on over to the site:

The North Face FuseForm Dot Matrix Jacket (Men’s)
Women’s The North Face FuseForm Dot Matrix Jacket (Women’s)

In any event, if you haven’t been eagerly waiting the release of this piece, you may not know what FuseForm is. We’re here to help! We took some time to discuss this new technology with Lindsey Sine from The North Face’s Snowsports & Outdoor division, and here’s what she had to say.

R/C: With so many companies making outdoor clothing right now, and so many different styles in The North Face’s own product lines, it’s easy for new ideas to get lost in the shuffle. Our customers often ask why a specific product technology exists, and what need it fills. Let’s start there: what problem were you looking to address with FuseForm, and how did you solve it?

Lindsey: Our biggest goal wasn’t necessarily solving a specific technical problem or need but, rather, finding new and innovative ways to create the warm and protective jackets that we have been making for years. As our RD&D Team walks the floors at trade shows or shops the marketplace we notice that most brands in our space are, more or less, building outerwear the same way that we all have for years. FuseForm technology allows us to approach patterning and functional benefit in a way that looks and feels very different from how we have achieved it in the past.

Take the FuseForm Dot Matrix for example; there isn’t a waterproof-breathable shell on the market that looks like it right now. That’s a big driver for us with FuseForm; the styles need to LOOK different in addition to meeting our technical standards. The ability to move away from traditional overlay durability zones towards a more sleek and modern aesthetic is very appealing to us.

R/C: What kind of technological limitations did you deal with in trying to bring this to market? Does FuseForm take advantage of new manufacturing processes that came about independently and made this kind of thing possible, or did you basically have to invent your own entirely-unique production methods from scratch in order to make it a reality?

Lindsey: The development process for FuseForm products has completely changed the way that we look at our RD&D processes. It requires an even closer relationship between design, development, sourcing, materials suppliers, and our manufacturing partners than with a traditional garment because we aren’t just working with an “endless” roll of fabric anymore. We are working with strategically-placed patterns on an engineered fabric.

One small change to the placement of a pocket, for example, can significantly affect where the Fuse zones fall within the garment and we need to redevelop the fabric or pattern. We needed to open up our supply chain to more non-traditional materials vendors than we have used in the past. In addition to our traditional apparel fabric mills, we have also utilized partners from our friends on our Equipment and Footwear teams, as well as more non-traditional mills in the upholstery and drapery world. This has resulted in many more moving pieces, and a lot of trial and error, to ensure that we have fabrics that will perform in the field.

Luckily, we were able to leverage our Sochi Olympic Uniform Project as an incubator for the technology. That let us hone our products and processes on a big stage, but at small volumes, before we scaled to a full commercial product line.

R/C: Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to design outdoor clothing around a brand new concept like this? Once the manufacturing was in place, how did your team go about actually turning that fabric into technical pieces that offer a real-world benefit and not just a gimmick? What kind of timeline is there between the initial idea and actually having a jacket in stores?

Lindsey: The thing that is both fun and challenging with FuseForm is that it’s a new frontier for us, and it has really liberated our designers to think differently about what they are designing. Of course, the baseline always is that we have an end-use in mind, but now there is another tool in the kit that they can apply to achieve this goal. Designers now have the ability to reduce seaming for a cleaner pattern aesthetic, but still swap out textures and visuals within the fabric.

We definitely don’t see this as a gimmick and we are working on many ideas behind the scenes on how we can continue to push our overall design aesthetic and technical story forward. Regarding timeline, it depends on the product. Our industry typically works on an 18-month development cycle from concept to delivery and we are moving closer to that time window with FuseForm as we gain learnings and economies of scale. That said, as with most advanced RD&D projects, we have extended that window significantly during this project’s infancy.

R/C: So, I have a FuseForm Dot Matrix in front of me, and it still has its share of seams — though perhaps fewer than a “regular” hardshell. Is there a reason the FuseForm fabric tech is utilized so much in the torso, but there’s still a traditional taped seam at the elbow? Where would the compromises be in this jacket if the FuseForm technology hadn’t been available?

Lindsey: The important thing to note about FuseForm is that it is not simply an exercise in removing seams for the sake of removing seams. The goal behind FuseForm is to have a visually beautiful style that performs and fits perfectly. We let the end use and the attributes of the fabric inform our decisions regarding seaming.

For example, if the garment is used for an activity such as ice climbing where there is a significant amount of overhead reaching, we need to ensure that the sleeve functions properly and doesn’t bind or hike up. This means that we may prioritize an articulated sleeve over fewer seams in the arm and focus the FuseForm zones in the torso.

Looking purely at the numbers, we have been able to reduce seams/taping by 25-50% as compared to many of our typical rain shells. Regardless of the final number of seams, the outcome is a garment with less weight, less bulk, and less tape/glue. This results in a jacket that is more breathable, packable and comfortable.

R/C: Do you see this technology spreading into other corners of The North Face’s offering? Are we going to see FuseForm fabrics in softshells, fleece, running shirts? Obviously, there are a lot of garments (and activities) that could benefit from fewer seams and well-placed fabric choices.

Lindsey: Yes, as opportunities arise we will definitely launch FuseForm fabrication into other products within both the outerwear line and other product categories. Our offering in 2016 will be much more robust with shells, softshells and fleece planned for our outerwear line and the evolution of FuseForm continues to be a top priority within the organization.

At Rock/Creek, we love being able to put unique new products on the shop floor, and the FuseForm Dot Matrix definitely stands out as different from everything around it. Is it for everybody? Of course not. Some folks won’t like the styling, some aren’t pushing the envelope hard enough to care about losing a little seam tape.

But at a time when “retro” styling dominates the marketplace, we absolutely love to see brands like The North Face pushing in the other direction, bringing new looks and new ideas to fruition instead of just trying to capitalize on outdoor nostalgia. Well-played.

The North Face FuseForm: The Future of Exploration
Shop for The North Face’s new FuseForm