Every year, the most exciting and performance-oriented products from The North Face come from the Summit Series, a grouping of core styles for the most hardcore of mountain athletes. In addition, each year The North Face sponsors serious big-mountain expeditions, as well as the athletes on these expeditions, bringing back some epic, inspirational films and photos in the process.
How are these expeditions, athletes and products related? What is the process by which The North Face torture-tests and tweaks the Summit Series before these pieces show up in our store? I contacted Robert Fry, the senior product manager for The North Face Summit Series, to find out. Read our interview below!
R/C: This question seems overly simple… yet a definitive answer proved elusive while preparing for this interview, so I must ask: What is The North Face Summit Series?
Robert: Summit Series is a product family that spans across categories: apparel, equipment, footwear, and accessories. Summit Series products share one thing in common – they exist because our Athlete Team has requested we create something to fill a particular need they have. Nothing exists that doesn’t solve a problem encountered by one of our athletes, typically on an expedition to some remote, forbidding place that exacts at toll on gear and demands the best materials, design and execution.
Our tagline is “Athlete Tested, Expedition Proven. Best in Class Outdoor Gear and Apparel. Period.” The North Face has been legitimately answering that call for the entire history of the brand – and Summit Series is the clearest, most focused example of our commitment to the cause.
R/C: The North Face — perhaps more than any other brand — has a long, storied history of staging and outfitting big-mountain expeditions. What drives the company to continue sending athletes to some of the world’s least hospitable places?
Robert: We’ve been doing this for a long time, so the return on expedition investment is absolutely evident to RD&D and our athlete family. We are well known for our industry-leading quality and building a reputation like that isn’t easy, nor is it quick. It’s the outcome of hundreds of expeditions, successes and failures, and the experience to start each new project at a higher level than before.
Our expedition program affords us a much better signal-to-noise ratio for developing the most technically advanced product available. It’s all about people finding themselves in situations where the minimum amount of stuff needs to protect and perform to the highest possible standard.
If we can build a super-light, durable, highly functional piece of gear that successfully performs for a professional athlete on a godforsaken arête at 20,000 feet, amidst otherworldly cold and wind – there’s a pretty good chance it will perform well for a hard-charging, weekend backcountry skier, dedicated recreational ice climber, or rock monkey at the local crag.
R/C: The world of premium outdoor equipment and apparel is an increasingly competitive one. How does the Summit Series retain its authenticity with core users who truly intend to use these products in the extreme conditions for which they are designed?
Robert: I think part of this question is answered above – we really spend an inordinate amount of time assessing the Athlete Team needs and dialing in products specifically aimed at meeting those needs. Too, within the RD&D office here in California, we have a dedicated and discerning crew of users. Most of us have strong opinions about product and have used a lot of gear, some which we’ve liked, much which we haven’t. It’s imperative, and encouraged, that we get out and hammer on the stuff we make. And it’s important that we enlist the input of all types of users – in addition to professionals – so we seed product, we build special prototypes, and we seek and use the input of those elusive hard men and women that fly below the radar, but use their gear more frequently than anyone else.
It’s a tough (*cough*) job sorting through all the various opinions about what works and what doesn’t but we love what we do –- and the good work is never done because a product can never be “excellent enough.”
R/C: As The North Face continues to grow globally, how do you keep the Summit Series collection relevant for that relatively-small intended user group? Is it fair to think of Summit Series as a sort of “brand within the brand,” or does it serve as the proving ground for technologies that trickle down to the rest of the line?
Robert: Recently, The North Face company leadership authorized Summit Series to become its own division within the RD&D organizational structure (formerly, Summit Series was a product class, living within various product teams). Now, we are a dedicated cross-category team, charged to aggressively innovate, push well past the commonly-recognized boundaries, and utilize new and unexpected technologies. We’re still The North Face, but we are encouraged to embrace the uniqueness of our very technical, very demanding user, and let Summit Series evolve with that user’s taste and needs strictly in mind.
It’s recognized that removing some of the guardrails and allowing the team to react, develop, and design independently is the best way to get real, needle-moving innovation. We’re now, more than ever, like a Formula One race team, where new ideas are tried, vetted, perfected, then released to the larger product line. We’ve, ostensibly, built a product development calendar with this evolution in mind. In the end, even the non-Summit Series user will benefit from the discoveries made through the Summit Series process.
R/C: I love the Summit Series ads we’ve seen this year that say “tested on humans.” Talk to me a bit about the typical product-development timeline for a Summit Series piece, and what kind of real-world testing a prototype is subject to.
Robert: There are many paths we take to bring product to market though often we simply start with talking to a member of our Athlete Team about where they plan on going next -– what new climb, descent, or other unimaginably difficult endeavor is in the works? Then we dig into what products have and have not been working for them. How can we make something better? Why didn’t something work as planned? How would they want the details on new product prioritized?
The timeline above is concurrent with ongoing development with key technology partners –- GORE-TEX®, Polartec®, Primaloft®, and others. Sometimes a new technology evolves to coincide with a specific product need, and the solution is evident. Other times, we need to drive the technology side of the equation with a very specific goal in mind –- say a revolutionary new way of handling synthetic insulation, or a new performance enhancing component that improves function under certain (usually horrible) circumstances.
This past May, a large group from our Athlete Team climbed and skied/boarded Denali. It was a great trip –- sort of old school meets new school and the age range of participants spanned from 20 to almost 50 years old. Needless to say, there were many points of view. Prior to the trip, the Summit Series team sent dozens of prototypes to be tested and scrutinized and at the end of the trip, myself and the Product Manager of Equipment, Stephen Barnes, flew up to Talkeetna to download and debrief the team as they, literally, exited the bush plane.
It was a key moment: to get the insights fresh (the insights were fresh, not the protos!) before time wore off the sharp edges of opinion, and the gems gleaned from that discussion are priceless. Most of the takeaways made their way into the Fall 12 line; details like pocket placement, hood brim shape, and insulation distribution all received tweaks that may not have otherwise been on the radar.
Regardless of the evolutionary path, by the time a Summit Series product makes it to market, it’s been tested somewhere truly challenging, by people at the top of their game, with a lot of opinions and a very informed set of requirements – because survival and success depend largely on the fail-proof function of one’s gear.
R/C: All of that hardcore testing must result in learning quite a bit about what doesn’t work along with what does. Are there ideas or styles that end up right back on the drawing board or scrapped completely? We’d love an example or two.
Robert: That’s an easy one. For Fall 2012 we intended to redesign our Himalayan Suit, based on years of input from the likes of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Cory Richards, and Simone Moro. We had a number of updates we were really stoked about –- ways of making the suit lighter, warmer, and more durable –- all key requests as you can expect. The protos looked really, really good, but there were some issues with a manufacturing process that undermined our faith in the long term durability of the construction technique. It wasn’t easy, but we ended up shelving the project for the interim until some of those issues could be worked out.
I don’t want to send someone to -50 F with 80 mph winds and zero oxygen and not have 150% confidence in the protective shell we’ve made for them. In the end, we fixed the issue (though not in time for Fall ’12) and it turns out the solution has a home in other general mountaineering products in the line… stuff you’ll see in Fall 13. If we didn’t have the odd failure during the development process, it would mean we weren’t pushing hard enough, so I’m glad for the outcome.
Robert: I think our industry, in general, has been somewhat lax in our adoption of real, hard repeatable science. Much of the data we’ve all relied upon has been anecdotal. Good, scientific methodology is more available nowadays than ever before. You’ll start seeing much more credible, reliable data coming from Summit Series (and from The North Face in general).
As our users become more discerning, sophisticated, and aware of what their needs are, we need to keep up with expectations.
So, while we’ll continue to supply the world’s leading mountain legends with gear based on their insights and needs, we’ll be injecting that gear with innovation born out of scientific inquiry and validated through solid testing methodology. It’s a best-practice that we’re proud to be leading.
Thanks, Robert, for taking the time to talk with us! Shop The North Face Summit Series here. Not convinced? Check out the videos below, which further address the Summit Series testing cycle and the coordination between The North Face design team and athlete team.