When a company as trailblazing as Columbia Sportswear – which, for the record, has 233 patent families to its name, a legendary founder (Gert Boyle) known as “One Tough Mother,” and staff members who wear lab coats – touts their latest innovation as a “game-changer”… you know they mean business.
To their titillating point, what could be more industry-transforming than the introduction of apparel that makes sweat a renewable resource? That may be apparel’s answer to global warming? That puts polyester in the corner? (Ok, that last one may be wishful thinking.)
And so the company historically known for “keeping you warm” introduces something a bit cooler: Omni-Freeze® ZERO. Researched for 2 years, the breakthrough, sweat-activated cooling technology is poised to make its appearance in 40 apparel and footwear styles in Spring 2013. The multi-patented fabrication consists of tiny but visible blue rings that contain a special cooling polymer. When exposed to sweat or moisture, the rings swell (similar to goose bumps) and yield an instant and sustained cooling effect as long as moisture is present.
“On the scale of 0 to 10 on the game-changer scale, it’s an 8.5,” says Michael “Woody” Blackford, the VP of Global Innovation (read: Chief White Lab Coat). “Reason to me, is a simple thing: In the history of humans and clothing we always thought of it as something to put on to get warm, and now we’re putting it on to get cool.” This is our 3rd attempt. We’re getting better.”
Woody may have gotten his nickname for his storytelling likeness to Woody Harrelson’s character on the TV show “Cheers”, but he is not kidding. Whereas earlier versions of their cooling apparel made technological headway, they were not as cool (read: cold) nor as sustainable as Omni-Freeze® ZERO. As one beta tester of Omni-Freeze® ZERO reported, after running in the hills of South Africa, “To my amazement I was actually cooler with the shirt on than I was with it off.”
Omni-Freeze® ZERO is the result of doing exactly what Columbia Sportswear champions with its tagline, “Trying stuff since 1938.” When they coined this tagline 2010, it was not just a newfound catchy phrase conceived by some Ad man. “Trying Stuff” has been the mantra of the company since it was founded.
“One of the very first fishing vests ever made,” says Scott Trepanier, Sr. Manager of PR & Promotions for Columbia Sportswear, “was this idea of this interchange jacket – a bugaboo jacket – a shell you could zip into the liner. A 3-in-1 jacket. No one had done that before. They would just put a jacket over a jacket. So the idea of trying and seeing what sticks has always been in the brand DNA. Design and Technology innovation is about trying stuff out. We know we’re going to fail but we still try.”
In the case of Omni-Freeze® ZERO, had Woody not “tried stuff,” well beyond conventional apparel industry wisdom, the discovery, and arguably the most innovative application of a polymer since polyester - might never have happened.
So how was the new polymer discovered?
While we had visions of “the discovery” occurring in the company's “white coat room” – aka the PIT (Performance Innovation Team) room – where a dozen or so geniuses across multi-disciplines assemble amid apparel scraps and scientific paraphernalia to “try stuff” so that they may develop the next revolutionary consumer solutions for the company’s brand portfolio, it did not initially happen that way.
It was 2010, just two years into releasing their first cooling apparel collection, Omni-Freeze. On this day Woody was not in a lab coat nor in the PIT room. He was at the bi-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City.
“Someone wanted to pull me aside to demonstrate a waterproofing membrane but then told me that the membrane was not waterproof in fact, but really breatheable,” says Woody. “I’m like ‘Oh, that’s likely to be a difficult sell.” Woody explains that a breatheable fabric that’s not waterproof leaves you no where. “Most knit fabrics – mesh, for example, are pretty breatheable.”
“But I tried to play with it, because I was curious, because I would love to see a membrane LEAK. So I put the water through it. In the back of my mind I was always sort of scouting for (better) cooling technology so when the water dripped through it, I said, “wow that feels cold.”
Woody didn’t know it then, but he had stumbled onto something he would later call, yes, “game-changing.” In the ensuing days the conversation at Columbia Sportswear changed from “Whoa, cool science experiment” to “How can we make this something you can wear?”
Woody followed up with the supplier to investigate and test the properties further with measurements and thermal imaging. Thereafter he concluded, “Hey, this could work.” Woody then showed the company the details of the property they were unaware of: that the polymer, in its aqueous state was an endothermic material that was able to lower the temperature of water while in it. “Of all the endothermic compounds, this is at the top of the list, says Woody.
An exclusive contract with the supplier was forged. “We didn’t buy it as membrane,” says Woody, “but as a polymer. And their material wasn’t the only part of the solution. We have our own fabrication and design patents – so it’s a combination.”
Woody, who joined Columbia Sportswear in 2005 as a Senior Apparel Designer and was promoted to Design Director of Men’s Apparel & Equipment in 2006, came into his new role two years ago. “It’s a super fun role,” says Woody. “It brings together a lot of disciplines. Science, engineering, and pure creative. I have no science training. But in the modern world you’re allowed to learn whatever you want, you know just Google it. He adds, “We are trying to create solutions to keep people warm, dry, cool and protected. We want to be the best in the world on that and we spend all day thinking about that. Slowly, through trial and a “connected develop strategy” in which we reach out to other industries, and take advantage of their technologies to help develop for our industry, we find our materials. Sometimes we find a material by having our ideas open-sourced, sometimes we find them internally. Omni-Heat REFLECTIVE is one of my patents, for example.”
“Omni-Freeze® ZERO is an entirely new approach,” said Mick McCormick, executive vice president, “and unlike anything the industry has ever seen. Historically, outdoor and athletic brands have looked at sweating as a problem…something to be wicked away with so-called ‘technical,’ decades-old polyester fabrics. We see sweat as a renewable resource that will allow athletes, outdoor enthusiasts or anyone that spends time in hot, humid conditions to sweat smarter, staying more comfortable.”
Woody adds, “We’ve certainly redefined our definition of outdoor which was very focused on keeping you dry but to me there’s another issue. It’s not just cold or wet, it’s getting hot. We haven’t really addressed it and it seemed natural to me to be as good at that. It is warming and 95% of us live where it’s warm so the potential market is probably bigger overall and it has so many applications. It’s not just for the typical outdoor user (hiker). It could include construction worker, someone working inside of hot building.”
“One of my favorite stories,” begins Woody, true to his nickname, “is about a guy who did a write-up about Omni-Freeze® ZERO pre-launch and called it ‘Cool is Cool’. He lives in Florida and inspects roofs and gets into attics. He wrote that ‘This is the hottest place on earth – something like 150 degrees Fahrenheit - and when I get back down from the attic, I’m a waterfall (of sweat) and it’s embarrassing. I bought your shirt and now when I come down from attic there’s no waterfall.’”
Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Woody admits that he likes to wear the white lab coats when running experiments. “People seem to like it when we are doing presentations. They seem to pay attention.” Woody finds it somewhat comical. “They listen to me more when I have the lab coat. People don’t ignore the man in lab coat.” When asked what his 11-year-old daughter thinks of the white jacket, he says, “She seems to listen to me more when I’m wearing it too.”
It appears he is wearing the lab coat a LOT. The technology innovations of Columbia Sportswear are so plentiful that there is a drop down menu on the website devoted just to exploring these technologies and their applications. With this much use, we suspect Woody might want to make the white lab coat with Omni-Freeze® ZERO.
SOURCING at MAGIC
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