Traveling Light: The History of Danner and GORE-TEX
First things first, I recently was sent my own site as part of a press pack based on the assumption that something I’d written was some kind of advertorial for a brand. Fuck that. What’s the point of that stuff? This isn’t “placement.” I don’t play that PR mouthpiece fuckery on this site. If it’s here, it’s because I’m a fan rather than an request to cover something, so please, please stop sending me releases for product placement here on your music, terrible “street art” prints or brand that makes wacky tees to match your hype shoe colourway and make you look like a sex offender. The internet is awash with insincerity. I’d sooner be somebody who (cue Just Blaze beat) really means it. Shouts to Tyler at WorkinNights for getting in touch though —- the Jes Aurilius ‘All Skrewed Up’ mix is soundtracking this blog entry’s creation.
Alas, the time has come to get all heritage again, because I don’t think there’s a better pair of boots in my wardrobe than the Danner Mountain Lights. I’ll be damned if I ever wear them to go off-roading in. After all, with their flashy Vibram Cristy soles that are devoid of lugs and intended for military, service or work, I’d almost certainly slip and fall to my doom in them. I did a warehouse stock take in them a few years back under the misapprehension that they were steel-toed though, but thankfully I’m not walking with a limp right now. Looking at these boots, in a world of synthesised histories, I think the Mountain Light deserves a little more historical context as a design classic and a breakthrough piece of hiking functionality. That’s a good enough excuse to cobble together an attempt at a narrative here. Gotta love those ‘Backpacker’ archives.
I love GORE-TEX lined gear and if you’ve spotted the gratuitous uploading of early 1990′s winter boot round ups from The Source that you can see in this post and this post, it always seems that Danner slipped beneath the radar at street level, despite being a particularly legitimate item. Vasque Hikers and Merrell Wilderness got some shine, and there was a lot of Havana Joe. And with Danner being a Portland-based brand, I even found myself scrutinising Sir Mixalot LP sleeves to spot a pair, given his Seattle proximity to the brand’s headquarters and factory, to no avail. To sate my own personal curiosity I’d also like to know who set off the red lace craze on hiking boots. Pivetta, Lowa, Limmer and Browning all seemed to have them as a focal point all those years ago, but I’ve seen it on ski boots from the 1940′s and 1950′s too, so who started it?
The Danner Mountain Light commenced life as the Danner 6490 (the hardier older brethren of the 7509 Climbing Boot) model back in the early 1970′s. While it didn’t carry the ‘Light’ name then, it was a shoe famed for its lightweight feel. If you’ve held a pair, you’ll note that they feel pretty weighty, but the 6490′s 3 pound and 14 oz on the scales was low in 1973, when a fair amount of hiking boots clocked in at 5 pounds. The 6490′s supple leather on the one—piece upper and minimal seams to rub on inside made it a boot without a break-in period, the Vibram sole maintained traction, a padded tongue ensured extra comfort while that ski-boot style wrapped tongue cover and bellow detailing made them waterproof too. Leather lined and built to last, Danner’s 6490, advertised in the mid 1970′s as the 6490 Mountain Trail Boot and boasting a glowing ‘Backpacker’ magazine review became a bestseller that, “Needs little or no breaking in.”
Enter the GORE-TEX era. Oft-debated, both at the time of its initial release by sceptical brand boffins and consumers alike, and now in an industry awash with breathable membrane materials, GORE-TEX’s laminated debut in 1976 via W.L. Gore & Associates was predominately apparel and tents— the footwear came a little later. While some brands ummed and aahed including Vasque (owned by Red Wing), Danner got involved early, recruiting Guillaume “Willie” Sacre to develop a lightweight, breathable boot. The project commenced around 1978. Willie met with GORE-TEX in New York around 1979. But first, a little background on Willie Sacre — Sacre was in the industry at a point when designers and developers seemed to bounce between brands. After working at Vasque, where it’s mind-boggling to think that Sacre may be a key mind behind both the Vasque Hiker and the Danner Light (though Patagonia founder Yvon Chounard also worked for Vasque and is confirmed as the man behind 1971′s Ascender I and II climbing shoes), before developing the first ever North Face boots in 1975. He also worked for Tirah.
Sacre created the Danner Light boot, with a shape akin to the 6490 Mountain Trail Boot, but a significantly lighter feel and leather paneling only where it mattered, using synthetic but rugged 1000 denier materials on the majority of the upper, resulting in a shoe that clocked in at a couple of pounds. Its extra killer application (and coincidentally, the similar sounding Donner Mountain Company/DMC brand had a rival product on the market at the same time, complete with GORE-TEX) was the GORE-TEX sock-like lining. Honed over subsequent years, a cursory look at Google Patents reveals that Sacre’s ‘WATERPROOF SHOE CONSTRUCTION’ (filed in 1983) has W.L. Gore & Associates as the assignees rather than Danner, with illustrations depicting the Danner Light boot and a GORE-TEX sock that could be sewn at the collar alongside Norwegian welts and Littleway construction. The Light was a groundbreaking moment for Gore and shoes.
The Danner Light’s success led to the 6490 Mountain Trail Boot being rebranded as the Mountain Light, to offer a hardwearing partner piece. In the early 1980′s the Mountain Light got a similar GORE-TEX lining to the standard Light. By 1982, Vasque saw the value in lighter hikers like the Light, and introduced their iconic Sundowner model that also implemented GORE-TEX. The Mountain Light leathers got darker during the decade in line with altering aesthetics, but the shaped stayed the same. With Ed Viberg of the excellent Canadian Viberg brand and Bill Danner being friends, if you’ve noticed a similarity between Viberg’s 66 Hiker and the Mountain Light, it’s apparently because Bill shared his company’s design with Ed, leading to the release of Viberg’s 66 design in 1985. By 1987, there was a complete Danner GORE-TEX collection and by the mid 1990′s, there was a distinct split between the cross hiker crossover styles that these looks birthed and hiking boots (the Danner Light and Mountain Light were firmly in the latter camp). Hikers came with a choice of a Vibram lug or Danner’s own nippled Bob sole for use on mud and sand, with the Airthotic “technology” for extra comfort. Around 1997, the Mountain Light celebrated over two decades of dominance with a sequel that kept to the essence (the Danner Light II dropped too) but replaced the leather lining with nylon.
I still maintain the Mountain Light is the best boot I own. Half a decade or so ago, our eyes bled at the £300+ pricetag on the Asia-only lug-free Cristy sole Mountain Lights when they cropped up on Rakuten. We would run the Yen through XE, but that dodge of hollering at P-Town locals (shouts to Claw) to visit the factory store and grab factory seconds for around $100, complete with a paper dot sticker to denote the point of defect (usually a tiny mark, but I did end with two textures of suede on a light brown pair). Bigfoots had to fall back, because Japanese demand meant that they only seemed to go up to a US10. Now they’re a little more available, in Mountain Light, Light and — just to cause a spot of confusion — a Mountain Trail Boot form as part of the Danner Stumptown collection. That name just evokes a vision of bearded twentysomething bellends in Woolrich drinking artisan caffeine drinks and Instagramming burgers while listening to Mumford & Sons on through their iPhone headphones — don’t you just hate self-hating hipsters like me? But the shoes are well worth your time — my platonic ideal of a hiking boot. Then again, I’m not planning on going on a hike any time soon, which makes me the real douchebag here.
This was originally posted on GWARIZM.
Gary Warnett has inexplicably forged a career out of a misspent childhood obsessing over hip-hop, films and sneakers. He is editor and some sort of manager at Crooked Tongues, a frequent copywriter for brands like Nike Sportswear and Arc’teryx Veilance, plus an occasional blogger on his own blog which is full of self indulgent, unstructured paragraphs like this piece. He also writes for Dazed & Confused monthly and semi-regularly for some other publications, sites and brands. When he’s not being professional with clients, he is cavalier in his approach to grammar and angry with his Tweets.