The North Face. A formidable and visceral phrase by all means, those three words strike trepidation and awe into the hearts of mountaineers as the riskiest yet most rewarding face of a mountain to climb. Given that it receives the least sunshine in the Northern Hemisphere and is therefore the iciest, this geological feature has sent scores of the foolhardy plummeting to their deaths. Those who have managed the feat have accordingly been inscribed into alpine history – cue sweeping images of English daredevil Edward Whymper ascending the Matterhorn for the first time in history in 1865, or the German-Austrian alpinists who successfully scaled the Mordwand (or “Murder Wall”) of the Eiger in 1938.
While The North Face brand wasn’t around in those earlier times, it has done much since its founding in San Francisco in 1966 to draw on the mythology of the explorer, and it has gone to great lengths in this regard – valued at $75 billion USD in 2014, it is indisputably the largest outdoor retailer in the world. Indeed, the tenacity with which The North Face has stuck by this archetype is admirable, even when this strategy almost brought the company to ruin at the turn of the millennium when ignoring a shift in its target demographic to more urban centers (spurred in part by The Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous 1999 track “Dead Wrong”), the brand simultaneously alienated its original supporters, translating into a net loss of $100 million USD in 2000.
Sixteen years on, however, The North Face has been brought rudely back to health, thanks to a multi-pronged approach to design and marketing that has seen it flourish internationally despite the fashion industry’s trend toward consolidation.
The North Face’s strategy is perhaps most evident in the East, where it has established highly coveted sub-labels in the trend-leading markets of Japan and South Korea. Established in 2003, Japan’s THE NORTH FACE PURPLE LABEL was a visionary offshoot that preceded the athleisure movement entirely, and is distinguished by slimmer fits, premium technical fabrics and exceptional heritage construction techniques. “Before we launched PURPLE LABEL, all [The North Face] garments which were worn as city wear looked exactly same as outdoor gear,” explains creative director Eiichiro Homma.
“Since such gear was designed for a specific purpose, all the latest designs looked the same. The ultimate solution would be a very skinny jumpsuit, if a textile could provide all features including freedom of movement, shock protection, temperature, and moisture control and such. Our view was different – at the time people not only wanted very new styles but also heritage styles too. They couldn’t be just an exact replication of historical designs, but had to incorporate a modern understanding of these historical designs.”
A veteran within the Japanese fashion industry, Homma was, in retrospect, the perfect candidate to design the hybrid functional lifestyle garments demanded by the then-experimental sub-label. Having honed his expertise designing technical marine wear for clothing conglomerate Goldwin Inc. for close to two decades, Homma concurrently founded his own line of ultra-functional lifestyle wear in 2003 called nanamica, or “house of seven seas” in Japanese. “When we launched nanamica and PURPLE LABEL, we intended to adapt [The North Face] for city wear without compromising the core values of the original.” Since that fateful year, nanamica and PURPLE LABEL have functioned as sister labels, with Homma overseeing the design process for both brands.
By now a mature fashion market, South Korea was bestowed its own The North Face counterpart in the form of White Label, which emerged much later in 2014. “The outdoor market in Korea grew consistently and remarkably from the early 2000s to 2012, not only in the actual number of mountain climbers but also the number of people wearing outdoors gear in their everyday lives,” observes White Label design director Christian Lee.
This explosion in brand recognition was, of course, helped in no small part by The North Face puffer jacket which became something of a status item especially within the country’s school system – so much so that they are nicknamed the “uniform worn over uniform,” or “backbreakers” for the amount of work parents must endure to afford one for their child.
Despite the lofty heights that The North Face currently enjoys in South Korea, White Label was nonetheless founded with an eye towards the future. As Lee explains, “The outdoor market will only weaken when the outdoors-oriented fashion trend subsides, so we needed to maintain and expand our market by incorporating alpine-oriented technology into items for daily wear. We need to have two hunters to hunt two rabbits at once. White Label is the second hunter to The North Face, and its creation was inevitable in order to remain an authentic outdoor brand while coping with the changing market.” The result is a diffusion line that emphasizes preppy, yet unmistakably outdoors-inspired garb that is as suited to the streets of Seoul’s youth culture epicenter Hongdae, as does the wooded trails of the nearby Mt. Bukhansan.
When speaking of the success of these imprints, it’s impossible to ignore the importance of the complete creative autonomy that The North Face grants them. This is helped in part by the fact that Goldwin Inc. wholly owns the licensing rights for the brand in Japan and South Korea, allowing the conglomerate to exercise its regional expertise for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of these markets. “Our creative team is a totally independent team and separate from The North Face team at Goldwin,” Homma attests.
“However, we have a very close relationship with them over the years and we are always invited to their internal product and marketing conferences to study the brand and the latest technology without delay.” Initially intended as a cheaper, more accessible sub-label to the main line, Homma’s insistence on the highest quality for the PURPLE LABEL has allowed it to ultimately flourish within the Japanese market, while becoming a coveted brand in the West thanks to the labyrinthine nature of shipping Japanese products overseas, as well as its golden association with nanamica.
Similarly, White Label’s independence from the main line has allowed its aesthetic to become unique, while remaining cut from the same technical fabric. “Among The North Face global distributions, White Label is unique to be independent in such a way – it might have helped White Label to become relatively resolute in its product designs,” says Lee. “The White Label design team works separately from The North Face global team to create distinctive products in different distribution zones. White Label is for daily lifestyle, yet is still produced using the same quality test processes as The North Face.”
Given the exceedingly positive reception of the White and PURPLE LABELs in their respective markets, it’s no surprise that The North Face is making further power moves within Asia. Beginning in mid-2016, the brand unveiled a new class of stores concentrated in Hong Kong and Shanghai that not only were the first to sell the White and PURPLE LABELs outside of their home countries, but also introduced the all-new Urban Exploration line.
“Shanghai and Hong Kong are different in so many ways, but they also share a certain urban energy particular to 21st-century global cities in Asia,” says Asia-Pacific marketing manager, Tim Sedo. “Opening our first retail concepts in these centers has provided a strong backbone for our Urban Exploration story, and we continue to look to the uniqueness of each city for further inspiration.”
Whereas the White and PURPLE LABELs seek to focus on the fashion aspect and de-emphasize the technical, Urban Exploration instead flaunts the technology-enhanced fabrication of its designs, tapping into the current fascination with the urban outdoors. Indeed, the specifications for its garments reads like a who’s who of the cutting edge of fabric innovation, including the likes of GORE-TEX, DryVent, AlphaDry and Cordura.
Building upon the precedent of the Japan-exclusive The North Face Unlimited capsule collection, The North Face tapped streetwear creatives like longtime Stussy and Supreme collaborator Allister Lee to create the raw aesthetic of the store interiors – cue nods to local influences such as Hong Kong’s infamous King of Kowloon and the hutong graffiti of Beijing, juxtaposed against the works of Asian UrbEx photographers and mountaineering equipment. The North Face plans to aggressively expand Urban Exploration into Greater China throughout 2017.
Despite an expansive portfolio of diffusion labels developed over the years, the end goal for The North Face has always remained unchanged: to facilitate exploration. As this pursuit has shifted with the times from realm of nature to our own gritty streets, The North Face has nimbly evolved and adapted to equip each successive generation of adventurers. After all, it’s not whether you successfully ascend a perilous peak that marks you as an explorer, but the thirst to discover new territory. And regardless of the color of the label, The North Face doesn’t plan to stop until its iconic Half Dome logo is emblazoned on the chest of every individual looking to quench that thirst.
This story was originally published in HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 16: The Projection Issue as ”Many Faces of the Mountain.” Find out more here.