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Arc’teryx: History, Design, and Influence

silver arc'teryx logo over a red gore-tex fabric

What is Arc’teryx?

Arc’teryx is a high-performance outdoorwear company founded in the late 80s with a focus on innovation and being the industry standard.

Created in British Colombia, Canada under the name Rock Solid Manufacturing, this brand’s humble beginnings as a climbing harness manufacturer in Dave Lane’s basement seem as distant as the ancient bird they eventually named their company after. Today, Arc’teryx is a global brand with offices and design teams in Vancouver, Tokyo, Munich, and more.

Their high-tech clothing is used by hikers, hypebeasts, cops, and soldiers alike, representative of the durability, adaptability, and iconic look of their products. Today, I hope to explore one of my favorite techwear brands whose storied and surprising history has influenced (and was influenced by) a myriad of groups in both the outdoors and urban environment. From the graffiti-tagged bricks of 90s New York to the summits of Earth’s most harsh environments, Arc’teryx is a company committed to technology, those that explore the outdoors, and taking bold risks in the name of innovation. Let’s dive in.

On evolution and innovation: Archaeopteryx to Arc’teryx

artist rendition of archaeopteryx flying over mountains/lakes

Around 150 million years ago, a winged creature about the size of a raven existed on the landmass of what we now know as Germany. It was a carnivore living in the late Jurassic whose diet likely consisted of small mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Using its large jaws and sharp teeth to capture and root out prey, aided by long, whetted talons, Archaeopteryx would fly among the tall Araucaria trees of this highly-oxygenated world as readily as it walked along the ground. While the consensus varies among paleontologists, this feathered dinosaur could likely fly away from larger predators, hunt through the skies, and seek out food on land. The etymology of its name is a blend of the ancient Greek words archaios and pteryx, which respectively mean ‘ancient’ and ‘feather/wing’. This ancient bird was well-suited to its hunt-or-be-hunted world – as such, it was a good time to be a predator, especially one suited to both the ground and the air. This feathered creature was a new kind of dinosaur, among the first of its kind.

The world Archaeopteryx existed in was chaotic; the late Jurassic was full of carnage, biodiversity, and transformation. This period – known as the Tithonian stage – would close off the Jurassic and lead directly into the Cretaceous. The late Jurassic and Cretaceous periods were a time of great biological dynamism: a transition from hot, arid weather to a warm, humid climate encouraged an explosion of biodiversity in land, sea, and air, with new species of plants and dinosaurs emerging to form the evolutionary base for modern plants and animals we know today. The world – and its inhabitants – were starting to change. Paleontologists thus place great emphasis on this period when studying the developments and evolutionary path of the species we now know – this was a time of great transformation which planted the roots of our natural world in modernity.

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Archaeopteryx, whose unique avian-reptilian features place it at the crossroads of an evolutionary path, is critical for paleontologists to study as the base from which modern birds emerged. It is thus considered a ‘transitional fossil’ and ‘basal bird’ given its foundational role in the avian evolutionary tree, representing familiar elements of its ancestors but indicating a transformation into what was to come. In a changing world with new modalities of being, Archaeopteryx represented a transition from the old to the new – an indication of a movement from yesterday to the future.

image of an archaeopteryx fossil

You probably see where I’m going with this. 150 million years later (the early 1990s) a few climbing and outdoor enthusiasts would begin to build one of the most iconic and influential performance brands to ever exist. Their aim was singular: to create cutting-edge products and push the boundaries of their industry. They wanted to evolve. They would rebrand their company with the name Arc’teryx, a direct homage to the basal bird from which many of the winged creatures they knew on earth likely descended from. Their clothing would come to be a central fixture of the techwear world and would eventually expand beyond its use in the forests and mountains – it would come to be attached to streetwear, graffiti culture, and eventually, decisively make its way into the mainstream. In the last few years, Arc’teryx has seen a rapid growth in popularity seldom seen with other already-established brands – the brand itself has transformed and laid the foundation for the future (and commercialization) of GORP-core (GORP=Good Old Raisins and Peanuts – a popular reference to classic trail mix and hiking culture). They were certainly not the first but they are among the most important.

In a way, the name makes a lot of sense: aside from a reminder of the earth’s great age and its many different inhabitants over millions of years (perhaps to humble the self-important humans that only just showed up, geologically-speaking) the name is equally representative of a unique culture emerging out of performance wear and outdoor enthusiasts in the era it was created. We should note that the latter part of the 20th century was a golden age for outdoorwear and in a larger sense, a golden age for technology. The world was changing drastically: while perhaps not as geologically/environmentally drastic as the transition from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous, new modes of thinking and being would emerge in the era of television, computing, and later, the internet.

For clothing, new technology like Gore-Tex and PrimaLoft could make garments tougher, warmer, more breathable, and more water-resistant. Advances in manufacturing processes like thermolamination as well as a growing market for technical apparel would herald a new era for the hiking and climbing enthusiast. Outdoor wear was becoming increasingly efficient, lightweight, and adaptive. In theory, it was easier than ever to find yourself comfortable and protected in the great outdoors, even in the nastiest of weather conditions. Conditions and environments that were too high-risk could be approached in a new way: people would be able to explore their world and weather the elements in ways previously-unheard of. In this golden age of climbing, hiking, and exploring, It was a really good time to start a techwear company.

In the hopes of building a disruptive and visionary brand at such a crucial stage in the ‘evolution’ of outdoor technical gear (and the culture around it), Arc’teryx would pay homage to its eponymous basal bird, embracing and adapting to a new world of performance gear and outdoor exploration. Importantly, they remained committed to the idea of pushing their industry forward – by innovating, they would help the industry evolve. Even further, they would serve as the inspirational base from which many modern tech wear companies would emerge. Like the ancient feathered bird, Arc’teryx viewed itself as the bedrock of a new evolution.

 

The history of this brand and their founding story

group of climbers on top of a mountain on a clear sunny day

Let’s talk a bit about the history of this company. It has gone through a number of evolutions and different stages of ownership to arrive at its current place as a global force in performance wear, rivalling such juggernauts as The North Face and Patagonia.

We begin our journey in the Vancouver basement of a climbing enthusiast named Dave Lane. In 1989, dissatisfied with the available climbing harnesses on the market, he prototyped a few designs and began Rock Solid Manufacturing. His vision was to create the lightest, highest quality, and best performing outdoor and climbing gear. The aim was singular, with innovation at the core of company’s mission. The harness was an immediate hit. A year later and with room to scale, his friend Jeremy Guard would join as an equity partner. A year after that, Guard and Lane would rebrand their company with the name Arc’teryx in the hopes of echoing the mission of innovation and evolution at the center of their clothing brand as they expanded into the US market. They’d bring on a third friend, Nick Jones, as the popularity of their Skaha and Vapor harness continued to grow. By 1995, they had begun to expand their product range, making backpacks like the iconic Bora while their business continued to grow.

An important evolution in their product line would come with obtaining a license to use GORE-TEX, a material patented in the late 60s by W.L Gore & Associates. GORE-TEX was a lightweight and waterproof material that could still allow vapor to pass through, making it breathable. This was perfect for clothing meant to be worn while on the move where protection against the weather had serious benefits, like on a backpacking trip or hanging off the side of a mountain. This material would become central to the future of Arc’teryx, and in 1998 they released their first shell jacket, the Alpha SV. Their hopes of creating cutting-edge tech was realized with this alpine jacket, which would become a staple of their collection and win many awards for its performance. The release of this shell would foreshadow a continued and dedicated approach to performance-based clothing of the highest quality.

water beading off of gore-tex, red garment, black zipper

Water beading off of a Gore-Tex garment

Over the next few years Arc’teryx would cement its place within the industry with such iconic and award-winning products like the Targa harness, the Theta LT jacket series, the Alpha SV series, and more. In 2002 Arc’teryx was purchased by another outdoorwear giant, the Salomon group, owned by parent company Adidas. 3 years later, in 2005, the Salomon group would be purchased by Amer Sports, their parent company ever since. Since the late 2010s, Arc’teryx has begun to see increasing popularity among the mainstream, non-outdoor crowd.

The iconic look of their products, the quality of their manufacturing, and the message behind their continued experimentation and development has attracted hypebeasts, fashion nerds, skateboarders, and more. They have since delved into ready-to-wear casual clothing that is not directly designed for the great outdoors. This collection is called Veilance, which takes the highly technical features of their products and places it within a more casual, urban setting. Veilance is Arc’teryx’s way of showing the market that they could make “regular” clothing if they wanted to (and make it extremely well), but equally highlights that the true passion of their engineers and designers is in the outdoors. They have also made apparel and equipment for law enforcement and armed forces under their LEAF collection. The commitment to highly technical clothing made with intention continues to be a central feature of their vision.

Today, they are one of the most iconic and influential performance wear companies actively on the market. From humble beginnings to global notoriety, Arc’teryx’s story is about seeing a need for quality in the market and creating it to the highest level. Pushing the boundaries of technical clothing and thus, advancing what people can do in the great outdoors, Arc’teryx is a brand with a singular vision. Their continued devotion to this idea is what sets them apart from many others.

Why does it stand out from other techwear/outdoorwear brands?

close-up photo of hiking boots on a leafy path

While we’ve explored some of the history and roots of Arcy, there are a few key features about their manufacturing and development process that are interesting and worth mentioning. Arc’teryx is extremely unique among outerwear manufacturers in the sense that they have their own factory, located in Vancouver, a short distance from their design offices and an even shorter distance from the dense and humid wilderness of British Colombia. The ARC’One manufacturing facility has become a central part of Arc’teryx’s design, manufacturing, testing, and optimization process. It allows designers and engineers to streamline the prototyping process in a way few other outdoorwear companies can.

Imagine you work at Arc’teryx as a designer. You clock in on Monday and finalize ideas and mock-ups for a new rain shell you’ve been working on with your team. After the final approval steps from other departments, you coordinate with the ARC’One facility and send the designs over to them before EOD. The highly-skilled manufacturers work for a few days and construct the design. By Thursday, a physical prototype is ready. You drive a short distance from your office and pick it up at the factory by Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, you set out into the BC woods to go for a short backcountry camping trip, hoping it’ll dump rain the entire time (plus you get to go camping for your job, which is my ideal life). You test the prototype in as many rigorous scenarios as nature will offer, seeing how it holds up in adverse weather, under stress, and through physical exertion. Everything from breathability to tear-resistance will be considered closely. By the time you clock back into work on Monday, you and your team have a number of technical and practical notes by which you can improve and optimize the design of your new shell. The process is then repeated until the perfect jacket emerges.

The beauty of this process is that the garment’s field performance remains the integral part of the design and manufacturing process. By having their own factory, Arc’teryx can streamline a process that can often take months, ironing out kinks as quickly as they arise and remaining committed to the vision of making the best product on the market.

Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody Men's | Light Compressible Windshell | Fluidity, X-Small

Popularity in streetwear, prevalence in graffiti-skate culture culture, and ‘racking’

While we’ve only really spoken about Arc’teryx in terms of its technical and outdoor applications, it’s important to note that the brand has been an iconic part of other groups and subcultures, especially in the urban world.

High-performance brands are in right now. No doubt about it. From the explosion of Salomon and Patagonia to the ever-growing culture and resurgence of climbing, techwear is in a new golden age. Now, in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, and more, Arc’teryx has become more synonymous with GORP-core fashion trends than it’s practical and performance-oriented applications. It is now as much a part of the mainstream as Louis Vuitton and North Face. However, its popularity among the fashion-oriented and urban subculture is not necessarily a brand-new facet of this brand’s history: Arc’teryx’s place in fashion has a storied past with roots in graffiti culture, skateboarding, and crime.

Compared to competitor’s prices, Arc’teryx has always been more expensive. This is due to the way they treat R&D and manufacturing, heavily-involved processes in the aims of creating the industry standard for performance gear. Given Arcy’s early successes and popularity, the brand would come to be seen in the mainstream with the resurgence of urban tech-gear in the early 90s. The price point was limiting, however. Arc’teryx thus became a part of the graffiti/skateboarding subcultures through the pre-existing movement of “racking” (stealing) techwear. At the time, NY’s graffiti scene would find Arc’teryx in a period of transition: the movement from North Face jackets to deadbirds signalled a shift in the graffiti and skate community – now beginning to crystallize and articulate its identity – where the growth of racking indicated a cultural and socioeconomic boundary laid by those at its forefront. For those who couldn’t afford it but wanted to rep the brand, stealing the coats was an easy alternative. The trend of racking is well-documented with the often-jokesy image of skaters and graffiti artists wearing 5 or 6 shells on top of each other, flexing their impermeability and rule-breaking attitude. For those who skated and tagged walls in the early days of the subcultures, their favorite hobbies also found them often running away from security guards and rent-a-cops: as such stealing a few coats from a store didn’t seem like a big deal and even served to emphasize their counter-culture lifestyle.

Figures like the late, great Robin Williams were seen decked in Gore-Tex as far back as the 80s. In more niche circles, iconic skateboarders like Harold Hunter would be photographed in vintage deadbird pieces. The growing role of Arcy in the mainstream began to indicate and foreshadow the way techwear and urban culture collided. In the concrete jungles of North American cities, these sleek, utilitarian garments began to take on a new form. Today, iconic R&B artist Frank Ocean has been photographed at runway shows wearing full Arc’teryx outfits, looking like he’s ready to go for a hike right after leaving fashion week. The more one starts to look, the more one begins to see the pervasiveness of the brand in popular culture, separate from the outdoors.

Arc'teryx Zeta LT Jacket Men's (Arbour, Small)

Modern collaborations with such brands like the infamous Japanese BEAMS or UK-based skate company Palace herald a new era for the serious and performance-oriented company. It is a recognition of Arcy’s place in the fashion world and seemingly a commitment to some of the subcultures that allowed it to become so prevalent in the mainstream today. In a way, these collaborations feel like homages to Arc’teryx’s long and varied history. Where some brands may shy away from the subcultures that don’t directly represent their design intentions, Arc’teryx seems to have embraced their role in the culture. Online artists have taken to modifying and painting their deadbird shells, repurposing the garments for strictly artistic purposes.

Arc’teryx has gone through many changes over its 30-year history and has influenced (and been influenced by) many different groups. It is refreshing to see them embrace this side of their history and recognize the ways it has shaped how the general public views their brand. This is key to their adaptability and influence for the rest of the industry.

My own experience with ‘deadbirds’

Growing up in Western Canada at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I was extremely blessed to have a family that immersed me in the outdoors. Celebrating and playing in our ‘backyard’ meant weekend hikes, camping trips, and mountain biking – these experiences and interests have remained central to my identity and interests in my adult life. Chief among outdoor interests in my youth was skiing: my father’s side of the family were all lifelong and passionate skiers. We were a ski family, they’d say, and I’d follow eagerly in their footsteps (I was once told semi-jokingly that if I ever tried snowboarding I’d be disowned and to this day I wonder how much of that statement was actually made in jest). Being tossed down double-black chutes as a child helped me face my fears, build self-confidence, and appreciate the majesty of the mountains.

My sport idols were my uncles and aunts – seeing their form, control, and enjoyment of the pastime inspired me to push myself further, traits that I now realized were deeply formative to me. I also thought they looked really really cool: as adults with disposable income, they invested in their enjoyment of the outdoors. I remember looking at their skis and snowsuits with awe: they looked like astronauts, exploring the harsh, cold climate of an exposed mountain face with comfort and style.

alpine skier jumping on the mountain, blue sky background

Because my family was so obsessed with skiing, some of them were also a bit obsessed about gear. It’s no secret that skiing requires a great deal of gear: from the poles to the socks, there are seemingly infinite combinations and emerging technologies to choose from at all price points. As a kid, I loved being in line for the chairlift and seeing the different outfits and gear people took to the mountains. You’d see bright vintage one-piece snowsuits from the 80s next to the newest expedition jacket from The North Face. It was like an outdoor fashion show and there was always something new to see. For me, however, the coolest outfits I ever saw were on my Uncle Peter. As the youngest of his siblings, I always felt he was a bit more stylish than my dad and other uncles/aunts (sorry Dad). The first time I ever saw Arc’teryx was on my Uncle Peter, who wore a matching rust-red snow suit from Arcy. He was head-to-toe in Gore-Tex and looked warm, comfortable, and badass.

Everything on the suit looked intentional and created for the purpose it was being used for – from the athletic cut of the jacket to the taped seams and multi-use hidden features, the suit looked ready to take on anything (and any run) my Uncle threw at it while on the mountain. Furthermore, I liked how minimal the design was on first inspection: the silhouette was slim and the pockets and front panels were semi-hidden, placed intentionally to accommodate for organic movement. The more I looked at the suit the more I’d pick out as to how interesting and well-designed it was. I immediately fell in love with the brand and wanted a shell so I could look and ski like my cool Uncle Peter.

My parents, when asked by their rapidly-growing 12-year old to buy him a $500 jacket that he likely wouldn’t fit by the next ski season, belly-laughed and patted me on the head affectionately. Not happening, they said. They gently told me that when I was working and had my own money, I could buy whatever jacket I wanted to go skiing. I’d still be actively exploring the outdoors for years, even being a part of my school’s outdoor education program where I learned about how to dress for the outdoors with layering, insulating, and more. I explored lots of interesting and well-designed outdoorwear brands and learned about the ones I liked and didn’t. I learned, importantly, that you don’t need to have the most expensive gear to enjoy the great outdoors: I was going on weekend backpacking trips and running to the store in a rainstorm, not summiting Everest. That being said, I always had my heart set on Arc’teryx. The price point was a bit limiting, obviously, so it took me a little bit of time to get to the point where I could afford a deadbird jacket. I bided my time. When I was working my first part-time bartending job in university, I’d squirrel little bits of money from every paycheck with the express purpose of getting a black Arcy shell. Some time later, I had enough to grab my first piece, an older model of the Beta AR. I was validated in my decision to save the moment I put it on.

Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket Men's | Versatile Gore-Tex Pro Shell for All Round Use | Fluidity, X-Small

Aside from how cool I felt I looked, I immediately realized that I could use this jacket for anything. In the winter walking to the bus stop, I’d barely feel the wind-chill of -30 Canadian winters layered with a down jacket or some fleece. In the summer, I’d wear it on my bike if I got caught out in the rain. On my hiking trips, I felt protected and safe from the elements in a situation where being too cold or exposed had serious implications. In a true shell fashion, the jacket would lock in heat when it needed to, block weather when it arose, and breathe when I was sweating. The technology may as well have been magic. I’d learn how to wash it properly and reapply DWR after heavy use to ensure its impermeability, taking extra-good care of it the way it seemed to take care of me.

Over 6 years later, my Arc’teryx shell has been everywhere with me. It still looks brand new and performs just as it did when I first bought it. Pairing it with other gear I’ve accumulated over the years, I’ve taken it everywhere from Cuban jungles and mountain rain storms to -45-degree Celsius winter camping trips in backcountry Quebec. It is the central piece of my outdoorwear collection and easily one of the best investments I’ve ever made.

It’s interesting to think about how buying an extremely well-made product, despite the initial price, ends up paying itself off due to the amount of time it lasts and how well it works. This seems to be a central idea of Arc’teryx’s business model and has since reflected in a lot of other places in my life. As a good friend of mine says, “buy once, cry once”. A good quality product that lasts years, while likely more expensive, ends up being more economical than a cheap product that requires replacing soon after. Furthermore, this method of consumption is significantly more sustainable than the fast-fashion trends that plague modern clothing companies. Their repair policy is unbelievably good – they want you to keep these jackets for life.

I’ve since bought plenty of other small Arc’teryx pieces, including an ultralight packable shell from the Zeta series that I love dearly (some photos of it are attached). While my techwear collection has expanded past just Arcy, I’ll always view them as the crème-de-la-crème of performance gear.

To me, they’ll always be the best: everyone else is just playing catch-up.

 

Staying dry and breathable, this is Graham. Thanks for reading.

graham wearing an arc'teryx jacket out

 

 

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