For Michelle Rose, Portland’s design-centered approach to the outdoor and apparel space has been the main driver behind its success. A designer herself who has worked for big names like Columbia and Patagonia, Rose and her husband, Sam Ward, organized the recent Struktur Event, a creative conference for the outdoor design industry. The event drew more than 100 people to the Ecotrust building in early May to talk about everything from social media to major brands wooing more women customers, including Columbia’s recent $190 million acquisition of the California yoga apparel company PrAna Living.
Rose and Ward used to live in Portland but moved to California in 2007 so she could work for the North Face. When they decided to organize the Struktur Event, they knew it had to be in Portland.
“Portland has always had a very unusual aesthetic that drives things in a much different way than California or New York,” Rose says. “In California, it’s not as design focused or as focused on good design.”
Part of that unusual aesthetic was an innovative push to blend the technical aspects of outdoor apparel with urban designs, so that people could wear the same clothes to hike on Mount Hood as they would to grab a cocktail downtown. One of the earlier and most notable companies to pursue that line was Nau, which launched in Portland in 2007 but closed up shop just over a year later before being bought and sold a couple times. Tiegs markets his business as a “mountain to bar” company, and Will Pennartz, senior marketing manager for LaCrosse, says Danner’s blending of the outdoors with lifestyle design is partly in response to demand from Asian markets.
“I think for us, a lot of that did start in Japan, and now we have seen the trend come here,” he says.
Founded in 2011, Poler Outdoor Stuff has taken the concept a step further and in a very Portland-style way, offering outdoor apparel with a bit of hipster flair; think trucker hats, hooded sweatshirts and a wearable sleeping bag called the Napsack. The idea is less about looking like you’re off for a technical summit of Mount Hood’s north face and more about hanging around a campfire or motorcycle touring across the lower 48.
“We felt that there was an opportunity to bring action sports and outdoors together for the first time in an authentic way,” says Benji Wagner, a bearded photographer, filmmaker and co-founder of the company who had never worked in apparel or design before. Today the company employs 10 and will expand from a 700-square-foot retail shop to a 4,000-square-foot one downtown this month. “We also saw that the outdoor industry was full of great products but was not connecting with young people in a way that we related to. We are hoping to inspire people to connect with the outdoors in whatever way they choose.”
An avid surfer and sailor, Matt Murphy also hopes to motivate young city dwellers to get outside. The CEO and founder of Proper Course & Co., a new footwear brand inspired by sailing, Murphy, 35, describes his target customer as “an urban prepster: a man in his early 20s to mid-40s, who lives near a body of water, in a place considered to be a hub for creative professionals.”
Launched in 2011, Proper Course will debut its first line of high fashion functional shoes in 2015. “There is more footwear, apparel and outdoor knowledge per square mile in Portland than any place in the world,” enthuses Murphy, a Cleveland, Ohio native who moved to Portland five years ago and previously worked in automotive advertising. The Rose City’s “entrepreneurial spirit” was another attraction, he says.