Stingrays and Pixie Dust: Columbia Sportswear 2012 Product Peek

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Last night, at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, amid dinosaur bones and live stingrays undulating in a shallow pool, Columbia Sportswear previewed its spring 2012 product line. Like this past fall, when I attended a similarly theatrical press shindig in New York’s meatpacking district, the company did not disappoint with its unveilings, announcing unique innovations including moisture-activated “cooling” shirts, sweat-dissipating jackets, and sleeping bags lined with insulating metalized fabric.

The whiz-bang products were accompanied by story-high video screens and strong rhetoric delivered by company execs on the need for innovation and the ills of the outdoor industry. “We aspire to lead this industry,” said one exec on the stage, “and we want to boldly take on the competition.”

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Game changer? New Columbia outdoor shoe

That competition ostensibly is all the brands that, in Columbia’s words, have stagnated and not produced “interesting” products in years. The Columbia team harped on “incremental advances” in backpacks and sleeping bags. The premise presented was that esoteric terminology and marketing words are thrown around that confuse the consumer, and that the “invisible innovation” that industry players trumpet year after year is just mirrors and smoke. “The same stuff that I saw in the early 1990s is still for sale in the outdoor industry today,” an exasperated Mick McCormick, a Columbia VP, told me in the depths of the California Academy of Sciences building.

A large catfish swam past behind an adjacent aquarium wall before I could respond to McCormick’s statement. Indeed, the night, which was attended by Columbia retail and sales partners as well as a couple dozen media types, was in general a mystifying and incongruous display to how the outdoor industry normally operates. Live (human) models wearing to-be-released Columbia clothing mingled with museum security staff and the Columbia PR team. There were insects and dart frogs in terrariums. Men in lab coats stood near experimentation tables, tidy demonstration areas at the ready to show off Columbia’s new tech with beakers, heat plates, eyedroppers, and fabric cut in swaths.

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Mesh jacket, made to eschew bugs

All the fuss was focused on a dozen or so new products, including the aforementioned moisture-activated “cooling” shirts. Columbia let event participants test this “Omni-Freeze ICE fabric” with not a whole shirt but a cut-off single sleeve. I slipped one on and a young woman with a spray bottle soaked down my arm. Within seconds, the chemical effect was noticeable — my arm was getting cool.

All the products previewed last night will not be to market for months. This was a sneak peek event, and Columbia gave participants a look into what its marketing department coined “the end of wet, the end of sweat” for clothing and outerwear made for the outdoors. But superlatives aside, the company, I was convinced, is onto something, at least when it comes to outerwear. The Columbia theory is: There are rarely neat, new, disruptive, influential, consumer-exciting products produced in the outdoor world.

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Omni-Wick EVAP jacket

That gap is what Columbia wants to fill. Unabashed, the company, known historically for its layered, ski-oriented winter jackets, hopes to take on GORE-TEX as well as the likes of The North Face. A new line of backpacks previewed at the event feature men’s- and women’s-specific designs, ventilating backs, silver interior linings, and thin, foam-based shoulder straps touted to breathe. More substantial, the company’s Omni-Wick EVAP jackets will include a new kind of wicking technology that’s touted to “pull moisture and sweat away from the skin” with an inner coating that disperses sweat across a broad surface “equal to the surface area of a football field.” (This allows moisture to spread out and evaporate quickly, the company says.)

I traced a finger along this football field. It’s a smooth grid pattern inside a jacket with a polyethylene membrane pressed between fabric layers. The proof will be in the product test. But I give Columbia credit for trying something new.

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Omni-Freeze ICE women’s shirt

Same goes for the Omni-Freeze ICE shirt. That’s the tech used in the lone soaked sleeve I slipped on early in the night. The magic ingredient, which takes the form of a white powder embedded in fabric fibers, is a top-secret chemical formulation said to capitalize on sweat that your body produces during activity to deliver “aggressive heat management” and provide an immediate cooling sensation. The clothing will be made to keep you cooler while in the outdoors. The Omni-Freeze ICE pixie dust — which sat in beakers at the event, and which a Columbia staffer begrudgingly informed me was a “natural, maize-based powder” — is said to respond to overheating and sweat to keep “people feeling cooler than they might have thought possible,” as per some press material Columbia put out.

Shoes were in the spotlight last night as well. Jumping on the minimalist wagon, Columbia held up flexible, foamy shoes that weigh scant ounces. The Ravenous Race, a trail runner, measures about 6.5 ounces in a standard size, making its airy build on par with a racing flat. New shoes in the 2012 line will be waterproof and feature OutDry treatment. Also of note, Columbia will add to its line of footwear construction methods for the sole and midsole that were previously used in Montrail shoe designs.

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Columbia lightweight trail shoe

The majority of shoes on display were light and flexible. In press material about its new shoes, the company writes “the era of heavy, over-built footwear is coming to an end.” I say, hurray to that! Seriously, I am a fan of lighter, less-engineered shoes, and like many companies now, Columbia finally seems to be embracing the premise, too.

The company unveiled jackets made out of mesh. They were worn by the live models and said to feature bug-eschewing treatment that turns flies and mosquitoes away. The backpacks ranged from 10- to 65-liter designs, and the company focused on the harness straps, which appear to be die-cut foam with panels of mesh.

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Columbia trail pack

Finally, sleeping bags, which are a first for the in-house production team, were a big deal. They will come in multiple models, with synthetic insulation and down. The kicker is the metalized fabric, the company’s Omni-Heat reflective coating, which lines the inside of the bags. Shimmering like a mirror ball and warm even to the touch of a hand, the light metallic inner material could be a true upgrade for anyone who sleeps cold.

I left the California Academy of Sciences impressed. The 2012 products were nothing if not interesting and different, and Columbia had put on a good show. In an industry that is often humble and quiet, Columbia is taking the role as the loud guy in the room. They want attention, and the products will demand as such. It will be fun to test the cooling shirts this summer and put the new sleeping bags and jackets through the wringer. Will the metalized liners and magic cooling pixie dust work? Will they “change the game” as Columbia confidently touts? I hope my early tests over the coming months can give a hint.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.

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