Jul 30, 2015
Outside Magazine

The North Face founder Doug Tompkins on the first ascent of Chile's Ruta de los Californianos in 1968. Cerro Fitz Roy, Chile.    Photo: Chris Jones

The most valuable currency in gear marketing of the past 40 years. In the outdoor industry, the credibility of a company’s product line is equated with its real-life performance value among true enthusiasts in the field. It’s why so many gear companies fund athlete teams—what better way to prove that their products can withstand the torture of extreme expeditions?—and why brand catalogs, led by Patagonia, have long featured “real people doing real things” instead of models. (See Catalog.) 

Without authenticity, outdoor brands lose their cachet, something that frequently happens when small upstarts run by core enthusiasts get gobbled up by larger holding companies. Consider the fate of Cloudveil. Founded in the mountain town of Jackson, Wyoming, by former ski-shop veterans Stephen Sullivan and Brian Cousins, the company entered the crowded apparel space in 1997 with a small batch of soft-shell garments made for backcountry touring. That year its products were carried in about 13 stores, but word-of-mouth buzz quickly spread through race sponsorships and the bro grapevine. By 2002, Cloudveil had more than 100 products, becoming one of the industry’s most successful startups. Then growing pains hit. In 2005, after several years of cash-flow problems, the partners reluctantly decided to sell. First they were acquired by Sport Brands International, which left the existing staff in place, and Cloudveil’s success trajectory continued. But eventually it was resold—in 2008 to Spyder Active Sports, and again in 2010 to a private equity group. Cloudveil still exists, but a mass-market strategy and a symbolic move from Jackson to New Jersey have taken a toll on its prestige. Today Cloudveil has all but vanished from the backcountry scene. 

More recently, the industry has begun to wonder if its longstanding focus on authenticity and core performance is failing to connect with millennials. (See “The Young and the Tentless”.) But at least one entrepreneur is still using the tried-and-true strategy. In 2011, Sullivan founded a new outdoor-apparel company: Stio. The tagline on its logo? “Jackson Hole, Wyoming.”

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