MADISON KAHN shares an abridged history of waterproof-breathable warfare in this timeline.
SEVENTEEN OF GORE’S 60 worldwide facilities are scattered between Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Delaware, a distinctly American, almost contourless triangle of former farmland that’s gracelessly yielding to modern industry and metastasizing strip malls. This is Turnpike Country. Factory Land. The last place you’d expect to find captains of the outdoor industry. That is, until you step into the company’s Capabilities Center in Barksdale, Delaware. Nestled tastefully beside a woodsy ribbon of blacktop, the center is essentially a curated display of Gore’s contributions to the gear world and beyond. My guides were Cynthia Amon, an amiable spokeswoman with unflappable company loyalty, and engineer Tim Smith, a fit 32-year-old with a knack for decoding complicated science.
“Like many great innovations, Gore-Tex wasn’t so much invented as it was discovered,” Smith explained, pointing to the first of many displays. It was 1969, and a man named Bob Gore was in his Newark, Delaware, basement experimenting with a piece of polytetrofluoroethylene, or PTFE, a fluorocarbon solid that’s impervious to water and UV rays—and best known by its popular trade name, Teflon. Bob worked for his father, Bill, a former DuPont engineer whose 11-year-old company, W. L. Gore and Associates, had been making PTFE housing for cables and wires used by the burgeoning airline and telecom industries.
Down in his basement, the younger Gore wanted to know what would happen if he gave PTFE a powerful yank, rather than apply the slow-stretching process required to make Teflon. Expanded PTFE (ePTFE), he learned, could be manipulated into a virtually weightless film, like a trashcan liner but exponentially thinner. This synthetic skin, or membrane, contained billions of microscopic pores that turned out to be auspiciously sized: water droplets couldn’t fit through, but moisture vapor—the steam that comes off your body when you sweat—could. In other words, Bob Gore discovered that ePTFE was waterproof and breathable.
In 1976, one of the first jackets with a Gore-Tex membrane debuted in the Early Winters catalog, which touted the garment as “possibly the most versatile piece of clothing you’ll ever wear.” This wasn’t bombastic marketing-speak. “Before Gore-Tex came along, recreating outdoors was not always especially comfortable,” Michael Hodgson, the former president of the trade-news website SNEWS, which publishes the OR Daily newspaper, told me. “The advent of Gore-Tex brought us to a place where we stay drier, and thus warmer, for longer periods of time. This, of course, made wet-weather activities a lot more enticing, which in turn made people more apt to get outside.”
The outdoor industry and consumers were quick to embrace the new technology. By the late eighties, thanks in part to Gore’s well-funded and savvy marketing efforts, Gore-Tex had become a household name and a mandatory part of every outdoorsman’s gear closet. Gore required its licensees to use the term “Gore-Tex” somewhere in the name of the product (or on the actual item) and encouraged them to affix its now famous diamond-shaped black hangtag to the garment on the rack, a suggestion that licensees were happy to follow. “In the eighties, using Gore-Tex didn’t just help businesses,” a former designer with one of the big outerwear companies told me, on condition of anonymity. “It took our businesses to another level. When you’re selling thousands of units at $450 each, you’re very aware of the value of the Gore-Tex brand.”
Gore thrived beyond the outdoor market, too. As Amon pointed out, “Gore products are everywhere. Even inside of us!” She walked me through the company’s mini museum, a collection of exhibits replete with an astronaut suit and medical displays, noting that Gore-made PTFE or ePTFE is found in million-dollar ropes for oil rigs, guitar strings, dental floss, hernia patches, fake arteries, aneurism stents, and hundreds of other products. It’s no wonder that W. L. Gore and Associates is a $3 billion operation as of 2012. (Gore, a privately held company, declined to disclose how much of its revenue comes from its fabrics division.)
Gore supplies only one critical ingredient in the manufacturing of waterproof-breathable outdoor gear, but it guarantees every product that uses the Gore-Tex membrane. For that reason, it holds licensees to stringent and exacting agreements. Any company that puts the material in its wares is required to use Gore-certified factories and machinery, the latter of which is typically patented, fabricated, and leased to the factories by Gore itself. The fabric maker is also intimately involved in every step of the design and production processes, a policy that has grated on some brand managers and designers over the years. “You had to buy and use Gore-made seam tape that was exactly 24 millimeters wide,” John Cooley, who for much of the nineties served as Marmot’s VP of sales and marketing, recently recalled. “You had to have zipper flaps that were a certain width. They were highly controlling.”
In a way, working with Gore is like opening a franchise. You don’t just erect the golden arches and throw a few burgers on the grill—you go to Hamburger U, follow the manual, and work within an established infrastructure. Because Gore was founded and is still run by engineers, its testing process is famously scientific. The Maryland quality-control facility, which I also toured, is equipped with a rain room, a climate chamber, and more machines than can be counted over the course of an afternoon visit. “We’re proud of the role we play from inception to finished product,” Amon told me at the end of my seven-hour, two-state, three-facility tour. “We don’t just sell the best waterproof-breathable membrane. We sell a service so that our customers—and their customers—come back. We have to be sure that Gore-Tex lives up to its promise.”