MADISON KAHN shares an abridged history of waterproof-breathable warfare in this timeline.
While jumping through all of Gore’s hoops is an expensive and time-consuming process, most of the industry’s top brands told me that a first-rate product comes out the other end. “To us, it’s beneficial to work with someone who’s as dedicated to performance and quality as we are,” Carl Moriarty, the lead designer at Arc’teryx, one of the most innovative and respected brands in the business, told me. While Marmot’s Cooley admitted that working with Gore could be frustrating, he too empathized with its philosophy. “Because of Gore’s rigid control over licensees and design, the performance bar was raised,” he said. “Anyone making a Gore-Tex jacket had to make it correctly. As a result, the whole breed improved, and the consumer ultimately benefited.”
Of course, no one had to buy or use Gore-Tex. By the time Gore’s primary ePTFE patent expired, in 1997, there were dozens of lower-priced, non-ePTFE alternatives, made by companies such as Japan’s Toray and China’s Formosa Mills. Gear makers could now offer a host of jackets with their own house-brand fabrics, like North Face’s HyVent, Patagonia’s H2No, and Marmot’s MemBrain. The key was how they were marketed. As long as Gore’s licensees didn’t promote them as superior to Gore-Tex, the company was willing to tolerate their existence. The performance hierarchy had been established: Gore at the top, everyone else below.
Then, in 1999, a small company called BHA Group began peddling an ePTFE membrane, similar to Gore-Tex, called eVent. Used for years in industrial smokestack filters, the membrane, tweaked to work in garments, was purportedly more breathable than Gore’s. Companies that had grown weary of Gore’s micromanaging now had a viable ePTFE alternative. “eVent was every bit as good as Gore-Tex,” claimed a marketing specialist who works with a number of brands and requested anonymity. But getting a piece of the waterproof-breathable market wasn’t that simple. “Gore literally built the industry,” said the marketer. “It’s hard to come in after two and a half decades and compete with such a well-established and respected brand.”
Since the arrival of eVent, Gore has successfully maintained its coveted market position, but its continued dominance wasn’t what fueled the current hostility, say insiders. It was the measures the company allegedly took to remain there.
WHILE THE LEGAL battles against Gore are concerned solely with its business practices, the ongoing campaign for hearts and minds in the marketplace is all about fabric performance. In case it’s not already clear, the debate over who makes the best waterproof-breathable technology is about letting moisture out, not keeping it at bay. Barring leakage resulting from excessive wear and tear or saturation—a.k.a. wetting out—any self-respecting brand will turn back rain. The fight concerns the dark, extremely niche art of breathability.
The very term breathable is a bit of a misnomer. While there are waterproof-breathable running and biking jackets, they don’t breathe that well. (Unless it’s really wet or really cold, you’re better off wearing some sort of water-resistant soft shell for aerobic pursuits.) The most obvious sign that breathability is relative is that many jackets have mesh-backed pockets or, more commonly, pit zips to let moisture vapor escape.
Still, the amount these fabrics do breathe is what keeps high-end fabric makers obsessively tinkering and tweaking. Parsing the difference requires a quick construction lesson. Gore-Tex, like the majority of other waterproof-breathable fabrics, uses a so-called three-layer technology. On the outside is the face fabric, the material you see when admiring a garment on the rack. This is layer number one, which is also treated with a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish, a first line of defense whose molecules bond to the jacket’s fibers and therefore don’t inhibit breathability. Layer two, which you can’t see, is the ePTFE membrane with a separate, slathered-on protective coating, made of polyurethane and other ingredients, that protects the ePTFE against contaminants, such as sweat, body oil, and sunscreen residue, that can compromise breathability. And, finally, there’s usually a third inner layer, the softer lining you feel against your skin.
eVent is slightly different. You still have a DWR-treated face and an ePTFE membrane, but rather than use a separate, polyurethane-based coating to protect the membrane, eVent infuses it with polyacrylate, among other ingredients, which allegedly makes it more breathable but, according to some fabric experts, less durable than Gore-Tex.