FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS, gearheads in the United States have lamented the disappearance of the Japanese company Mont-Bell, an ultralight manufacturer responsible for innovations such as a 7.2-ounce down jacket, a 35-pound folding sea kayak, and specialized lines like its "shower-climbing" gear, for the wildly popular Japanese sport of walking up waterfalls. But Mont-Bell never really went awayit just abandoned the United States, and this fall, unfazed by its earlier, ill-fated attempt to break into the American market, the retailer is returning with an ambitious 4,500-square-foot store on adventure's main vein, the Pearl Street pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colorado.
Here we come: Mont-Bell's new Boulder flagship store.
Founded in 1975 by climber Isamu Tatsuno, 55, Mont-Bell first landed on these shores in 1988, but it burned through three U.S. distributors, including Lands' End, which had trouble pitching the company's inexpensive flyweight stuff to mainstream consumers. In 1998, Mont-Bell slunk back across the Pacific to regroup and concentrate on its core retail markets in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong.
This time, Mont-Bell is intent on keeping tighter control over distribution and other logistics. Soaring sales on its home turf over the past few yearsMont-Bell pulls in revenues of more than $170 million, which is 15 percent of the Japanese market, similar to REI's market share in the Statesconvinced the company to begin work on its reentry to America. To that end, Tatsuno and friends have formed a U.S. subsidiary, and will open the Boulder store in November, complete with a two-story waterfall and 800 items from the company's 2,000-product catalog.
Of course, the timing of this latest incarnation could be better. Competition is stiff, with formerly fringy ultralight companies like GoLite annually doubling sales and generating a bigger, broader buzz. "Companies are always coming and going, resurrecting or restructuring," says Marcus Woolf, former editor of Outdoor Retailer magazine. "The industry is flat right now. It's going to be hard to get a foothold."
But if last summer's Outdoor Retailer trade show is any indication, Mont-Bell is off to a good start. Tatsuno ran out of business cards, and from a tiny backroom booth the company wooed gear wonks with Ballistic Airlight nylon and burrito-size, superstretchy sleeping bags. " 'Function is beauty' is our concept," explains Tatsuno. "There is nothing just for decoration. I still think there is big potential for light-and-fast."