FULL FLIGHT

A tour of Arc’teryx HQ in Van­cou­ver, Canada, shows a com­pany at the top of its game.

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Outdoor Tech - Words DAN SLATER Pho­tos ARC'TERYX

“We work on all sorts of fab­rics, test­ing per­for­mance against dura­bil­ity and weight and look for the magic spot be­tween all three.”

FOR THE com­mit­ted out­door gear freak there are only a hand­ful of brands that stand head and shoul­ders above an over­abun­dance of medi­ocre to good prod­uct, and Van­cou­ver’s Arc’teryx Equip­ment Inc. is con­sid­ered among many to be the very best at what it does.

Com­mit­ted to its core prin­ci­ples of de­sign, crafts­man­ship and per­for­mance, Arc’teryx has been op­er­at­ing out of its North Van­cou­ver base since 1989. The com­pany was orig­i­nally called Rock Solid, but was re­branded Arc’teryx two years af­ter its in­cep­tion; it’s an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of Ar­chaeopteryx Litho­graph­ica, which is the sci­en­tific name of the ear­li­est known rep­tile to de­velop feath­ers and take flight, around 150 mil­lion years ago. The Arc’teryx logo is a stylised re­pro­duc­tion of the fos­sil of this first bird, now housed in the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Berlin, and the brand has be­come syn­ony­mous with evo­lu­tion, specif­i­cally the evo­lu­tion of de­sign.

All this in­for­ma­tion is freely avail­able but when you are re­ly­ing on your equip­ment to keep you safe from the el­e­ments, ei­ther on a daily ba­sis or a gru­elling ex­pe­di­tion, you form a spe­cial bond with it. You come to ad­mire and re­spect the cloth­ing in a unique way, and this is how most Arc’teryx users would de­scribe their re­la­tion­ship with the brand. When this is the case, the equiv­a­lent of a holy pil­grim­age is to visit the Arc’teryx head­quar­ters and de­sign cen­tre, which I was lucky enough to do.

COM­PANY PHI­LOS­O­PHY

Af­ter an hour-long bus jour­ney from cen­tral Van­cou­ver through the wet sub­ur­ban snow of a win­ter’s morn­ing, I strolled into the airy atrium of the twos­tory Arc HQ to be met by Jo Sala­mon, the Me­dia & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Man­ager, and her dog, Pep­per. Among other things, all Arc build­ings are dog friendly. Be­tween the desks are strewn nu­mer­ous dog­gie beds for the re­lax­ation of the em­ploy­ees’ ca­nine pals, and al­lowance is made for daily ex­er­cise. Of course, hu­man down-time is also catered for in the form of a gym, an in­door boul­der­ing room and large bi­cy­cle stor­age area for com­muters.

First things first – Jo gives me a run­down of the com­pany’s his­tory, as rep­re­sented in the re­cep­tion area by a time­line of key points, in­clud­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of water­tight zip­pers in 1997 (ac­tu­ally a 20year de­sign process) which have since be­come the in­dus­try stan­dard, the com­pany’s pur­chase by the Salomon Group in 2003, and sub­se­quently by Amer Sports in 2006. Also dis­played in this area is an iconic Al­pha SV moun­taineer­ing shell, en­closed in a glass cab­i­net and sur­rounded by lasers, no doubt.

My tour con­tin­ues up­stairs to the sec­ond floor and a more tra­di­tional open-plan of­fice en­vi­ron­ment (“Pen-push­ers and email­ers,” jokes Jo) over­seen by large-for­mat images of for­bid­ding alpine peaks. A se­ries of meet­ing rooms is named for some of the com­pany’s key lines, such as ‘Theta’ and ‘Sidewinder’, with even the let­ter­ing on the door mir­ror­ing the brand’s el­e­gant look. ‘Push’ never looked bet­ter.

“Jeremy’s whole aes­thetic has stayed with this com­pany right from the get-go,” says Jo, re­fer­ring to Jeremy Guard, co-founder and pres­i­dent un­til 2001. “He’s got a very clearly de­fined style and al­ways wanted to make sure that what­ever we were do­ing was sim­ply de­signed, func­tioned the way it needed to func­tion and looked re­ally good. You had to want to wear it, and use it, and that’s part of the ini­tial DNA of the com­pany that is still present. As they’re work­ing, our de­sign­ers con­stantly go back to Jeremy’s key fun­da­men­tal points.”

I’m shown around the war­ranty de­part­ment, to which ev­ery piece of cloth­ing in the world that needs re­pair­ing is re­turned. Con­se­quently, there’s a need to keep a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of old colours, ma­te­ri­als and zip­pers to use in re­pairs. It’s com­fort­ing to the con­sumer but wor­ry­ing for the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist that even such mi­nor re­pairs as a frayed hem are done in Van­cou­ver; Arc just doesn’t trust any­one else to do a good enough job.

Speak­ing of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, the build­ing it­self is a model for a low car­bon foot­print, in­clud­ing the use of nat­u­ral light, re­cy­cled floor and fur­nish­ings, Me­soOp­tics light­ing fix­tures, the bike room, elec­tric car charg­ing sta­tions and waste wa­ter heat ex­chang­ers. One day the com­pany aims to run all its fa­cil­i­ties with a zero foot­print.

Else­where on the top floor is a cor­ner ded­i­cated to Cor­po­rate So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity and the projects that Arc funds in the com­mu­nity. Fore­most among them is the Bird’s Nest Project, in which dis­con­tin­ued fab­rics are used to cre­ate sturdy rain capes for the city’s home­less. Amongst oth­ers, the Trail Builder Academy is an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gramme that teaches moun­tain bike trail build­ing tech­niques, and the com­pany do­nates used Gore-Tex jack­ets to anti-poach­ing squads in Tan­za­nia.

Jo ex­plains one of the com­pany’s four guid­ing prin­ci­ples – to ex­tend the life­span of prod­ucts: “Our key en­vi­ron­men­tal stance is that we’re cre­at­ing a prod­uct that will keep out of land­fill as long as pos­si­ble. It’s about cre­at­ing a prod­uct that per­forms and lasts. We work on all sorts of fab­rics, test­ing per­for­mance against dura­bil­ity and weight and look for that magic spot be­tween all three.” Rather than erring on the side of lighter weight, Arc makes sure its cloth­ing is built to last.

“We can test them on moun­tains, come back in, tweak them, go back out, etc.”

FAC­TORY TOUR

Five min­utes’ walk down the road is the sec­ond build­ing, ded­i­cated to de­sign and sam­ple pro­duc­tion. There I’m in­tro­duced to Greg Gren­zke, De­sign Man­ager for As­cent & Footwear, whose most re­cent ma­jor project to come to fruition af­ter sev­eral years’ work is the Pro­cline ski boot. Greg shows me pos­si­bly the most exciting part of the op­er­a­tion – where the de­sign teams have be­gun work­ing on the Spring 2019 range.

“Hav­ing a man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity right here means we get to make in­cre­men­tal changes that other com­pa­nies wouldn’t be able to,” he ex­plains, “be­cause we’re not ship­ping some­thing back and forth to Asia ev­ery time we want to get a sam­ple made. We can pro­to­type, we can make full fin­ished sam­ples, we can test them on moun­tains, come back in, tweak them, go back out etc. un­til we can per­fect the per­for­mance. This sets us apart be­cause not ev­ery­one has the abil­ity to do that.” Un­for­tu­nately, no mat­ter how I pry and whee­dle, Greg re­mains tight-lipped about what exciting prod­ucts may be in the pipe­line for the fu­ture, and I am barred from pho­tograph­ing the spe­cial presses and lam­i­nat­ing ma­chines in the in­ter­est of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty pro­tec­tion.

I’m led through a labyrinth of metal work­shops, test­ing labs and fab­ric stor­age ar­eas to a de­part­ment that is less se­cre­tive – the colour lab, where I’m treated to pre­views of next sea­son’s colour­ways such as Lu­nar Mist, Elec­trolyte and Hi­malayan Su­gar. I’ll leave you to guess what hues those names rep­re­sent.

The third build­ing, which I don’t get to visit, is Arc One – the com­pany’s flag­ship fac­tory sit­u­ated an hour down the road in New West­min­ster. This is where all of the safety equip­ment (har­nesses and avalanche packs) is made, as well as the Veilance line, much of the LEAF gear (Law En­force­ment & Armed Forces), and some of the more iconic prod­ucts such as the Al­pha SV. This prox­im­ity al­lows Arc to make big changes in man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses with lit­tle fuss, plus the com­pany can make small runs of pretty much any­thing (ex­cept footwear) on short no­tice for any­one from REI to Search and Res­cue teams across the con­ti­nent.

PEO­PLE AND PART­NERS

Arc’teryx cur­rently has about 800 em­ploy­ees and is look­ing to take on an ad­di­tional 50 per year, go­ing for­ward. It uses a Lean Man­u­fac­tur­ing model – a sys­tem de­vel­oped in Ja­pan for the elim­i­na­tion of waste in the pro­duc­tion process. “Be­fore this ev­ery­one worked on piece­work,” ex­plains Jo, “so you might be great at hoods or sleeves but you never re­ally saw a fin­ished prod­uct, and if one per­son was held up that would hold up ev­ery­thing. With Lean Man­u­fac­tur­ing teams of 12 to 15 peo­ple work on the whole prod­uct and are paid as a team. Each per­son is crosstrained so they can do sleeves, hoods, lam­i­nat­ing, what­ever. This process has changed the lead time in the fac­tory from 30 days to 10!”

Most prod­ucts are no longer made in Canada, how­ever. “We con­sider our 20 or so part­ner fac­to­ries across the globe as ex­ten­sions of our own fa­cil­ity, so they have to ad­here to the same stan­dards and qual­ity con­trol that we do,” con­tin­ues Jo. “Our prod­uct is very tech­ni­cal so any part­ner we work with has to have skilled labour­ers who are paid way above min­i­mum wage in their re­gions. We see these fa­cil­i­ties as part­ner­ships, some of which we’ve had for over 15 years. It’s not just some­body mak­ing jack­ets for us. Our part­ners in­vest in their em­ploy­ees, be­cause it might take six months to train each one, and we in­vest in our part­ners – it’s kind of like a cir­cle.”

My tour ends at the fac­tory shop, where old sea­son prod­uct and sec­onds are sold on the cheap to Archun­gry con­sumers who buy arm­loads at a time. I come away more im­pressed than ever at the op­er­a­tion and feel priv­i­leged to have been al­lowed a glimpse in­side the work­ings of the ‘Dead Bird Society’. Arc’teryx is at the pin­na­cle of the global out­door in­dus­try and is still push­ing its game. Long live the Evo­lu­tion!

Clock­wise from top Arc’teryx keeps a huge back­log of fab­rics for re­pair/war­ranty work; the ‘Men of Arc’ are charged with fab­ri­cat­ing the tools and equip­ment needed for the com­pany to test and man­u­fac­ture equip­ment; the crafts­man­ship in­volved in man­u­fac­tur­ing is in­cred­i­bly high; hav­ing the abil­ity to tweak de­signs in-house, then test them in the moun­tains out­side Van­cou­ver, is a huge ad­van­tage; threads galore.

Clock­wise from above Arc’teryx has re­cently moved into footwear; ap­parel is rig­or­ously checked and tested; pro­to­type down jack­ets await testers – un­for­tu­nately we couldn’t bring them back to the AG Out­door of­fice!

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