Killing It

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Killing a Cana­dian moun­tain sheep is a lit­tle like climb­ing Everest. It’s ex­pen­sive and ar­du­ous and typ­i­cally in­volves ter­ri­ble weather. Cloth­ing is crit­i­cal, but hun­ters can’t wear the gar­ish, down-stuffed suits that climbers in the Hi­malayas fa­vor. Sheep, it turns out, have in­cred­i­ble eye­sight: So­phis­ti­cated cam­ou­flage is es­sen­tial. “I’d say 80 per­cent of the hun­ters I know wear Kuiu,” says Bob House, who charges $40,000 for guided ex­pe­di­tions in the Yukon. “I ab­so­lutely love it when my client steps off the plane and is fully out­fit­ted in that stuff.” If pay­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars and trav­el­ing to a re­mote part of Canada to kill sheep doesn’t al­ready sig­nal how se­ri­ous some­one is, Kuiu does.

Un­less you’re an ex­pe­ri­enced sheep stalker, you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of Kuiu, named af­ter an Alaskan is­land and pro­nounced “koo-yoo.” But the com­pany is con­fer­ring on hunt­ing gear the sta­tus that Patag­o­nia did for out­door-wear and Lu­l­ule­mon Ath­let­ica did for yoga pants. Kuiu is mak­ing it lighter, more wa­ter-re­sis­tant, more breath­able, and bet­ter look­ing—an upgrade to what’s been pre­vi­ously avail­able, which has been as obliv­i­ous to per­for­mance, fit, and aes­thet­ics as a deer on the open­ing day of hunt­ing sea­son.

De­pend­ing on where you live and the num­ber of Wun­der Un­der pants you own, you may as­sume that hunt­ing is a niche sport. You’d be wrong. Hunt­ing is a huge and re­mark­ably sta­ble busi­ness op­por­tu­nity: About 15 mil­lion peo­ple bought a li­cense in the U. S. last year, a num­ber that’s re­mained vir­tu­ally un­changed for the past decade, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice (it es­ti­mates that hunt­ing gear and ap­parel take in about $23 bil­lion an­nu­ally). There are far more hun­ters in the U. S. than rock climbers or surfers, and al­most as many as there are skiers and snow­board­ers, ac­cord­ing to an­nual sur­veys by the Out­door Foun­da­tion. Bowhunt­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, is boom­ing; be­cause it re­quires more track­ing, young, fit­ness-fo­cused peo­ple are pick­ing it up. “We’re find­ing that it’s res­onat­ing with the farm-to-ta­ble move­ment,” says Jon Ed­wards, pres­i­dent of Sch­nee’s, a hunt­ing re­tailer based in Boze­man, Mont.

All this has pre­sented an op­por­tu­nity for Kuiu’s 44-yearold founder, Ja­son Hairston. He’s an un­likely ap­parel mag­nate. But he was an un­likely foot­ball star, too. He played col­lege ball at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis, a school bet­ter known for turn­ing out al­mond farm­ers than lineback­ers. In 1995 he was in­vited as an un­drafted free agent to the San Fran­cisco 49ers train­ing camp, where he spent his days as a tack­ling dummy. Then-de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Pete Car­roll took a shine to his speed, at­ti­tude, and work ethic, though, and he made the cut. Af­ter one sea­son and a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal hit, an old neck in­jury

caught up with Hairston, caus­ing him to lose feel­ing in his left arm. The in­jury and the surgery that fol­lowed ended his foot­ball ca­reer, and he found him­self sell­ing com­mer­cial real es­tate in Boise, Idaho. “I was com­pletely lost as to what to do next,” he says. Sales came nat­u­rally. Hairston was suc­cess­ful but un­happy, liv­ing for week­end bowhunt­ing trips. He would hike deep into the moun­tains and, chan­nel­ing his in­ner linebacker, hump out with what­ever he’d killed. It was on one of th­ese trips, in fall 2004, that Hairston and Jonathan Hart, a col­lege friend, got the idea for the com­pany that would be a step­ping­stone to Kuiu. They were clad for warmth in light­weight moun­taineer­ing ap­parel— a patch­work of North Face, Patag­o­nia, and other brands—yet, to stay hid­den, they swad­dled them­selves in cheap cam­ou­flage that was ill-fit­ting and heavy. “The moun­taineer­ing world was light years ahead of the hunt­ing in­dus­try,” Ed­wards says.

At the time, high-end brands that skiers fa­vored didn’t bother cater­ing to the hunt­ing mar­ket, and ex­ist­ing hunt­ing la­bels had a car­toon­ish view of their cus­tomer: over­weight and un­der­paid. Hairston and Hart’s new com­pany, named Sitka for the Alaskan city, made the first camo ap­parel that fea­tured what would have been fa­mil­iar to any shred­der: wick­ing fab­rics, weath­er­proof zip­pers, armpit vents, and welded seams. It was cut for ath­letic builds, not beer bel­lies, and while it would cost more than other camo, Hairston was con­vinced there was a crowd of af­flu­ent, fit sports­men who’d pay a pre­mium for high-func­tion­ing gear. The co-founders did no mar­ket re­search, but any Mckin­sey con­sul­tant would have given them a green light.

Sitka strug­gled at first. Hairston couldn’t find re­li­able sup­pli­ers and fac­to­ries. He started on the trade show cir­cuit with a hodge­podge of fab­ric sam­ples and shod­dily sewn gar­ments. He had to stack the first batch of mer­chan­dise in his yard (he’d moved to Dixon, Calif.) un­til he could make space in his garage. But the de­mand was there: Sch­nee’s bought $10,000 worth of coats, pants, and ther­mals and sold out in two months. By 2007, Sitka’s se­cond year in op­er­a­tion, al­most ev­ery ma­jor out­door re­tailer was stock­ing the brand, and it did about $2 mil­lion in sales. Hairston and Hart were strug­gling to stay ahead of de­mand in late 2008 when W.L. Gore, mak­ers of Gore-tex, ap­proached them about us­ing the fab­ric. They sold Gore a stake in Sitka—and then, wor­ried the deep­en­ing re­ces­sion would crush busi­ness, sold the com­pany out­right. “I spent my last two weeks at Sitka writ­ing the busi­ness plan for Kuiu,” Hairston says. (Hart stayed on to steer the brand.)

Un­like Sitka, Kuiu sells di­rectly to con­sumers, al­most ex­clu­sively on­line. This al­lows the com­pany to of­fer even bet­ter ma­te­ri­als at a sim­i­lar price point; a $300 Kuiu jacket would cost about $ 450 else­where. Kuiu fea­tures merino wool from New Zealand, Pit­tards leather from Eng­land, and cov­etable wa­ter­proof fab­rics from To­ray, a Tokyo-based chem­i­cal con­glom­er­ate in­tro­duced to Hairston by a for­mer Patag­o­nia de­signer. (To stand out even more, Kuiu uses pro­pri­etary cam­ou­flage; see op­po­site page.) Hairston did pub­lic re­la­tions, too, blog­ging about the sup­pli­ers be­hind his ma­te­ri­als and peo­ple such as a re­tired Lock­heed Martin en­gi­neer help­ing Hairston piece to­gether a car­bon-fiber backpack sys­tem.

“I re­al­ized if our prod­ucts were go­ing to sell, we had to ed­u­cate our cus­tomers,” Hairston says. He also de­tailed his field tests with posts that typ­i­cally ended with pic­tures of a gut­ted an­i­mal and a huge set of horns. It was a bloody spec­ta­cle—and hun­ters ate it up. In its first day of sales, Kuiu moved $500,000 of merch. “There’s such a stigma around hunt­ing that so many com­pa­nies are afraid of,” Hairston says. “That’s worked great for us.” This year, Kuiu ex­pects sales of about $50 mil­lion.

Kuiu’s suc­cess hasn’t gone un­no­ticed— ma­jor re­tail­ers have the com­pany in their sights. Un­der Armour now sells hunt­ing ap­parel, and re­view­ers are prais­ing Ca­bela’s in-house gear. At Sch­nee’s, Sitka is stocked along­side Duck­worth, a line of wool gear the re­tailer de­vel­oped with sci­en­tists at Mon­tana State Univer­sity. (Hart says Sitka has grown 35 per­cent to 40 per­cent ev­ery year since Gore bought it, but he de­clines to share rev­enue fig­ures. The brand got a boost in 2013 when Vladimir Putin was spot­ted wear­ing it.) Kuiu, for its part, is try­ing to ex­pand its cus­tomer base, hom­ing in on new turf. Next year it will re­lease a line of shorts and shirts for trail run­ning, and its $190 Guide jacket can now be had in “ma­jor brown” or “phan­tom gray,” col­ors that seem par­tic­u­larly suited for snow­board­ers. It’s work­ing on a uni­form for the U.S. Navy Seals, some of whom are al­ready reg­u­lars, and the pro­pri­etary cam­ou­flage is be­com­ing a busi­ness of its own: Kuiu is col­lect­ing li­cens­ing fees from com­pa­nies plas­ter­ing the de­signs on ev­ery­thing from binoc­u­lars to hunt­ing bows. Those who hunt with ar­rows have to get close to their prey and so are par­tic­u­lar about their camo. Which is ex­actly what Hairston wants. <BW>

“There’s such a stigma around hunt­ing that so many com­pa­nies are afraid of. That’s worked great for us”

Pho­to­graph by Molly Mat­alon

Ja­son Hairston is on the hunt for a dif­fer­ent out­doors­man By Kyle Stock

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