Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard and What It Means to be a Great American Designer

Since sometime around the seventies or eighties, the conversation on “the best of” American menswear always seems to include the same, undoubtedly deserving, but all too familiar cast of characters.  Ralph Lauren, Jacobi Press, Henry Sands Brooks, Cliff Grodd, Ralph Ostrove, these are the names that pop up time and time again, riding an infinite echo that drowns out any mention of other possibile contenders.  While these men were (and still are) responsible for the guiding the ever-changing look of American sportswear and it’s modern white-meets-blue collared audience, they still do only make up a fraction of the story on continental menswear over the past century or so.  The rest of the tale is full of designers and figures, most of whom have fizzled out over the years, or never really made a mainstream mark, but there is one man in particular that certainly deserves consideration as one of the greats: Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia.

Chouinard’s story begins back in 1946, when he was just eight years old, as his family relocated from Lewiston, Maine to Southern California.  It was here that he first became interested in the outdoors, joining his local Sierra Club, and emerging himself in the region’s emergent adventuring scene.  Chouinard soon became fascinated with the area’s bird population joining the Southern California Falconry Club, where he was first introduced to rock climbing as a way of getting a better vantage point on the birds he was watching.  It wasn’t long before Chouinard’s passion for rock climbing outweighed any of his other interests, which led him to just hop in his car and embark on the traveler’s life, traversing up and down the Western Coast, climbing newfound routes and surfing during his downtime.

With money running fairly tight, Chouinard bought a used coal-fired forge, and started producing pitons (a metal spike that could be jammed between a rock on mountain face as a way to anchor a rock climber) and selling them out of the back of his car, as a way to make ends meet.  The money started coming in (still only a few dollars at a time) but Chouinard began to realize that his metal pitons were damaging the rocks in Yosemite Valley (which was somewhat of a home base for him,) so he decided to team up with his friend Tom Frost, an engineer and climber, to create a product that wouldn’t interfere with the environment.  With this goal in mind the pair invented a line of new climbing products that were easier on the rocks, based upon their philosophy of “clean climbing” that advocated protecting nature first and foremost.  It was also around this time that Chouinard began adhering the design principles of French aviator Antoine de Saint Exupery, who believed in simplicity, stating that “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”

With these ideologies in mind, Chouinard threw his hat into the clothing world in 1970 when he picked up some locally made rugby shirts while on a trip in Scotland.  Chouinard brought the shirts back to the states, sold them to his buddies, who loved the multi-colored rugby stripes, and reaped a substantial profit, and just like that, a company was born.  His climbing partners were tired of wearing the grey sweats and white tees that had dominated a monosyllabic athletic wear market for decades, they were looking for something new.  Chouinard seized the opportunity, naming his brand Patagonia, after the southern end of South America, and setting out to redefine the world of outdoor apparel.  Chouinard and his team scoured forgotten mills and neglected fabrics, discovering Synchilla fleece and Capilene polyester, two materials that they helped to redesign and shape into better, warmer, more-water resistant fabrics than anything else on the market.  What begin with colored fleece jackets quickly evolved into a whole line including thinner down jackets, pull-over sweaters, and ultralight outerwear.  But Patagonia never gave up their signature look, as they pulled from their surfing and western roots to create jackets what were covered in increasingly crazier patterns and color-schemes.

Patagonia’s products represented a new way to think about outerwear, they analyzed and scrutinized the market to products that were more efficient, easier to wear, and all around more enjoyable, and as a result we saw the creation of outerwear that was worn by us, not on us.  Since their early days Patagonia has also always stood as a great example of how any company should be run, offering healthy food, day-care, and extended breaks to their employees, while constantly giving back to charities and working to protect the environment.  Most significantly though, Patagonia is still constantly searching for a better way to make their clothes.  Their use of recycled materials, organic cottons, and ethical production practices shows that they never lost that innovative and caring edge upon which they were founded.

Chouinard and Patagonia’s work certainly lies in a different realm than the tailored lines and cashmere sweaters of Ralph Lauren and Paul Stuart, but that’s not the game they’re trying to play.  Patagonia is a constant reminder that a sense of self, and a sense of your consumer are paramount.  Their jackets cut out the bulk and awful detailing that plagues most crunchy granola outerwear companies, injecting a sense a tasteful design into the market.  It was Patagonia that paved the way for Manastash, and Arcteryx, modern brands that have learned that overstuffing a jacket with down isn’t good design, but finding the right fabrics and shapes to keep people warm without swallowing them whole, is.  As we move onward into winter, Chouinard’s principles become a guiding light for me, because simplicity will always win out over excess.

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2 comments
  1. classic lines, elegant design….and a wonderful story. Thanks for posting.

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