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Outdoor Retailer & Salt Lake City

Sep 3, 2013

Flying over Utah and into Salt Lake City is impressive. The city which hosts the ‘Outdoor Retailer’ trade-show each season is smack bang right in the middle of a really forbidding landscape; the salt lake is real people!, and it’s deader than the Dead Sea, poisoning everything it touches. Pair this lunar landscape with the furnace blast of high summer and it is all a little unnerving to a northerner like me. I kept thinking, ‘if the air-conditioners go off, we are truly screwed people!’ I took the TRAX (Salt Lake City’s Light Rail‘) into town from the airport. The slick street cars cut a path right through the center of the city and seem to a great way to get around – and yes, they are air-conditioned. A lot of the streets are extra wide to accommodate the tram tracks, which gives you the impression of some European city like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

I admit that my impression of Salt Lake City is based on ignorance around the Mormon religion and a particularly successful episode of South Park that tells the story of how the Mormon religion came into being (‘dum, dum, dum…’).  I figured this was my chance to go a little bit deeper.  Most of Salt Lake City's attractions and landmarks relating to Mormon history are located on Temple Square but the rest of city is full of them as well.  Temple Square is actually Utah's most popular tourist destination. Three city blocks in downtown Salt Lake City that contain nearly 20 attractions related to Mormon pioneer history and genealogy, including the Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle, and the Family History Library. A visit to the Temple Square area of town, could almost be compared to seeing something as glittering and over-the-top Vatican City in Rome. Nothing this like this (outside of Disneyland maybe…) exists in the North America.  I wasn’t raised with much religion of any kind, which has made me an enthusiastic ‘tourist’ of world religions, and I view anything from Catholicism to Haitian voodoo with the same awe and ignorance as I would some perplexing work of modern art in a gallery. (by the way - The Baptismal Room in the LDS temple is straight out of a Jeff Koons installation with it’s elevated Jacuzzi shaped font sitting atop the backs of 12 life size ceramic oxen - look it up). Temple Square is very peaceful and very European feeling with all of its grand ‘old-timey’ architecture. You are welcomed into most of the buildings by modestly dressed Mormon women who seem to love talking to visitors and answering questions. The scale and detail inside places like the Tabernacle is comparable to any duomo in Italy, giving you a good idea of just how much money and influence the Mormon religion has in this state.

Meanwhile on the other side of town - walking around the East Broadway area you could see that there are some alternative shops and a definite ‘hipster’ presence in the city. There were some cool shops selling vintage 70’s furniture, etc. Small bars and busy restaurants are dotted around the mostly empty streets - but even after 7pm it was just too damned hot to be walking around. I was really the only human being actually on the street. People tend to flock to the recently built City Creek Centre shopping mall which offers an air conditioned inside/outside feel with a glass atrium walkway, complete with meandering rock edged stream that links the shops and services in the mall to both Macy’s and Nordstrom department stores. I’m really not into malls…but this is an oasis in the middle of the desert. God bless air-con.

Utah, despite what you may have heard, isn’t a ‘dry state’ - as in non-alcoholic. Utah’s famously strict liquor laws, were relaxed in 2009 but still remain complicated. Stiff drinks and doubles are illegal in Utah. Bars and restaurants must use meters on their liquor bottles to make sure they do not pour more than 1.5 ounces at a time. It is illegal to stiffen a drink with a second shot, for example: a drinker can order a vodka and tonic with a shot of whiskey on the side, but not a vodka tonic with a shot of vodka on the side. Restaurants serving alcohol need to keep the actual bottles and bartenders out of site. …you see what I mean? just a bit odd. I was able to buy beer in the supermarket (I love being able to do that!) and there was certainly no shortage of beer at the ‘OR’ trade-fair.  Many of the brands showing at ‘OR’ actually vie for the crowds attention in the later part of the afternoon; who has the best DJ?, craft beer on tap? Give-aways?

Outdoor Retailer is the biggest outdoor trade-fair in North America -and the reason I was here. This is the place where the industry goes to show off what they have been working so hard on all season - with the aim of walking away with a full order book. It is no surprise buyers and media get the royal treatment (reserving a space to set up your brand’s stand is expensive!). Mega-brands like Go-Pro had huge spaces in the middle of the main hall while other companies were tucked into small corners on the upstairs mezzanine. I was warned this show was massive and was not disappointed. The sheer sprawl of the show means being on time for my back-to-back appointments resulted in frantic speed walks (with fingers crossed…am I going the right way?). Consulting the on-line floor guide is a good idea but slowed me down. Better to just keep moving and aim your body in the right direction.

Equipment and hard goods take up the majority of space at ‘OR’. Hey, those canoes and long boards need room! This isn’t to say that there wasn’t a mind blowing array of clothing, footwear and gloves because this show is huge! Everyone and I mean everyone who is remotely connected with the outdoor industry and has a product to sell or buy is here. From Australian oilskin drover coats to huge outdoors brands like North Face and Arc’teryx to companies that make canoe paddles or sell adventure holidays. There was even a small booth selling nothing but trail walking sticks (I didn’t even know you could buy walking sticks!).

So who looked the best? Well, Arc’teryx not only had the most happening social area on Friday afternoon but they also had the freshest looking technical colour palette in backpacks, soft shell jackets and rock climbing ropes. It was very evident that most other big brands from Marmot, North face to Adidas outdoors seem to be playing catch up with what Arc’teryx have done in the industry. No other hiking/climbing brand at the show could even touch them. Their new super lightweight  alpine climbing pack line (Alpha FL 30 and 45 models) was getting a lot of attention at the ‘OR’ show.

The brand that Arc’teryx and others will need to keep an eye on is Canada Goose who have the ‘it’ winter jacket (the Chateau Parka) that everyone wants right now - something about that old school embroidered badge on the sleeve.... Canada Goose product is still 100% made in Canada, their booth looked great at the show and always had some serious looking buyers going through and trying on the range. Their soft-shell and fashion down styles don’t look that innovative but it’s only a matter of time...

Patagonia Alpine Houdini

Patagonia's new Alpine Houdini weighs in at only 6.5 ounces, it's among the lightest waterproof jackets on the market (but still has full-length zipper, draw chords in the hood and hem, a helmet-compatible hood, and a pocket. It's waterproof (10,000mm) and breathable. It stuffs into its own pocket and can clip to a harness or pack. 

Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 800A zipperless sleeping bag

The Sierra Designs’ innovative Back-Country Bed is accessed via an opening right down the middle, and closed up with a comforter that seals out drafts but won’t restrict your movement as you shift around at night. The bag is stuffed with top-shelf 800-fill, hydrophobic down—the kind that springs back to life almost instantly after being drenched—and is rated to 15-degrees ($399) or 30-degrees ($349). The bag was demonstrated non-stop by a super enthusiastic guy who would climb inside the bag, wear it as a make shift puffa and show off all the features and tech specs again and again. He always had a little crowd around him enjoying his little show.  

Kelty PK50 zipperless backpack

Hmmm there is a trend happening here..a completely zipperless 50-liter backpack. The pack still has nine compartments, but you access them via a combination of drybag-like roll top closures and Velcro. Removing zippers saves on a bit of weight and saves on possible frustration: if you don’t have zippers, you can’t break them.

Hydrapak SF500 & SF750

I just love the look of these water-bottles, kinda like a hospital IV drips. New soft flask sizes from Hydrapak SF500 and SF750 sizes, (they were launched this summer). Flask includes shut off valve, and optional hand strap. Fits in a jersey pocket once empty.  Priced between $15 and $25.

Trends

Innovation at this years ‘OR’ comes from the ongoing need to move faster, with less weight or fuss. There is a push towards greater degrees of waterproof but at same time always increasing breath-ability and function with an eye to constantly decrease the weight of any garment. Buzzwords: Lightweight, Packable/Collapsable, Adjustable, Zipperless (see above).

Color

Climbing ropes from various climbing specialist brands companies show how color has moved on in outdoor and sport over the years. Yes there are still a lot of brights on show (not neons) but these look best mixed back with new neutrals. There were some sophisticated shades like ‘dusted plum’, soft forest green and yellow ocher inspired from nature and definitely high-end fashion. New colour coming through in everything from sleeping bags to soft-shells include softened berrie colors like huckleberry, blackberry. These aren’t pastels – they are faded forest/fruit orchard colours ; some will remind you of a forest berry others will make you think about your parents vintage pup-tent and sleeping bags.  Tons of black, and charcoal around but the classic grey is looking less true grey-scale and taking on colour inspired by clay and mushroom. The purple-grey at Arc’teryx looked really fresh. Best advice for designers working in outdoor is to develop a full colour offer that includes the best of the pop colours, softened brights, new neutrals, black and charcoal. 

Colour use –

Colour for outdoor activities has taken up where winter sport has been headed over the past few seasons. Head to toe colour blocking in solid colour garments looks the most modern. Enjoy mixing up your colour. The color-blocking theme looks great from climbing and hiking companies. Who specialize in reliable waterproof softshells. Avoid co-ordinating pants or shorts with top of body (something smart winter sports brands have been doing for a few seasons). Very few contrasting trims or traditional garment colour blocking evident. Color blocking/paneling in outerwear looked old fashioned/naff.  The more sophisticated palette (that offers more choice in outdoor) will just get bigger, offering more and more choice in technical clothing, making it easier to transition 'outdoor' clothing into everyday life.

The other part of the show that has grown over the years is the sourcing side. These are the fabric, trim and clothing-manufacturing suppliers based both in the U.S. and overseas. It makes the show a one-stop shop for designers and product developers who need to check out what the competition is selling and find new suppliers to build their own product.

This was a great opportunity for me to really go through the ranges of some great overseas mills and let them know what was needed for next season. There was also key trims suppliers like YKK and 3M. There is a lot to see - and time ticks by and I found myself legging it in a panic from one of the satellite pavilions to the north west corner of the main hall near the end of the day (literally from one end of the show to the other!).  I was there right up to the bitter end, adding mileage to my feet as many brands began to pack up their booths. Phew!

Ok, time for tacos!  There were food trucks parked outside of ‘OR’ and ‘Chow Truck‘ makes really good taco’s

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