This technology-driven clothing brand says American-made is still possible

This technology-driven clothing brand says American-made is still possible

Voormi is an American-made outdoor brand that makes garments mainly from wool. Started by former Microsoft employee Dan English, it is an experiment in material innovation with natural fibers.

Timm Smith, chief technology officer at Colorado-based Voormi says: “We like to look at everything from a technical perspective. In some ways, we’re like a Tesla, breaking new ground, but in terms of apparel and performance fabrics.”

Wool, an ancient material, has its limitations despite being so resilient in harsh climates. Smith and his colleagues want to see how they can adapt natural materials like wool to the modern needs of the outdoor industry, and for those whose jobs require them to be out in nature in all weathers. “It’s really only recently that we’ve entered the world of man-made fibers when it comes to alpine clothing,” says Smith. “Yet, to this day, it is almost impossible to mimic the unique natural properties of wool in an extruded synthetic fiber.”

In 2010, English started SWNR, a technology-oriented company that Smith says “isn’t that public facing.” Voormi, instead, is the public arm of this, putting research and design in performance textiles to work in products that consumers can buy.

Smith, who previously worked at GoreTex, known for popularizing waterproof fabrics, was excited by English’s passion for innovation.

“When Dan realized that the outdoor industry had been selling more or less the same items for a long time, and many of them used synthetic materials, he was a bit surprised. Coming from Microsoft in the 90s and early 2000s, where everything was about innovation, he wanted to see if he could help bring that technological mindset to clothing. So he decided to jump in, he explains. “And the vision for Voormi was to showcase what we think the future of clothing could be.”

For three years, the company developed materials and design. Not a single product was sold. In 2014, they debuted with their first collection. Despite not doing sales, discounts or aggressive marketing, they have found a niche market with customers looking for a premium product that can withstand everyday wear and tear.

“There is no fiber more versatile than wool. When you’re on longer expeditions, or outdoors all the time, you need to fit everything in one bag, and wool is ideal for that because it helps maintain your body temperature, Smith repeats.

Voormi’s wool comes from sources in the United States, and as local as the Rambouillet sheep in the Rocky Mountains near their office. The clothes are also produced nearby in Colorado in smaller factories than have been seen abroad. In fact, during the pandemic, the employees were able to go to work, while other large cut and sew facilities had to close, says Smith. “They just shifted schedules.” As the company has grown, they have expanded their manufacturing operations to Montana. But all the products are still made in America, a rarity in the outdoor industry.

This, he claims, has helped them with their innovation. “Because we can have our team in our backyard, we can change designs, change seams and trial products in days, instead of months. It gives us an advantage, we feel. So our growth is facilitated by innovation, rather than just marketing.”

The pandemic slowed lead times. “It took about 9 months before we got wool on the doorstep. We also work with the agricultural industry, so it’s a bit more complicated than just adding more plastic pellets to a machine, he says, referring to polyester production.

While they use synthetic fibers, mixed with the wool, Smith argues that a significant percentage of the garment is still biodegradable, meaning it will break down, and it’s designed to last, made with durability in mind. In addition, the more local production means that less gas and oil has been used on trucks around the world.

Now the focus, he says, is on ensuring that the company makes products that actually meet the needs of a population – a focus on the technical details, that is. “More small businesses die of indigestion than hunger for good ideas.”

This streamlined approach has kept them away from some of the big events in the outdoor industry. Instead, they think more broadly: wearable technology, car. “There are so many directions we can go with this because it’s based on innovation of the materials.”

Smith’s version of sustainability is limited to innovation, which he feels will lead them (and the industry) to better, more environmentally friendly materials, and ultimately durability. For example, when it comes to DWR, a common coating used to repel water, Smith says, “We work with a wide range of options/chemistries with durability as a key balancing factor.” “Basically, if it’s not sustainable, people will spray it with home care products that have no environmental controls for application,” he says. So, there’s a fine line between what works and what’s the most “sustainable” option.

Still, given Voormi’s efforts to produce locally, in smaller quantities and with less waste, using primarily a natural fiber, he claims it’s a model worth emulating.

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