Patagonia and the Rugby Shirt
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. If you saw that title on the spine of a book in your local library, would you think that it was written by a billionaire? The text is a philosophical book on various aspects of business, written by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard. But how did his outdoor passions - in addition to a modest rugby shirt - lead to his company becoming the most recognizable name in environmental protection? The answer has been half a century in the making.
The Patagonia that we know today started as a humble rock climbing hardware business aptly dubbed ‘Chouinard Equipment’. Following the purchase of a coal-fire forge in 1957, Chouinard began smithing hardened steel pitons for climbing around the Yosemite Valley. After selling them to his friend - and friends of friends - he decided to start his own business. At the time, he focused solely on the pitons, two of which he could handcraft in one hour. However, a trip to Scotland in 1970 would change the trajectory of the brand, and Chouinard’s life, from that day forward.
It was a bitter cold winter that year, and Chouinard, who was accustomed to the warm weather of Southern California, needed something to keep him warm and protected while climbing. He stumbled upon a little shop, where he bought himself a regulation-team rugby shirt. The durable cotton and herringbone twill piping, which was made to stand up against scrums and tackles, held up beautifully against constant scraping on rock walls. Additionally, the shirt's sturdy collar kept a heavy sling, loaded with various climbing hardware, from digging into the skin of his neck. Finally, it was attractive to the eye; it was azure blue, with two red stripes and one yellow center stripe across the chest. In a 2005 speech, Chouinard stated that 1970’s active sportswear for men comprised of bland, grey sweatpants and sweatshirts. Therefore, when he returned to the United States from Scotland, all of his climbing friends were enthralled with his vibrant top and wanted one as well. He decided to import a few directly from the UK, and sure enough, they sold immediately.
In replacement of ‘Chouinard Equipment’, the imported rugby shirts were relabelled with ‘Patagonia’ to remove misinterpretations that the designs were only to be used by climbers. The name change was a result of a transformative trip to South America that Chouinard took with life-long friend and The North Face founder Doug Thompkins in the 1960s. The pair decided to tackle Mount Fitz Roy, spending two months on the climb in below-freezing conditions. As it was the most influential climbing experience of his life, Chouinard chose ‘Patagonia’ as the new name for his enterprise because the region represented the magic of the wild places that still remain on planet Earth.
The brand began to gain momentum across the local California climbing community, and it wasn’t long until the newly-named Patagonia began receiving orders from as far as New Zealand and Argentina. It was clear that Chouinard and his team should focus on apparel if they wanted to continue growing at the rate they were. By 1972, the brand stocked rugby shirts from England, polyurethane rain cagoules and bivouac sacks from Scotland, boiled-wool gloves and mittens from Austria, and hand-knit, one-of-a-kind reversible beanies from Boulder, Colorado. Never wanting to settle for less, Chouinard would constantly reevaluate his products so that he could make them more sustainable and durable.
Perhaps the key to Chouinard’s approach to his business was his ability to think outside of the box. During an era when mountaineers relied on moisture-absorbing layers of cotton, wool and down, he sought inspiration elsewhere. The synthetic pile sweater, which was the go-to for North Atlantic fishermen, would be perfect as a mountain layer because of its ability to insulate without absorbing moisture. After his wife discovered a fledgling fabric supplier in Los Angeles, Chouinard sewed up some samples and field-tested them in alpine conditions. Although the synthetic pile was not flawless, it was astonishingly warm when used with a shell. It insulated when wet, but also dried in minutes, and it reduced the number of layers a climber had to wear. This is one example of how Chouinard was faced with a problem and did the opposite of what his competitors were doing in order to develop an alternative.
Since 1996, all Patagonia products, rugby shirts included, are crafted using virgin cotton that is grown with organic practices. Doing so eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and GMO seeds while staying in line with the brand’s Cotton in Conversion and Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC) Pilot Cotton initiatives. Additionally, the brand has focused on conscious sourcing by incorporating industrial hemp. Using similarly sustainable material makes a statement for the durability and beneficial properties of natural fibres and takes us full circle to the more traditional climbing apparel designs of the 1950’s, but with necessary modern updates.
Positively impacting not only their customers but the trajectory of the brand’s future, the ability to bring their own spin to classic styles whilst breaking through the barriers of corporate production has been a cornerstone of Patagonia’s success. Their mission has always been to make top-tier products as a remedy for those that weren’t otherwise available, which they have done year after year.
From there, they harnessed their success as a business to implement lasting solutions. The first step involved in protecting the environment is to recognize that humans are the root of the problem. By setting up their business as an agent for environmental protection, Patagonia does its own penance by giving back in every way that they can. And for that, they are an organization that is certainly worth supporting.
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