Patagonia and the Rugby Shirt
Unintentionally the founder of a million-dollar business through following his passions in rock climbing, surfing, fly fishing and environmental protection, like many entrepreneurs, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard created new products as a solution for those that weren’t otherwise available or equipped for purpose on the market at the time. From climbing-appropriate rugby shirts, reusable climbing pitons and quick drying fleece pullovers, Patagonia clothing in general has become internationally recognised for its conscious construction methods and the brand’s choice use of sustainable fabrics and material substitutions. With roots that can be traced back to ‘Chouinard Equipment’, a climbing hardware supplier established during the early 1970’s, which later developed into supplying robust apparel styles for climbers, surfers, environmentalists and free-spirits seeking new challenges and pursuits in the great outdoors, the impact of their first apparel design - a rugby shirt - proved beyond their initial expectations and changed the face of both climbing apparel and Yvon’s own life path.
A keen climber during his teenage years throughout the 1950’s, the connection Chouinard developed with nature and rugged mountain environments not only allowed him to create a lifestyle that meant he could continue exploring daring pursuits, but also became the key influence behind him developing reusable climbing pitons. At a time where natural fibres and basic materials were all that was available, innovation was necessary when it came to achieving new heights and finding solutions to issues within already established equipment. Well practised in creating steel and iron climbing pegs, Yvon went into business by initially supplying climbing friends and enthusiasts along the California coastline with durable, hard wearing tools under the name of ‘Chouinard Equipment’. Regardless of his success, he witnessed his impact as one of the largest climbing suppliers in the USA had on rocks and the natural landscape. Leaving permanent damage on the stone and not viable for recycling or reuse, Chouinard began to prioritise the earth and developed innovative aluminium chocks that could be wedged by hand, opposed to hammer in and out of cracks, to form a climbing route which were then introduced into the Chouinard Equipment catalogue in 1972. Following a trip to Scotland a few years prior, similar minded designs orientated around durability and longevity led to the introduction of the Chouinard Equipment’s first apparel offering - traditional rugby shirts imported from the UK.
Notorious for their robust construction and development for Ivy League sporting events, rugby shirts made from thick cotton with herringbone twill piping and horizontal stripe patterns weren’t the common choice for climbing at the time - canvas slacks, chore jackets, button through shirts and knitted jumpers were the most typical choices - but moving forward with the times and a need for better coverage meant Chouinard found his own solution. Constructed with wear for rugby in mind, the short collars prevented players grabbing hold whilst rubber buttons reduced scrapes against the skin during a scrum. To distinguish different teams, horizontal stripes in rich tones of orange, brown and red were popular across retro designs from the likes of English sportswear and football equipment suppliers Umbro; the label that captured the attention of Chouinard and became his working point for his own custom designs.
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. Proving a success within the local California climbing community, it wasn’t long until the newly named Patagonia was in high demand for their fresh approach and solutions with orders from as far as New Zealand and Argentina. Standing up to repetitive abrasions on mountain peaks, easy to wash and featuring a heavyweight finish to prevent wind chill, the pointed collar neckline of the rugby shirt proved useful for holding rope slings in place away from bare skin whilst the bold stripe designs added extra personality. Witnessing their success through a new clothing route, Yvon and the team realised that their journey into design was a way to support a marginally profitable hardware business and through the early 1970’s further creations such as polyurethane rain cagoules, bivouac sacks from Scotland, boiled-wool gloves and mittens from Austria were introduced to their catalogue offerings. Conscious of their reputation within rock climbing and with a desire to offer their goods to all, the Patagonia name helped to establish the next era of Chouinard’s journey, whilst paying homage to the lessons learnt and memories made whilst travelling around South America.
Continuing to follow their intuition and the guidance of nature when it comes to developing their ideas further, nowadays Patagonia rugby shirts are constructed from organic cotton, in favour of their Cotton in Conversion and Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC) Pilot Cotton initiatives. Favoured for their high level of comfort, ease of wear and ability to be layered throughout the year, Patagonia demonstrates their focus on conscious sourcing in recent collections through the incorporation of industrial hemp, which 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 and association has earned Patagonia an honourable reputation as one of the world’s greatest outdoor labels; a title they continue to prove year upon year.
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