Despite being founded in North Beach, San Francisco, The North Face is named after the coldest and harshest side of mountains in the northern hemisphere. Now more than 50 years old, the brand has not only grown to become one of the most reputable manufacturers of adventure gear, but has also managed to break into the fashion markets. Today, The North Face coats may be found up mountains and on the high street, evidence of a truly universal and versatile brand.
The North Face: A History
The early stages
Started as a small retail and mail order operation, The North Face was founded by Doug and Susie Tompkins in 1964, only a few years prior to establishing Esprit. With only $5,000, the couple initially provided good quality rock climbing and camping equipment and opened their first store on 26th October 1966. Foreshadowing the future diversity of the brand, the opening featured an eclectic mix of people. The Grateful Dead performed their signature rock music for a crowd that ranged from outdoor enthusiasts to Hells Angels, all gathered to celebrate the launch of The North Face. ‘What a collection of people,’ the San Francisco Examiner wrote: ‘There were nattily dressed individuals rubbing shoulders with bearded, long-haired and sandal-clad beatniks from the neighborhood.’ With a sign above the door reading ‘Mountaineering Specialists’, the store stood in stark contrast to the Condor Club next door and asserted itself as anything but mainstream from the very beginning.
Figure 1. The opening of the first The North Face store.
Two years later, the couple sold the stores for $50,000 to Kenneth ‘Hap’ Klopp and soon The North Face was relocated to the other side of San Francisco Bay, to the Berkeley area. Under Klopp, the brand began manufacturing its own line and in 1971 the ‘Half Dome’ logo was designed by David Alcorn. Simple and classic, it was inspired by the ‘Half Dome’ peak in California’s Yosemite National Park; reaching 2694m it is the southernmost summit of Indian Ridge and is named according to its shape.
With their popularity ever-growing, the brand persisted with committed research and innovation and in 1975 it created its revolutionary geodesic dome tent. With flexible poles that criss-cross over its surface, the model is impressively suited to stand extreme conditions and its launch marked a significant moment in expedition equipment history.
Figure 2. The expedition team gathered at the geographic Pole with two assisting scientists, having arrived to greet them.
From left to right: Dr. Brahim Abdulhamid Alm, Geoff Somers (Great Britain), Quin Dahe (China), Will Steger (USA), Dr. Mustafa Omar Moammar, Jean-Louise Etienna (France), Victor Boyarsky (USSR), Keizo Funatsu (Japan)
In the 1980s, The North Face expanded even more, introducing extreme skiwear collections to further shape the reach of its company slogan: ‘Never Stop Exploring’. Throughout the decade, a number of its most popular products were designed, including the Mountain Gore-Tex jacket and the Mountain Light jacket, and the brand was eventually called up to design exclusive polar clothing and equipment for the International Trans-Antarctica Expedition. The 1990 team of six travelled more than 3,700 miles within 220 days in a mission to spread the awareness of global climate change and in doing so they successfully completed the first ever non-mechanized crossing of Antarctica. The specifically produced Gore-Tex jackets are now some of the most collectable The North Face pieces ever made and heavily influenced the brand’s later collaboration with Supreme.
Not only was the brand conquering the harshest landscapes on the planet, but it also began to tackle popular culture and fashion. The 1990s saw The North Face become one of the staple pieces in the hip hop wardrobe, led by figures such as the Notorious B.I.G. and Sean “Puffy” Combs. Released in a series of bright block colours, the 1992 Nuptse puffer jacket was a streetwear icon in the making and its stature and bulk soon forged part of an evolving naughties trend. From explorers to rap artists, The North Face was the most versatile brand on the block.
Maintaining its duality, today the brand continues to be championed by Geography teachers and grungy students alike. The go-to choice for accomplished climbers, skiers and explorers, together with its corporate sibling, JanSport, The North Face is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of endurable performance clothing, accessories and equipment. However, investing in a number of notable collaborations, it has also established a firm place within fashion markets.
Teaming up with the likes of Timberland and Vans, it has demonstrated that The North Face apparel is not just sensible, but it can also be stylish. It’s collaboration with Supreme took the world by storm, encouraging a mass fan base of streetwear lovers. Since 2007, the designers have worked on multiple lines that adapt the iconic products to suitably showcase the common features of each brand. Including the Statue of Liberty jacket and metallic belt bags, these pieces are highly prized and hard to come by.
Figure 3. Gucci x The North Face
If this collection wasn’t enough to spark an interest in The North Face, its 2021 collaboration with Gucci is sure to do so. Yes, you heard that right: Gucci x The North Face. Who knew that luxury Italian designs and Californian expedition gear was a match made in heaven? Reworking the renowned Gucci beige and criss-cross patterns, the esteemed designs can now be found adorning the trusty puffer and we love it.
The ultimate outerwear collection
Who wouldn’t want a jacket that is reliable, practical and feels like you never got out of bed? It therefore comes as no surprise that the Nuptse puffer is the most sought after The North Face item there is. Harking back to the 90s love affair with the duvet-like piece, the last few years have seen an astonishing rise in the demand for puffers and in 2020 Depop declared the striking The North Face Nuptse jacket to be the most searched item on the app.
Named after the mountain that lies only 2km from Mount Everest, the Nuptse puffer jacket first came out in 1992. Employing a 700-fill down insulation, the breathable baffles (sections of padded material) are sewn together to create a piece that is both incredibly warm and lightweight. Fit for expeditions to impressive global peaks and early morning lectures, if you don’t own a puffer, we suggest you make an investment soon.
With its similar block colour design, the Denali jacket is the fleece companion to the Nuptse puffer. Released in 1995 to combat the climates of the Alaskan National Park it is named after, it remains a popular piece today and is sported by the likes of Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber. Its water repellent overlay and zip-in compartments make it ideal for activities ranging from hiking to dog-walking and its lightweight fleece is brilliant to layer up. A statement piece that is extra warm and comfortable to wear, it is easy to see why all the supermodels own one.
First and foremost, The North Face products are designed for the mountains. Yet, despite its name, the Mountain jacket has found a firm place on the streets over the last 30 years. Devised by Sally McCoy, one of the brand’s previous design directors, the jacket was created according to the Expedition system. Accompanying a group of athletes, she completed an expedition to the Everest basecamp and thereby was able to create a specific system of layered pieces that would zip into one another upon her return. As confirmed by Darren Shooter, out of this was born the Nuptse, Denali and Mountain jackets as well as the majority of The North Face’s iconic pieces.
Found in the classic colour-black contrast, Shooter also revealed that this was not an intentional marketing strategy. Instead of an artistic campaign, the brand had to meet a minimum order for black fabric and so the panels became a staple feature across all the designs. Allowing for both the Nuptse and Denali to zip into it, the Mountain jacket is a useful finishing piece to the trio.
Offered in an assortment of colours, the Osito fleece jacket is an everyday favourite. With its slim fit and large collar, it is a flattering and cosy piece that can be worn with anything from jeans to gym gear. Featuring elasticated wrists and a sturdy zip, the Osito also sports the brand’s logo on the right-hand shoulder. Apparently added during a photoshoot, The North Face representatives wanted the Half Dome logo to be as visible as possible, even from behind.
Thermoball Eco Jacket
The portable puffer, this jacket wins all the awards for practicality. The Thermoball is insulating, water repellent and packable, made from material with a reliable synthetic fill and compressing into a neat pack that easily fits into any shoulder bag or backpack. Above all else, it has a sleek look with a refined puffer style for those that aren’t as keen on the stand-out aesthetic of the Nupste. Handy and sophisticated, the Thermoball isn’t just a hiker’s jacket.
Check out the Thrifted North Face collection:
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