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A Canada Goose jacket Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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The race to make the warmest winter clothes

Why winter coats from Canada Goose and Moncler are ready for the Arctic.

In September, the luxury outerwear company Canada Goose opened its fourth store in the US, in Short Hills, New Jersey. The store is packed with the company’s expensive and now-ubiquitous winter jackets. But this new Canada Goose store also has a “cold room,” where shoppers can try on the parkas in temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

These in-store freezers, which also pop up in the brand’s stores in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Boston, and Montreal, are something of a gimmick. You don’t really need to stand in a freezer to decide if a Canada Goose coat is warm; the fact that the coats are everywhere today probably speak for itself. But they are also there to prove a point.

“We have stores in cities like Vancouver and Tokyo where it hardly snows or goes below 0 degrees Celsius, but people want the best,” Dani Reiss, Canada Goose’s CEO, tells me. “A decade ago, outerwear was purely a commodity, something you wore out of necessity — it wasn’t a fashion statement. Today, outerwear is part of people’s wardrobe and they look forward to wearing it.”

Canada Goose jackets line a store at the Yorkdale mall in Toronto.
Canada Goose

It’s become pretty common for your average city dweller today to buy winter apparel that was developed for the coldest places on earth. They aren’t just wearing Canada Goose jackets on the slopes or while climbing mountains. People are also wearing them in local coffee shops, on the subway.

Super-warm clothing has always been available, but it was typically sold by legacy outdoor companies like the North Face, Patagonia, REI, Columbia, and Eddie Bauer. This outerwear was also usually purchased by outdoors enthusiasts or worn for an annual ski trip. Today, though, heat technology has gone mainstream. Moncler parkas, originally created for skiers hitting the trails of the French Alps, are a staple for wealthy winter shoppers.

You wouldn’t think you’d need a coat meant for the South Pole in New Jersey. But the American Midwest is getting hit with polar vortexes, where temperatures are dropping to as low as minus 50, while the UK is bracing for what could be its coldest winter of record. Cold weather is expected to become even more extreme, and so shoppers are suiting up.

And even in places like San Francisco and the Bay Area, where temperatures don’t really dip below 60 degrees, shoppers want the best, in terms of both winter apparel’s function and the status it conveys.

With the rise in popularity of extremely warm apparel, the competition is heating up — literally. Brands are now locked in a battle to appeal to customers with products that beat the cold. When it comes to temperatures, how low will these products go?

Why everyone is wearing the warmest clothes on earth

Blame it on the smartphone, but shoppers today expect their products to do everything. That means they aren’t just buying winter apparel to beat the cold. They expect to be kept warm in all scenarios ... as in, withstanding a casual hang in a freezer, like at those Canada Goose stores.

“Consumers today expect technical attributes to their garments, and that means winter clothes should be able to function in extreme climates,” says Edward Hertzman, the founder and president of the trade publication Sourcing Journal. “It’s no longer a crazy idea for a T-shirt to be able to sweat-wick, have UV protection, or have cooling or moisture retention qualities. This technology already exists, and people expect it. Companies are just responding to consumer expectations.”

The rise of obscenely warm winter clothes also has to do with global warming and the harsh winters that come with it: “Clothing is getting more extreme because weather is more extreme,” says Hertzman. “In New York City, it can be 60 degrees one day and minus 6 the next. So you need to be prepared for anything.”

Shoppers will pay a premium for high-performance, high-status items. This is essentially how Canada Goose and Moncler, as well as brands like Mackage, Woolrich, and Moose Knuckles, have turned the winter jacket into a luxury staple. Some of these brands, like Moncler and Canada Goose, have been around for decades. But their surge in popularity over the past five years, thanks to celebrity and fashion hype, means that fancy winter coats are now ubiquitous.

Shoppers, or at least a certain subset of them, are now dropping $1,200 on outerwear. These luxury coats are filled with the highest-quality feathers, coated with polymers for extra warmth, and then covered with layers of materials that make them windproof, waterproof, and, of course, cozy. Their hoods are often trimmed with fur, so they look expensive too.

In order to prove their apparel withstands the coldest temperatures, some brands have taken to rigorous lab testing. Mackage, which sells winter coats priced from $500 to $1,600, says it has an on-site lab at its headquarters in Quebec, where it tests the jackets in various temperatures. It then attaches tags to the coats so shoppers know the limits of each jacket, which Mackage says goes from 23 degrees down to minus 31. Co-founder Eran Elfassy told me in 2016 that the company’s products are “made for Western European winters.”

Mackage, a Canadian outerwear brand, tests its coats inside a lab at its headquarters in Quebec.
Mackage Facebook

Moncler, on the other hand, prefers testing on outdoor athletes. In 1954, the company’s down jackets outfitted the Italian expedition to the Karakoram mountain range, which sits at the borders of India, Pakistan, and China. The 1955 French expedition to the top of Mount Makalu, between Nepal and Tibet, also wore Moncler.

Today, it still boasts its self-described “link between Moncler and extreme adventure.” It’s tested products on legends like Italian explorer Michele Pontrandolfo, who has completed more than a dozen polar expeditions wearing head-to-toe Moncler.

Canada Goose, too, prefers to field-test. Its best-selling Constable parka, for example, was developed with feedback from Canada’s National Police, who work in some of the coldest climates in the world. And while most Canada Goose customers don’t typically face these arctic climates, details like this make the brand’s winter coats seem like a worthwhile investment to many shoppers (although some Nordstrom reviewers have complained the coats make them look like marshmallows, or the Michelin Man).

The science of warmth, and the tech in heat tech

To be sure, Canada Goose and Moncler did not invent the puffy coat, nor are they the only warm options. You can buy low-end ones at fast-fashion retailers like Zara and H&M, and you can still go to your foolproof outdoor stores, like REI. There are also plenty of winter coat options on Amazon, including “the Amazon coat,” which has gone viral thanks to its popularity, supposedly, among Upper East Siders.

But the popularity of these luxury outerwear brands has also forced companies to step up their game and take sourcing and materials more seriously, says Michael Berkowitz, the founder of the winter coat brand Norwegian Wool.

“The quality has really deteriorated over the last few decades because so many brands were outsourcing overseas, and so their materials got cheaper,” says Berkowitz. “Some expensive designer winter coats you are buying today are not the same quality your grandfather’s coat was. I think a lot of these premium winter brands saw an opportunity to fill the void.”

The luxury outerwear brand Moncler has outfitted historical mountain climbing expeditions.
Moncler Facebook

This means that even teen retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch are selling winter coats that boast wind resistance, as are brands like Tommy Hilfiger. Even a fashion startup like Everlane assigns temperature indicators to its winter coats.

Understanding winter coats has also become more nuanced, notes Karuna Scheinfeld, the vice president of design at Canada Goose. Brands used to differentiate themselves by talking about the ratio of feathers to down, the fluffier undercoating of a bird. They would also boast their fill power, a ratio of how much down the jacket is filled with (the range is from 300 to 900).

Today, though, brands are going the extra mile. Canada Goose, for example, has developed its own warmth scale, the Thermal Experience Index, or TEI. (Level 1 is for light, for “active pursuits,” while 5 is extreme, “field-tested for the coldest places on earth.”) These levels have to do with down fill but also include ratios of down to air.

“Allowing air to move through the blooms is how you capture warmth,” says Scheinfeld. “You are basically trying to capture air. If you just stuff some down in there and don’t allow air to circulate, the jacket won’t be warm. But a combination of down and air allows for thermal retention.”

Tech might be stepping into this industry, but there’s still one pain point that winter apparel is struggling to get away from: animal products, like fur and down.

Canada Goose has developed its own warmth scale, the Thermal Experience Index, which has five levels.
Canada Goose

Last year, Burberry and Chanel announced they would no longer sell merchandise with fur. They followed brands like Gucci, Michael Kors, and Jimmy Choo (which is owned by Michael Kors), which all phased out fur from their collections last year. The city of Los Angeles also just banned the sale of fur.

Scheinfeld says Canada Goose is open to the idea of alternative materials to fur and is exploring new options.

“Fur is a crucial element at the highest level of warmth, and no other fake version can currently function like it,” she says. “That being said, it’s for extreme environments, and there are alternative solutions.”

Down feathers, on the other hand, are another story. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has waged war against brands like Canada Goose, publishing investigations on animal cruelty (which the company denies) and buying billboards near the brand’s stores in New York and Chicago to persuade customers to stop buying down coats. But purists in the winter apparel industry say there’s no getting around the use of down in premium products.

“We’ve looked into synthetic fabrics that say they are as authentic and as warm as down, and they just aren’t,” says Berkowitz, of Norwegian Wool. “The truth is that the alternatives don’t have the same results. Synthetic down doesn’t have the same effects in the form of insulation. When we are selling a premium product, we’re not going to compromise because we want to give the customer the warmest option out there.”

But some companies are choosing to invest in new materials and abandon feathers altogether. Fortress, a Utah-based winter brand that promises to keep customers warm as they are “working in the oil fields in North Dakota in the dead of winter, paragliding in November in Utah,” has ditched down-filled puffy coats. Instead, it’s invented its own insulation material it calls Aeris, which is a polymer foam that the company says is just as warm as down but can also get wet.

It’s similar to Arc’teryx, the technical outerwear company long favored by outdoors enthusiasts, which sells shelled jackets made with Gore-Tex, a fabric company specializing in warm and waterproof materials. Huckberry, an outdoor gear startup company, is also betting on down alternatives, and is selling “Scandinavian” outerwear made of waterproof and windproof polyester.

Even the North Face, a VF Corporation-owned giant in the winter apparel space that makes $12 billion a year, seems to be stepping up its portfolio to compete with Canada Goose and Moncler. It’s spent the past two years developing a new material, FutureLight, which it unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The new fabric is light, waterproof, and, most importantly, unprecedentedly warm. The North Face promises it “will redefine the future of technical outerwear” when it debuts the material this fall in pants, coats, and gloves.

Professional outdoors athletes tested out FutureLight, the North Face’s new material hitting stores this fall.
The North Face

Then, of course, there’s Heattech, the best-selling warming material from the Japanese company Uniqlo. Since Uniqlo debuted its rayon heat retention textile fabric in 2003, Heattech has developed a cult-like status — no down or feathers necessary, and certainly no price tag like Moncler or Canada Goose. Uniqlo makes Heattech underwear, sweaters, leggings, hats, and jeans and has sold more than 1 billion Heattech items, which shoppers flock to because most products are under $15.

Some of the technological innovation isn’t fabric-based: This past November, the clothing startup Ministry of Supply debuted the Mercury intelligent coat, which it claims is the “first intelligent heated jacket,” for $495. The winter coat has a battery that powers a smart thermostat, which reacts to the wearer’s body and environment, giving up to 10 watts of heat.

Ministry of Supply believes its smart coat is necessary for when “you’re commuting, walking the dog, or taking that vacation to the North Pole.”

The race for warmth reaches the mall — and the runway

Luxury brands are enjoying this race to sell the warmest clothes — Canada Goose’s revenue jumped from $218 million in 2016 to $445 million last year. Moncler’s sales, too, hit $1.3 billion in 2017, up 35 percent from 2015.

But mall and fashion brands want a piece of this lucrative market too. This past year, brands like J.Crew, Madewell, Tracksmith, Todd Snyder, and Rag & Bone began making clothes with Polartec, a company that has patented warmth fabrics.

“It seems like we are now working with every conceivable fashion brand possible,” says Gary Smith, Polartec’s CEO. “I’ve never really seen demand like this before. These nontechnical brands want to be able to say their clothes have the warmth and waterproof components to their clothes too.”

Hertzman, of Sourcing Journal, notes that while leaders in the market like Patagonia and the North Face have been working with the Polartechs of the industry for decades, “we’ve seen a huge shift in the market where now everyone wants to work with them.”

Two looks from Tracksmith’s Polartec fleece collection

That companies like Banana Republic or Tracksmith would team up with a storied insulation company like Polartec makes sense. Research and development is expensive; a struggling mall brand (the former) and smaller startup (the latter) don’t have the funds to invent their own materials.

Plus, collaborating with a company like Polartec or Gore-Tex gives these clothes a certain level of authenticity. While the winter apparel industry might be booming, it’s also highly unregulated. That means that clothes can — and do — make all sorts of claims.

“This is a completely unregulated industry, so companies like to make all sorts of technical claims, and it’s hard to validate them,” says Hertzman. “And so the best thing a brand can do is work with a Gore-Tex or one of these companies that come with years of authenticity.”

Then again, a good part of it also comes down to marketing. Are some of these clothes actually warmer than they were years ago? Maybe, maybe not. But teaming up with well-established fabric companies that work with outdoors brands sure gives mall brands something to go on.

“These brands want you to come in and buy something,” Hertzman says. “But if you already have a sweater, or a flannel shirt, what better way to get you to buy a new one than to debut a new product with warmer, better materials?”

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