The North Face history is one of a small, humble operation that grew over the course of more than 50 years to become a name recognized worldwide for its extensive product line designed for both outdoor adventurers and those whose biggest adventure is trekking to school or work.
Named for the colder, icier side of a mountain that doesn't get as much sun as the southern face, The North Face company founders thought it was the ideal name for the tough clothing and gear they planned to create — rugged enough to get adventurers up the north face of a mountain.
Beginning on the Beach: The North Face Origin
The idea that two people — avid hikers Doug and Susie Thompkins (now Buell) — would decide to start a company to serve hikers and mountaineering adventurers isn't so outlandish outside of the normal adventurous spirit required to be an entrepreneur. However, the fact that the two were on a beach when they made the decision to start a hiking business makes it a story that has often been told.
The North Face origin is worth telling, though, for reasons other than the irony involved. Like many of their followers, the California couple were passionate about all of nature, so of course they frequented the beach as well as the mountains. They felt an almost-spiritual connection to nature and were driven to protect nature as well as enjoy it. That passion for the outdoors and for protecting all of nature was one of the ideals on which The North Face was founded, and it continues as a passion within the company today.
The North Face company began in 1966 with a small retail store in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company would go through many changes in the next 50 years, but as it writes on its website, its goals have remained the same: “Provide the best gear for our athletes and the modern day explorer, support the preservation of the outdoors, and inspire a global movement of exploration.”
Changing Hands: Ownership Through the Years
Just two years after its opening, Kenneth Klopp bought The North Face company and relocated the store to Berkeley, California. Under Klopp, The North Face company began manufacturing its own line instead of just carrying goods from other manufacturers. In 1988, Odyssey Holdings Inc. bought The North Face and introduced an expedition line of outerwear. Odyssey invested in equipment but had difficulty keeping up with product demand and filed for bankruptcy for The North Face in 1993.
In 1994, The North Face was sold at auction to a group that became The North Face Inc. In March 2000, VF Corporation (formerly Vanity Fair Mills) acquired The North Face. Although VF often acquires and later divests itself of companies, it has held on to The North Face. In 2018, VF Corporation moved its headquarters to the Denver area with the exception of its jeans line, which remained in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Expanding Internationally: Diversifying Outside the U.S.
In 1978, The North Face began selling licensing rights outside of the U.S., beginning with Japan, whose rights were acquired by Goldman Co. Japan exclusively marketed the Purple Label, whose products share the advanced technology and some popular features but are made in fabrics and colors unique to the label.
Aside from scouring secondhand websites like eBay, the only way to get Purple Label items was to travel to Japan, and it was estimated that as much as 50% of store sales in Japan were from foreigners visiting the country. In January 2019, The North Face and Goldman Co. finally inked a deal to bring the Purple Label to the U.S. in several product drops spaced seasonally throughout 2019.
In 2014, the White Label was introduced in South Korea, and in 2016, Urban Exploration in Shanghai and Hong Kong. This line was designed with climbers in mind but sold to nonclimbing urbanites with features that work in city living. The Black Label takes classic The North Face outerwear and adds a streetwear vibe; it's marketed in the U.K. and Canada.
Creating Products: Research and Collaborations
Many products come to existence due to suggestions from the athletes The North Face sponsors — climbers, skiiers, snowboarders and runners who are well-known within their sports — who let the company know the issues they have in their sport and what they'd like to see in products.
The company's research, design and development group collaborates with fabric engineers throughout the world to develop new technologies, which it then brings back to the designers who create the new products. They test them in the lab for a multitude of conditions the pieces might encounter. Then, they send the products out with their athletes to test them under real conditions, and they report back to the company. With this feedback, the products are tweaked and refined and tested again until they meet the athletes' tough standards.
The North Face considers its fuseform technology to be a huge improvement over its own previous technology, which was innovative when it was introduced too. It describes fuseform as "... a revolutionary weaving process that blends thicker, more durable threads with lighter, lower-density fibers in high-wear zones, effectively reducing overall weight." Products designed with fuseform will deliver to athletes the light weight they want but all the durability and protection they need.
Protecting the Planet: Recycling, Reusing and Repairing
Taking care of the outdoors has been a big goal of The North Face since its founding and has remained a practice throughout the company's history. For example, the company's website in 2020 declares that it uses 51 used plastic bottles in a men's medium Denali jacket. Reusing these materials reduces the plastic that would be in landfills and reduces dependence on fossil fuels by using products that already exist instead of creating new ones.
To keep its clothing circulating in use rather than ending up in landfills, The North Face encourages its customers to share what they don't want anymore instead of discarding it. The North Face Renewed program takes used, returned, damaged or defective items and cleans them, inspects them for needed repairs and then makes the repairs. Renewed items are sold on the website at a 50% discount over what the product would cost new. While new items have a lifetime warranty, renewed clothing and gear have a one-year warranty.
The North Face company has also pledged to increase its sustainability. The company has committed that 100% of its top nine materials will originate from regenerative, renewable or recycled sources by 2030.
Introducing Adventure: Sponsoring Events
While The North Face has always designed its products with extreme outdoor conditions and use by top athletes in mind, it has also considered part of its responsibility to be introducing newcomers to the outdoors. The company partners with nonprofit organizations like the National Park Foundation that hold local outdoor events that encourage everyone to get outdoors.
In 2010, The North Face established the Explore Fund, which awards grants to nonprofits that either introduce the outdoors to people who otherwise might not have access or propose projects to protect the natural ecosystem. A third award category is for developing female explorers into outdoor leaders and was created to honor a longtime leader at The North Face. Another program, Hot Place/Cool Athletes, hosts free assemblies for middle and high school students, bringing The North Face's athletes to schools to explain how climate change has affected their sport.
Meanwhile, The North Face continues to host challenging events for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy outdoor adventures, sports and exploring. It also understands the need to protect the landscape for future generations.
- The North Face: Our Story: Behind the Brand
- The North Face: About The North Face Renewed
- The North Face: Expeditions
- The North Face: Events
- The Guardian: Patagonia and The North Face: Saving the World - One Puffer Jacket at a Time
- Grailed: The Many Faces of The North Face
- VFCorp: The North Face
- Triad Business Journal: VF Corp. Through the Years
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She has written on business topics for afkinsider.com, smallbusiness.chron.com, Harbor Style Magazine, the Charlotte Sun and more, as well as advertising copy and materials. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards in B2B and B2C marketing.