North Face Company History

by Emily Beach; Updated September 26, 2017
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The North Face is an apparel and equipment company that specializes in gear for mountain climbers, hikers, and endurance athletes. Products include Gore-Tex clothing, tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, and a line of footwear. The company also offers a line of clothing and sportswear designed for casual, everyday use. The North Face products are sold in specialty climbing and sporting goods stores worldwide, and the company is known for producing quality, high-end products. Annual sales topped $34 million in 2007.

Company Founding

In 1966, two San Francisco climbing enthusiasts named Douglas Tompkins and Dick Klopp started a small store in North Beach, San Francisco. The store was designed to help serious climbers find quality backpacks and equipment. By 1968, they had begun producing their own line of backpacks using sewing machines in the back of the store. They named their line of packs "The North Face," which comes from the general belief that the northern face of a mountain is usually the toughest to climb. The logo they chose is meant to represent Yosemite's Half Dome rock formation, viewed from the west.

Apparel Line

By 1969, the company had produced its first apparel item, a down coat known as the Sierra parka. The coat was very popular with climbers, prompting North Face to open their first company factory in Berkeley, CA the next year. The company soon added thermal pants, socks, boots, and other cold weather items designed for serious climbers. They soon began to use neoprene layers in their clothing to keep climbers warm. This use of neoprene was a precursor to the use of Gore-Tex in later years.

Revolutionizing the Tent

In 1974, The North Face introduced its first tent, known as the Morning Glory. The next year, the company completely revolutionized tent design with the release of the Oval Intention model. This geodesic dome tent would set the industry standard due to its light-weight and high level of strength and thermal resistance. In 1975, the company also introduced the concept of shingled sleeping bags. Each shingle was filled individually with insulation, providing superior warmth. Since that time, shingled bags have become the standard for climbers.

The 1980s

During the 1980s, the company continued to introduce innovative products, such as the classic Mountain jacket, Gore-Tex clothing, and an entire line of ski wear and gear. This period was also marked by internal strife and near financial collapse due to unsuccessful management attempts. Up to this point in the company history, The North Face had continued to produce all of its own products, rather than outsourcing a portion of the work. This led to large investments in equipment, and a number of late deliveries to retailers. The company's product lines had also expanded so far that they were growing unmanageable. To get rid of excess inventory, The North Face opened a line of low-price outlet stores. This confused customers, who were used to the company's high-end image, and caused a big decline in sales and brand value.

Bankruptcy and New Leadership

In 1993, The North Face filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in an effort to regroup. During this time, the company brought in new leaders, closed outlet stores, and narrowed the product line down to only the more profitable items. In June 1994, the company was sold at auction for $62 million to a group that would become The North Face, Inc. During the 1990s, the company expanded into casual clothing, while keeping its line of tents and outerwear for professional climbers. The company's new management was able to bring The North Face back into a profitable state by the mid-1990s. The North Face has remained a world leader in innovative cold weather gear and climbing equipment.

About the Author

Emily Beach works in the commercial construction industry in Maryland. She received her LEED accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2008 and is in the process of working towards an Architectural Hardware Consultant certification from the Door and Hardware Institute. She received a bachelor's degree in economics and management from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.

Photo Credits

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