It’s difficult to imagine that the defining intention of an outdoor apparel company would be invisibility. How could it be with all those flashy greens and reds? But that’s exactly the concept that Carl Moriarty, design director at Arc’teryx, strives for in every pattern and stitch. “What we’re trying to do is create that more invisible experience in the field,” says Moriarty. “Where the product is something you don’t have to mess with.” It’s a result that comes from repeated incremental improvement, not radical innovation.
For Moriarty, the substantial improvements in outdoor apparel exist on the scale of evolution. It’s fitting, given the brand’s namesake: Archaeopteryx Lithographica, the first reptile to develop feathers for flying. You could say Moriarty has undergone an evolution of his own — the New Zealand native began his career at Arc’teryx when an extended climbing trip brought him to British Columbia; he took a job filling orders at the warehouse, where climbing bums scaled the tall product racks instead of using a forklift. Moriarty has since advanced up the more figurative racks at Arc’teryx, but that doesn’t mean he’s given up his love for the outdoors.
Q: What drives the creation of a new product at Arc’teryx?
A: We try to base it in problem-solving. I think there’ve been some reoccurring themes that have driven the company. For one, durability and longevity has been a foundational principle that the company was founded on. Then the question is, how do you build things that give you the durability you want, but then also the freedom of movement you want? How do you make them lighter? How do you make them drier? How do you make them most invisible to wear? That’s sort of the nucleus of the process. For us, we have a pretty hands-on design process where we still have a full sample floor, we have all of our pattern making, sample sewing and product development in-house. I think the process is generally to arrange all of the functional components of a product to where they need to be, and then work from there. It’s kind of like, “Okay, we’ve got our functional platform, now how do we assemble that into the most elegant solution?”
Q: How many iterations do you typically go through in designing a new piece?
A: It really depends on the product. A good example would be something like the down program, which we started from scratch four years ago. The foundation there, which was sort of the exploration of all the ideas that we wanted to bring together, was probably 14 or 15 prototypes. That gave us the platform, how the jacket was constructed, how we articulated the fit, how we placed the materials. From that, we built like eight products, and each of the extrapolated products probably got three prototypes — and probably at least 100 cuffs, and at least 30 pockets. Trying to work out how to put pockets into a down jacket in an elegant way is like… fuck. Over and over and over.
Q: Has there been a frustrating roadblock that has been thrown up in the design process in recent memory?
A: My colleague, who is the director of hard goods, says that designers really have had a lot of failure. You flail to get anywhere and I think we’re kind of failing all the time. One of the big frustrations is that, coming from an industrial design background, textiles are these really imprecise things to work with. There’s so much envy for the guys at Apple working with aluminum and glass because it’s so consistent. Textiles just aren’t like that, they’re not that repeatable. You have to work with the inaccuracies and get comfortable working with it. One of the big frustrations is when you reach a level of performance, but it’s not consistently repeatable. We’ve got some textiles that we’ve had prototype yardage of that are just amazing, but it’s trying to get them to be repeatable and consistent so that you can make a product with them that’s hard. There are constraints within every business, but you think, “Wow, if I had a bigger budget I could really get after these things.” If we had $20 million just to go after X, it’s rad to think of what you could do.
Q: Do you ever feel like you’re pulled between making a new iteration on an iconic piece and wanting to make something brand new?
A: Good question. I think you’re always trying to balance, but I personally really believe in the evolutionary process for product. We shouldn’t throw everything out and constantly be reinventing. I think it’s much better to build and to evolve — and it’s funny, because you get a lot of pressure for newness. You’ve got to be more radical and more innovative. It’s part of my role to try and be a steady hand and say that we just need to keep after what we know works — what works for us in the field and just be consistent. I think we try to bring real, tangible benefits in the field and try to stay away from getting too caught up in novelty and bells and whistles. It comes back to simplicity. It’s kind of our belief that the simpler you make things, the easier they operate in the field. I’m sure if I had another three vents in a jacket and I kept adjusting them, maybe I could fine-tune my body temperature all through the day, but I’d rather just get on with it.
Q: What is your most memorable backcountry experience? What’s your favorite go-to spot for everyday recreation?
A: That’s a hard one. We just rode bikes across Baffin Island in the spring last year and that one was just epic. That’ll always be remembered just because of the epic nature and suffering of it. But man, I think the one that just really stands out there is skiing just out of Whitewater in Nelson, B.C. I had my first true Kootenay powder run and you know, I grew up skiing in New Zealand and this concept of what champagne powder is was defined on that trip. This one particular run was just, yeah — I mean, it’s waist- to chest-deep, and I just remember coming down off this one ridgeline, and it was eye-opening.
I think my go-to is a mountain biking trip you can do out of Vancouver where you can catch a 45-minute ferry ride across to a little town called Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast. You can jump on your bike off the ferry and you can ride for like 50 to 60 kilometers of just amazing singletrack. It’s always quiet, and it’s just beautiful in the woods there. They just opened a brewery, just where the trail hits the road again and you’re about to roll down to the ferry, with an older Airstream and a wood-fired pizza oven in it. You can just roll straight there and then straight down the hill onto the ferry. It’s always a super-rad day.