You know Gore-Tex. You probably wear it. But, it’s also very likely that you don’t actually know how the hell it works. You just know that it keeps you dry and it keeps you warm — basically, you know if you put on a jacket that’s made with it, you’ll be comfortable no matter the conditions and you don’t really need to think about much more than that. And Gore knows that fact — it’s banking on it.
Inside its Delaware-Maryland based HQ, comprised of more than a dozen buildings, the staff isn’t compelled to continuously educate the public on the strides made each year to outshine any other competitor. Their main focus is science, rigorous testing and working hand-in-hand with outdoor brands, medical companies and the US government to develop cutting-edge products, whether those are intended for walking in the Scottish Highlands, shredding down Whistler’s Blackcomb Peak or for a military use that they’re not at liberty to discuss.
“We improve the membranes all the time. The consumers make a lot of associations with Gore-Tex: ‘I’m going to be more comfortable in it. I’ll have more fun in it.’ Whether you’re riding or walking your dog, we just stick with those associations,” says 25-year veteran Gore associate Todd Folmsbee. “We want to make sure whatever that glove or footwear or jacket is, it’s going to outperform your expectations.”
If you’re a visitor to the materials company, it’s rare to get beyond Gore’s Barksdale facility, a 70s era structure that was retrofitted in 2007 to introduce outsiders to its brand history, precise functionality and range of products. Before that, it wasn’t possible to even get past the front desk. Gore’s founder, Bill Gore, made a decision fairly early on to apply for few patents — meaning the ins-and-outs of how the company’s innovative products are made and improved is kept as internal Intellectual Property. Over the last sixty years and counting, everything at Gore, among some 9,500 employees, has been on a need to know basis. There is a chance, however, if you bring along a professional snowboarder like Mark Sollors — who hasn’t ridden his board in the last four years without Gore-Tex and who’s a team rider for Burton, one of Gore’s strongest brand partnerships — it’s possible to peek behind the curtain, or at least some of it.
So, how does Gore-Tex work? At the most basic level, a Gore-Tex membrane is made of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, a material created from naturally occurring fluorspar. It’s durable, breathable and waterproof. The ultra-thin Gore-Tex laminate, coming in at .01 millimeters thick, has over 9 billion pores per square inch, meaning those holes are tiny enough for water vapor (like your sweat) to escape without allowing moisture to permeate from the outside. That vapor escaping is what keeps you warm and dry — not just the fact that nothing else is getting in.
The material might be ubiquitous but Gore prides itself, among other things, on being highly versatile as well. When sitting down with brands to plan an upcoming collection, typically two-years out, Gore brings along a binder of 600 fabric options, varying weaves and weights, for all types of usage. Most companies will find what they’re looking for there. But certain brands are keen to push their fabric development, none more than Burton. Leading the market in the evolution of fabric and prints is one of its key points of differentiation.
“Burton’s creative efforts lead the outdoor market,” says Folmsbee, who’s worked with Burton for more than a decade. “They always are ahead in design by a couple of years.”
That includes being the first — and only brand currently with the capability — to print on nylon Pro-Shell, a technique that results in a crisper and sharper print. Burton was also the first to boost durability by implementing a Cordura treatment with Gore-Tex fabric. Not to mention, it is the only brand to use a Drydye dye process with Gore-Tex — that process saves an entire Olympic-sized pool of water each time a style is dyed and it uses no chemicals.
Many of those techniques are materialized in Burton’s [ak] Collection , which represents the pinnacle of the brand’s performance gear and where it truly flexes as a leader in marrying style and utility. “While it’s beautiful, it’s also wicked functional,” Folmsbee says. “It’s bomb-proof, you know?” And Sollors, whose home mountain is Whistler Blackbomb, is lucky enough to be the face of the collection on the slopes. “I do a lot of Backcountry stuff,” says Sollors. “So, as soon as Gore came into this line, it was a great day.”
That commitment to leading the industry gets full support from the team at Gore. “If they don’t see what they’re looking for, we’ll do the development work to build a laminate from the ground up — or they’ll bring us a textile and we’ll ‘Gore-Tex-ize’ it.”
Once a garment is finally created in a Gore-certified factory (yes, that’s a thing), a prototype of every single style is put through rigorous testing to prove it meets the company’s standards. Gore has four rain rooms globally that will dump three inches of water per hour on each garment style ever produced — a waterproofing test essential to pass before production and before any style can carry the recognizable Gore-Tex black diamond tag. There are also environmental chambers for R&D testing where wind speed can be adjusted, temperatures can vary from -58° F up to 122° F and humidity can be modified between five and 98 percent. All fabrics undergo breathability and durability testing as well as “wet flex” testing — a continuous wash between 500-2000 hours nonstop. Aside from the standard rain test, certain high-performing garments, like Burton’s Pro-grade Hover Jacket, undergo “storm testing” — sitting under a whopping 22-inches of rain per hour. For the record, in three hours, Hurricane Harvey poured down about 13.8 inches in Houston last year (and that was considered a lot).
There’s no doubt that Gore’s reputation is deserved. And behind the walls of its rarely accessed facilities, Gore employees are doing everything possible to maintain its crown in the industry. Today, as sustainability measures are at the forefront of consumer minds (well, and happen to be on the right side of history), it has its sights set on leading the market in phasing out harmful chemicals like PFCs that are associated with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating. “We made a pledge to eliminate all of those [PFCs] by 2023. By 2020, we’ll have them gone by 85%,” says Folmsbee. “We currently have the highest performing DWR that has no PFCs. We found a way to have almost as good of a performance without any.” And as with most things here, how Gore is developing this new DWR is top secret.
Whether you’re spending hours researching — or whether you have cracked into some underground insight on Gore-Tex’s latest product development — it really doesn’t matter. Once you spot a black Gore-Tex tag hanging from a garment in a store, you trust it. You have expectations of it and Gore works to make sure they’re not just meeting your expectations but delivering something even better.