Issue #20 "Rei Kawakubo" — Winter 2010/2011
Page No. 82-95
ArchetypeIn 20 years, ARC'TERYX took outdoor clothing to an extreme level of perfection, setting the golden standard for an entire industry. With VEILANCE, a fashion-oriented line created in 2009, the company from Vancouver is bringing its advanced brand of performance to the city. Is menswear ready? Designer CONROY NACHTIGALL is in charge of the task.
By CARSON CHAN
When George Mallory’s body was found in 1999, 75 years after he vanished from the northeast ridge of Mount Everest, he was wearing tweed, silk and cotton shirts underneath a cotton-gabardine shooting jacket. Standard finery for the 1920s Alpine set. Prewar mountaineers dressed for warmth, and if the heavy layers hindered climbing, well, that was just part of the summit’s challenge. But isn’t it enough, the struggle up the icy precipice, broadsided by wind and snow and deprived of oxygen, with the possibility of death encountered with every step? If it’s a battle between man and nature, wouldn’t more suitable attire, optimized for the task, instrumentalize our intelligence? Isn’t our ability to innovate our one natural advantage?
In 1989 Dave Lane decided to make high-quality mountaineering gear. So out of his garage in Vancouver, he meticulously constructed some of the most sought-after harnesses, slings and étriers – foldable rock-climbing ladders made of nylon slings. Two years later Lane partnered up with Jeremy Guard, an equally discriminating outdoorsman, and formed what would become Arc’teryx. The name’s origin is an enduring testament to a certain unabashed geekiness. Like mountaineers self-propelling their mind and body to new heights, the partners admired the archaeopteryx for its evolutionary struggle upwards against the horizontal world (their logo is based on the creature’s most complete set of bones to date, the so-called “Berlin specimen”.)
The duo are a cross between persnickety wisenheimers and material aesthetes. “Arc’teryx products are the Hermès bags of men’s performance wear,” declared Errolson Hugh, the chief designer of ACRONYM, a sporadic Arc’teryx collaborator and one of the pioneers of the field. “They embody a fanatic level of perfection. No other brand in the world even comes close to their quality.” According to Lane and Guard, everything and anything could always be better, and for their money, it was always single-mindedly about the pursuit of the best outdoor gear. Until about seven years ago.
Having by then all but dominated the market for outdoor apparel, if not in volume then in renown, Arc’teryx began to optimize the sartorial interaction with the environment where the rest of us spend most of our time: the city. In 2003, Conroy Nachtigall (b. 1970) was hired to design Veilance, a new, urban line of dinner jackets, slacks, sweaters and car-coats for the brand. Nachtigall drifted through Alberta College of Arts in the mid-1990s (“I made stuff that looked like Beuys; recycling blankets into jackets, and so on”), Central St. Martins (“I made things out of felt; came out disillusioned”), and feeling a little rudderless after graduation, moved to Vancouver, moved in with Arc’teryx and now produces what he calls “technically focused menswear.” Compared to Nachtigall’s clothes – constructed with Arc’teryx’s signature doting on each seam and every closure – and their ability to regulate temperature and moisture with high-tech laminates, fashion and the economy that demands new designs every season begin to seem frivolous, if not entirely irrelevant.
But the question remains as to what extent the clothes we wear day in and day out actually need such acute optimizing. Practically speaking, Veilance runs the risk of becoming the Hummer of clothes, producer of perfectly optimized garments that are nothing more than a look, functional in a world that has no need for its capabilities. It might be worth noting that Veilance makes only menswear. Women, it seems, find quibbling over the merits of Gore-Tex Pro Shell versus Soft Shell, the breathability of taped versus machine seams, and the warp-and-weft configurations of laminate substrates, frivolous, if not entirely irrelevant. But to leave it at that would be to miss the point. Like all luxury items (their new blazer retails for about a thousand Euros), the real value in Veilance is not exclusively its craft, but the attached narrative of the globe-trotting man that it lends its wearer – as he jumps, perhaps, from planes to taxis to board meetings to poolside cocktail parties on rooftop bars. Built from materials developed in labs, casting a sleek silhouette, and technologically insured for the most extreme of geo-climatic conditions, it’s hard not to imagine the cinematic potentials within – anything can be conquered in this armor.Interview (Click to show)
Carson Chan: Have you always been an outdoorsy kind of guy?
Conroy Nachtigall: Not in an organized kind of way. I like being outdoors in a general, Canadian kind of way. I suppose it’s Scandinavian as well, this deep feeling of getting out. Being from Calgary, which is sort in the middle of nowhere and not a particularly attractive city, you’re an hour from Banff National Park. Nature was in your face. Standing on any high point in Calgary, you see the Rocky Mountains. The prairies stand between Calgary and the mountains like a trench that you have to leap over. I grew up on the edge of the mountains, not in them, which heightened the desire to reach them.
How did you end up at Arc’teryx?
It’s a convoluted story of me trying to find my way. I studied at the Alberta College of Arts in the 1990s. I made sculptures that were inspired by Joseph Beuys. They were these really sculptural garments made out of felt; recycling blankets into jackets, and so on. Even then I realized that either I was 100 per cent dedicated to what I was doing, or I was going to stop, and the idea of spending endless days alone in a studio just didn’t appeal to me. I’m most creative when I have to respond to something else, something imposed. Without a brief or an assignment that I couldn’t morph into purpose, I felt kind of lost.
In the garment industry, charged with the task of clothing people, you saw this brief.
It’s a real-life situation that I could respond to, and in the switch from sculpture, which was already a 3D discipline, I became really interested in all aspects of design, and grasped onto the problem-solving aspect of it. I went to Central St. Martins in London to study fashion – my thesis show featured sculptural clothes made out of felt – but I came out of it the same way I came out of art school, disillusioned. The fashion scene just didn’t interest me very much. I wasn’t disillusioned about making things, but as an industry it didn’t appeal to me. I’m always a little self-sabotaging. I wanted to start my own line of menswear with a technical focus – using technical fabrics and such. I needed to find a source of income so I called Arc’teryx, who coincidentally were also trying to start up a technical menswear line called Veilance. I thought I could go and do some part-time patterning, but they said 100 per cent or nothing. It was an easy decision; having access to all of their technology and all those fabrics.
Why technical clothing?
Need is what drives the technical end of design. Purely form-based ideas, what I would call “fashion,” is when you come up with some concept and you make things to approximate it – to look like something. I wanted more than that – it was about how you move in it, what you use it for, where you end up while wearing it, and more importantly, where it can take you as an individual. Opportunities are opened up with tools, and choosing the right clothing is like choosing the right tool.
But most late-capital city dwellers don’t do things to fulfill basic needs. Going to restaurants has very little to do with satisfying our nutritional needs; we go to dine. When we choose what to wear, the question of warmth or comfort, even, is only a part of the decision. Scandinavian women like their short skirts and stilettos as much as women in warmer climates – and I wager than none of them are all that comfortable. I think the same goes for men. Fashion plays a much larger role than simply meeting the demands of the body. What we wear communicates visually and socially.
What you’re saying is not wrong, but my feeling is that there is no shortage of people designing fashion – clothes that are formally, rather than functionally geared. I don’t think that I could do that really well. Wearing something impractical because it looks stylish was never something that I personally could do and be convinced of. Actually, the first thing we did when conceiving the Veilance line was to see how fashion was important in helping its wearers create an identity. It’s the first visual clue that determines what people think of you, how they respond to you. This is an important function of clothing and ultimately I would like to bring practicality into a role where it can similarly project identities. Aesthetically, minimalists like Dieter Rams intrigue me. The box appeals to me intellectually more than the adorned box. Donald Judd’s furniture, which is formally rigorous to the extreme, speaks to me most.
Carlo Rivetti spoke to me about his label, Stone Island, in terms of product, rather than fashion design.
I would say the same thing. The majority of the books on my shelf are about architecture. In a way, product design makes the details that fill out space, and that’s the way I see garment design as well. Design products become part of the individual’s construction of the space around them. I like to think of clothing as similarly creating a space around its wearer. The language of this process becomes all the more important if we want to be precise about what we communicate. You can have a Baroque space or you can have a completely minimalist space, but they both speak. I just visited the New Museum in Manhattan by SANAA, which is fantastic because it creates such an unexpected experience as you walk up to it. It looks like this thing that just grows out as giant lumps of sugar cubes. I’m also interested in the raw, brutal side of architecture – like Luigi Moretti or Peter Zumthor, who show unpolished things in the most poetic way.
What connects these architects you’ve mentioned – Zumthor, Moretti and SANAA – is the formal clarity, as well as the deep investment in materiality in all their work. Zumthor is particularly obsessive in the way he draws out every brick and each individual stone in his drawings.
They all define known archetypes, while not readily accepting them. This I quite like. Someone like Zaha Hadid is, I guess, progressive, but in the end the designs her firm produces don’t say much to me other than its own creative process. I don’t see this kind of design – whether for clothing or buildings – having that much lived meaning for other people. In the end they’re spectacular for the sake of being spectacular.
You also seem interested in the social aspect of clothing and building design. Performance wear as we know it today isn’t more than 20 years old, and Errolson Hugh [of ACRONYM] told me that most people designing it are completely self-taught. It’s done in a trial and error process – a bunch of guys put together what they imagine would be a great ski jacket, it gets tested by actual skiers, and trouble-shot to produce the optimum garment for the activity.
What was great about joining the Arc’teryx team, in 2003, was that they worked the same way that I worked on my own: completely from scratch. Often I don’t really know how to do many of the technical details I want to do. I know that it’s possible, so I just start by trying. I just jump on the sewing machine and see what comes out the other side. At St. Martins, I was told to come up with drawings first, but clothes are meant for the body and its design has to start as a physical thing, not a concept. It’s because we don’t work with preset rules that we’re able to take things to a whole new level. From pattern making, to selecting materials, to the sewing, the closures, we developed everything by ourselves.
When you started working at Arc’teryx, it already had a reputation for being the most meticulously crafted outdoor wear in the world. What was the reason for starting the urban line?
For one, the company was in transition at the time – so many ideas were thrown in the air, but it’s almost simply because we had the capabilities to do this and no one else did. The project was actually shelved temporarily soon after I arrived – I designed clothes for snow sports for a while – but the overarching mentality at Arc’teryx is that the things we make make our lives better. This idea dominated and directed the outdoor performance wear, and I think that as all of us got older, we all started thinking, “Why don’t my jeans and pullover have nearly the same amount of protection as my outdoor jackets?” This question allowed us to open our philosophy to the urban sphere and try to make it work there.
Were consumers asking this question, or is Veilance answering its own question?
Many of the products we make at Arc’teryx answer questions that people never ask. They’re often things that people don’t realize they need until they get it. The whole idea is that you make a tool that improves an activity, the activity is enhanced, and then you require even better tools. It’s an evolutionary principle.
I visited some stores that carry Arc’teryx and the attendants said that more than 50 per cent of customers were buying the clothes for wearing in the city. The look of sportswear provides a particular, if not cosmetic, visual identification for people living in cities – the implication, its desired signification, ranges from healthfulness and activeness, to thuggishness. By taking material intelligence developed for sportswear and applying it to urban wear with traditional cuts, yes, one gets a garment that performs better in the urban environment, but you’re also making clothes that no longer signify the sportiness, real or notional, that your customers seek to signify. Doesn’t this defeat the point of wearing sports clothes?
I think that’s the huge challenge. Part of what prompted the Veilance line was exactly what you say. People were buying our Gore-Tex jackets and never leaving the city. We’ve always been such a purpose-built, product-driven company that it didn’t sit right with us that people were using the jackets in ways they weren’t meant for. We certainly weren’t going to stop people from buying them, but we also wanted to provide them with a jacket that was built for the city. Since the beginning, Arc’teryx has tried to be as culturally neutral as possible in its design. Making dinner jackets for the Veilance line, introducing traditional stylistic elements into the process has been a huge challenge for us. You can argue that we do have a specific look, and that this has generated its own culture, but the original appeal of Arc’teryx was that it didn’t look like outdoor wear. Our original Gore-Tex jackets looked very different from those you would have found at Sierra Designs, The North Face, or Patagonia. I remember that at one point any yellow jacket with black shoulders and elbow patches was declared an “outdoor jacket,” regardless of how it was constructed, and everyone bought one.
When Arc’teryx launched, its designs didn’t have any of those “outdoor” identifiers. Only recently did its look become part of the outdoor-lexicon. In the beginning we really had to open the jacket up, explain the material, how it’s built, why it’s done like this and why it looked the way it did. It’s a long and complicated story to convey and it was a lot of work to get our retailers to deliver this. It’s the same challenge we’re having now with Veilance. Your typical menswear buyer will say, well, I’ve had a wool coat all my life and these have been around for hundreds of years, so why would I need something different? On the other end of the scale, we have our outdoor-oriented customers who already have a performance jacket from Arc’teryx, or wherever, and they ask, well why do I have to spend more money for something that is constructed in the same way? I would say that the customer we’re trying to identify with through Veilance is ready for something that they are not getting from either ends of the spectrum, neither traditional menswear nor outdoor wear. There’s a small group of people that needs these gaps filled, that sees the many things in our lives that could be improved. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that we would have a device in our pocket that we can whip out to tell us where we are on the planet? Technology has provided all these things that have over time melded seamlessly into our lives, but we’re still walking around in heavy woolen coats and khaki pants. Sartorially, we haven’t really caught up. I want to build tools to enhance our lives.
One thing I admire about Arc’teryx is how uncompromising it is when it comes to meeting the particular demands of each sport or activity it designs for. One would cut snowboarding pants differently than ski pants because the body moves differently; snowboarding pants also need more waterproofing and insulation because snowboarders end up in the snow more often. I think that specifying the different design intelligence required for different conditions has made Arc’teryx a leader in its field, but does Veilance acknowledge the fact that its customers live in different cities?
Well, we try to cover as many bases as possible. Throwing this back into the outdoor context, our winters in Vancouver are warmer and wetter than those in the Rocky Mountains some 600 km east, so the jacket you need for skiing in the two places is also very different. On the outdoor side, we have built jackets to respond specifically to these disparities and this is something that we want to work towards with Veilance. I don’t think we’ll ever define the clothes by cities, but more by types of users.
And who are these different types of users?
They’re riding bikes, dodging traffic, traveling, jumping in and out of subways.
Given the high price tag, the meticulous detailing, the techno-materials, I can’t help but think that some see Arc’teryx clothes as fetish items. One identifies the brand beyond its connection to sports, and with a social or economic peer group. As a fetish item – or an object that demands a certain connoisseurship – it attracts the kind of people who could also taste the terroir in wine, or be able to hear the difference between a ten thousand-dollar violin and a million-dollar one. Arc’teryx breeds this kind of connoisseurship that is invisible to everyone but its wearer. Veilance fans are a certain class of professional men that appreciates the detailing, the slide-snap buttons, the bonded fabrics, porous substrates and what not – trappings of attention reserved only for themselves. Would it be fair to say that Veilance plays up these desires? To what extent do you intend to make collector fetish items?
We’ve identified this, but I wouldn’t say it’s the driving reason for our work! It’s certainly the outcome though, yes. We’re striving for perfection, and the end result is well appreciated by our clients, connoisseurs. A good winemaker is not interested in making wine for every single person on the planet. They want to make the wine for someone who can appreciate every note, every decision. That’s what we do. I think the idea of proudly displaying all the elements of the design is something that exists in the outdoor garment industry, and I would say that this is what turns off the person we want to address. For him, knowing what he has is more important than having others know what he has.
As in our outdoor line, the interiors of Veilance clothes are as nice as the exteriors. If you turned one of our jackets inside out you could wear it like that. Visually, all our seams and connections, even in places where no one would ever look, are clean enough to wear out. We even coordinate the colors of the interiors. Every construction is considered for its durability and simplicity; every detail is approached in a way that will produce its optimum performance. The part that we’re always fighting against is the economics. You can build anything you want, but it gets pretty expensive. Overall, all the elements and details exist on the garment as a cohesive whole. To me, it’s not about the details per se, but about how the details are combined create a perfect object.
This is interesting because it’s easy for women to fetishize their appearance outwardly with jewelry, expensive bags, and such, but this is much harder for men. Men’s fashion has evolved in a way that doesn’t allow for these visual eccentricities. The classic military- or suit-inspired models are enduring but the fetish aspect of Veilance is a way out for men. You already play up the fetish narrative within menswear. Veilance clothes are named after existing, masculine, army types: the field jacket, the cargo pant, the stealth pant, the bomber jacket. You’re serving up the military to a certain class or generation of men who have very little knowledge or experience of actual warfare.
The fetish aspect that you’re talking about is a way for men to get around vanity. Men are not allowed to display their vanity, so we place it in hidden trappings. Clothing-wise, women can plop their expensive bag on the table and the only way men have been able to respond is with, say, sunglasses, or a Blackberry with a special case. It’s always tied to some kind of practical function. Men aren’t allowed to be peacocks.
That’s funny because the male peacock is the colorful one. But besides the visuals, Veilance allows for a certain kind of nerdiness to coexist with a masculine elegance. I can imagine your wearers really caring about the technical accomplishments of each garment, and in doing so it provides an opportunity for men to talk about clothing in a way that was traditionally not available.
When we started to market Veilance, we immediately found obstacles within the general consumer outlets. In Europe, we ended up in many high-end streetwear stores because the streetwear guys were kids who were sneaker collectors. They cared and knew about each shoe’s particular designer, its production run. They already have that connoisseur mentality for looking at products – what’s inside of it, how is it made, what’s the research? In the end, our clothes are fine-tuned constructions, like movies. For whatever reason, “Blade Runner” (1982) is a movie that comes to mind. Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” (1967) is one of my favorite movies, though I wouldn’t be able to tell you why.
Well, comedy is one of the most finely calibrated constructions. If a comedy is not well constructed, not only is it not funny, it’s not anything. Obviously, clothing design can never be predicated on pure function. How much of the artist is still operating within you at Veilance?
He wants to come out more and more now. My real goal is to merge fashion with available and useful technology. I want to build pieces that have more of an emotional investment in them, but that still contain all these things that work. This I would say is the essence of the Veilance line. Stone Island does this really well with their fabric treatments. My favorite material is the Schoeller Nylon Face, even though we don’t use it much. Schoeller has this Swiss approach. They’re able to combine materials like merino wool, supported by a nylon face, and they just do the work to make sure it’s really nice all the way through. The inside is so soft and the outside is protected with Durable Water Repellent – the fabric itself is a piece. It’s a piece about technology and sensual comfort.
It’s soft, technically conceived and provides protection. It sounds like you should design men’s underwear.