Columbia Sportswear knows a thing or two about popularity. What began as a hat company in 1938 with roots in fly-fishing developed into a multi-faceted sportswear company over the span of a few decades. Within 40 years of its conception, Columbia, headquartered in Portland, Ore., introduced the industry’s first GORE-TEX® jacket, gained an international following and launched an iconic ad campaign that made a legend out of Columbia’s founder and Board Chairman, Gert Boyle.
Much of Columbia’s success can be attributed to a single jacket, circa 1982, that was met with excitement among skiers: an interchangeable, 3-in-1 parka. The revolutionary concept boasted a new design that was functional, warm and seemingly characteristic of Portland’s low-key fashion. But while styles began to evolve in the Northwest in the 90s, Columbia did little to change its classic ways and inevitably niched its way onto the clearance racks at any given Sports Authority.
These days, skiers will be hard pressed to find a bargain on Columbia gear, as noted by its $800 electric-powered Circuit Breaker softshell jacket, introduced two seasons ago. The transition from value brand to valuable brand has brought the company back on par with other performance-driven staples like Marmot, Arc’teryx and The North Face that have dominated specialty ski shops for years.
True, Columbia shares many similar characteristics of any reliable outerwear, such as waterproofing, insulating or moisture-wicking fabrics, but many textile suppliers have a monopoly across dozens of outdoor clothing brands. “The market is saturated with a lot of the same technologies,” explained Andy Nordhoff, spokesman for Columbia. “You can change the cut or color, but a lot of them are still the same,” and thus offer the same degree of effectiveness—for good or for bad.
Instead, Columbia has blazed the way for proprietary development, giving them full reign over their own technologies. At the core of Columbia’s research and development is its Performance Innovation Team (PIT). This think tank of scientists, engineers, designers and gear geeks collaborates on bringing new ideas and evolutional performance throughout all of Columbia’s brands—including Sorel, Mountain Hardware and Montrail. “From a company perspective, they’ve been a huge force in pushing the boundaries of apparel and technology,” Nordhoff said. So much so that PIT has helped Columbia secure 228 patents on its own technologies since 1991.
But unlike other top-secret patents that require detailed lab tests or scientific jargon to prove its effectiveness, Columbia’s technologies are implied simply by looking at them. Take, for example, one of Columbia’s latest innovations, the Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective, a fabric that’s lined with small, silver dots that bounce back natural body heat. “When people see the Omni-Heat Reflective dots, they intuitively understand it,” Nordhoff explained. “It looks like a breathable space blanket that will keep them warm.” It’s an accurate description that addresses both heat and space, as the boost of extra warmth ultimately reduces the need to bulk up on additional layers—a major boon for any skier or snowboarder who prefers freedom of movement on the hill.
And that’s what today’s style of skiing and snowboarding is all about: freedom of expression, freedom of the mountain and freedom of movement. So it’s no surprise that Columbia has signed on as the clothing sponsor for a handful of freestyle and freeriding teams across the world, including the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) and the Canadian and Russian national freestyle teams. Even Points North Heli-Adventure in Cordova, AK equips its big mountain ski guides with Columbia’s logo. “An important aspect of the freeride movement is mobility and comfort, which is why we’re excited to partner with the freestyle ski teams,” Nordhoff said. “Our technology has enabled us to make light, stretchy and comfortable outerwear that allows these athletes and our customers to have more freedom on the snow.”
This spring, Columbia will introduce yet another proprietary technology four years in the making: the Omni-Freeze ZERO, a cooling polymer that mimics the effect of goose bumps when exposed to sweat or moisture. And much like its cold-weather companion, Omni-Heat Reflective, the Omni-Freeze ZERO features visible blue rings that are embedded in the fabric for technology you can see and feel.
But don’t take our word for it. You’ll just have to see and feel it for yourself.