Martin has had one of his Patagonia shirts for thirty years. THIRTY YEARS! That’s over half of his life with one shirt. It doesn’t stink. It hasn’t pilled. It’s a perfectly functioning capilene base layer shirt. Let’s contrast that with Patagonia’s garments of today… Several of the shirts we’ve purchased within the last year are pilling, they smell like they’ve compounded the sweat from every trail run we’ve ever been on, and the fabrics have not held their shape. Everything we felt their brand once stood for seems to have literally disintegrated. Whether it’s Patagonia, North Face, Mountain Hardware, or others in the outdoor industry, garments are now made to be disposable. Brands once built on a solid reputation of quality and performance with lifetime warranties you’d rarely have to exercise (but if you did you’d be a happy camper), are now made to be thrown away. The designs are no longer classic but trendy, deliberately crafted to make you itch for the very next hot item they roll out in the very next season; and they are certainly not made to last.
Patagonia is not alone in undermining its former quality-driven prowess in favor of disposability and mass appeal. Brands like these once had a story — something that connected with their consumers and made us loyal fans. But, somehow their stories and reputations have been lost in a trend to sell out to big-box discount retailers, rendering sales that come in bulk. Now it’s just the mass of the uniformed and the undiscerning who will continue to support these brands now just floating on their former laurels. We’re not fans.
That’s why we are choosing small brands with stories we believe in and passionate people who deliver real live customer service. We’re choosing an efficient wardrobe made up of only items that fit in form, function, and ethics. A shirt or a pair of glasses is not just a shirt or a pair of glasses, after all. Every time we wear something or buy something, we are voting with our dollar on what’s important to us. When you choose to buy things from companies that you resonate with on a social, environmental, aesthetic, and ethical level, it just feels good. Beyond that, these smaller companies are more than just good ju-ju. They’re completely filling the void for durable, quality, high-end products that were once the staple of bigger brands.
So what are we buying & wearing these days?
When you live in a van, a few things become ULTRA important:
While science and chemistry have, indeed, produced many breakthroughs in the outdoor apparel and gear world, we have found that going back to nature seems to hit the bullseye more often than not. Mother nature is still the greatest source for raw materials. Thousands of years of survival can’t be wrong, after all.
Brands like Swell, Fjallraven and Ibex are on our hot list for cool, natural product lines driven by all the things that are important to us.
Let’s start with Ibex, arguably some of the best adventure clothing money can buy. No disclaimer required as we’re not getting paid for this endorsement in any way, shape or form. Merino wool is nature’s miracle fabric. Contrary to popular belief, wool doesn’t itch and is not just about keeping you warm (though it does that splendidly).
Wool’s ability to regulate body temperature means you can use the same garment to keep you either warm or cool as you need. Desert dwellers have worn wool for thousands of years to keep them comfortable in temperatures that can swing over 100 degrees in one 24-hour period, in addition to these other wooly perks.
It’s like wearing your own built-in thermostat (and this from someone with hypothyroidism whose temperature volatility is worse than Goldilocks… almost never “just right.”) Nor does wool itch. In fact, it feels luxurious and soft against your skin, especially depending on how it’s spun and what gauge wool it is.
Though there are several companies making merino wool performance clothing (and we’ve tried many), none in our opinion come close to the level of quality of Ibex. Some, like Icebreaker, seem quality to begin with, but the collars stretch and the fabric is prone to holes over time. Not so with the Ibex. The various gauges, thicknesses, and weaves of wool they produce mean you can go from summer to winter with just a few highly durable pieces, from soft & light tees to thick, knobby wools that completely stop wind and bone-chilling wetness in its tracks. The best part is that you get the high function & performance of the best outdoor gear without looking like you’re about to summit Pike’s Peak.
Much to the amusement of the Ibex customer service ladies, Darcy & Natasha, over the last six months, we have slowly replaced nearly our entire wardrobes, foresaking cotton, polyester, and capilene in favor of Ibex. In so doing, we were able to eliminate huge chunks of our wardrobe that may have had style points, but lacked function, or vice versa. With Ibex, all of our items pull double duty.
They’re well-made, durable pieces that are attractive and classically designed, easily going from a trail run to a Michelin-star rated restaurant without any effort. The austerity and simplicity of the designs lend them a timeless and elegant appearance that doesn’t scream “outdoor fitness gearhead” as so many other outdoor brands do. And, whether you live in a van or just want to live more simply, we’d argue that having fewer but better pieces inherently increases the quality of your life. Trading in a higher volume of “average” goods for a smaller number of top-quality, multi-functional pieces keeps life simple, enabling fewer trips to the laundry, fewer internal debates over what to wear, and keeping a reasonable amount of space for your stuff in check….all with undeniably amazing performance.
Ibex is a small company that describes what they do as the “art of wool.” They are all about natural fibers, thoughtful designs, hiking before dawn, biking to work, and having dogs in the workplace. They are the clothes they make, sourcing their wool from domestic sheep farmers and building relationships with their customers in a way that they say, “goes beyond the standard we make, you buy model of indelicate consumption.”
(Check out their blog & the dogs of Ibex, the best friends of Ibex employees). Although Ibex’s sheep clothing isn’t “cheap,” it’s well worth it (and it goes on sale frequently enough for us to be able to buy a little every season).
For accessories, our latest favorite is Swell Vision from South Carolina, and it’s become a favorite for many of the same reasons, including a company culture steeped in adventure and social consciousness. Swell’s handcrafted bamboo sunglasses & watches get compliments every time we wear them — the glasses are sustainable, super cool, and they float!
As a real family business, a big part of their mission is to leave the world a better place by educating and inspiring students in global leadership. A portion of each purchase is donated to their partner, Green School Bali’s local scholars program. In addition to all this, their service is top notch. I had a bamboo frame snap on me, so I emailed the company. They got back to me with lightning speed and a replacement on the way, all packaged beautifully in a new bamboo case. Few companies would respond to that kind of request with such integrity and urgency.
These are the types of experiences that help us make good choices about the few items we want to take with us on our journeys. Swell sunnies get points for style and function (they float, after all!), helping us keep our wardrobes & accessories as compact as possible while maintaining a reflection of ourselves in every purchase.
We think that a shift from big-box brands to more companies like these is imminent as more and more people feel compelled to shed volume in favor of craftsmanship, living smaller and with greater intention. An “efficient wardrobe,” if you will. To live small, you have to be able to sacrifice “more stuff” for less, but “better stuff,” replacing conspicuous consumption with quality-driven spending. Super important if you live aboard your adventure-mobile like we do, but equally valid if you just want to distill your consumptive choices into things that really resonate with you.
Do you have any favorite brands that reflect who you are & where your adventures take you? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!