This Tech-Driven Apparel Brand Says American-Made Is Still Possible
This article was published in Forbes November 22, 2022.
Voormi is an American-made outdoor brand, making garments primarily out of wool. Started by ex-Microsoft employee Dan English, it’s an experiment in materials innovation with natural fibers.
Timm Smith, chief technology officer at Colorado-based Voormi says, “We like to look at everything from a tech perspective. In some ways, we’re like a Tesla, breaking new ground, but in apparel and performance fabrics.”
Wool, an age-old material, has its limitations despite it being so resilient in harsh climates. Smith and his colleagues want to see how they can adapt natural materials like wool for the modern needs of the outdoor industry, and for those whose jobs require them to be in nature in all kinds of weather. “It’s really only recently that we’ve entered the world of man-made fibers when it comes to alpinist clothing,” Smith says. “Yet, to this day, it is nearly impossible to emulate the unique natural properties of wool in an extruded man-made fiber.”
In 2010, English started SWNR, a tech-oriented company that Smith says “is not so public facing.” Voormi, instead, is the public facing arm of that, putting the research and design in performance textiles to work in products that consumers can buy.
Smith, who previously worked at GoreTex, known for popularizing waterproof fabrics, was excited by English’s passion for innovation.
“When Dan realized that the outdoor industry had been more or less selling the same goods for a long time, and alot of them using synthetic materials, he was a bit surprised. Coming from Microsoft in the 90s and early 2000s, where it was all about innovation, he wanted to see if he could help bring that tech mindset to apparel. So he decided to jump in,” he explains. “And the vision for Voormi was to showcase what we believe the future of clothing could be.”
For three years, the company just developed materials and designs. Not a single product was sold. In 2014, they debuted their initial collection. Despite not doing sales, discounts, or aggressive marketing, they’ve found a niche market of customers who are looking for a premium product that will withstand everyday wear and tear.
“There is no fiber more versatile than wool. When you’re on extended expeditions, or outdoors all the time, you have to get everything to fit in one bag, and wool is ideal for that because it helps maintain your body temperature,” Smith iterates.
Voormi’s wool comes from sources in the US, and as local as the Rambouillet sheep in the Rocky Mountains near their offices. The clothes are manufactured nearby as well in Colorado in smaller factories than seen overseas. In fact, during the pandemic, their staff were able to go to work, whereas other large cut and sew facilities had to shut down Smith says. “They just staggered schedules.” As the company has grown, they have expanded their manufacturing operations to Montana. But all the products are still made in America, a rarity in the outdoor industry.
This, he argues, has helped them with their innovation. “Because we can have our team in our backyard, we can change designs, amend stitches, and go test products in days, rather than months. That gives us an advantage, we feel. And so, our growth is facilitated by innovation, rather than just marketing.”
The pandemic did slow down lead times. “It was taking about 9 months for us to get wool on our doorstep. We are also working with the agricultural industry, so it’s a bit more complicated that just adding more plastic pellets to a machine,” he says, referring to polyester manufacturing.
While they do use synthetic fibers, blended in with the wool, Smith argues that a significant percentage of that garment is still biodegradable, meaning it will break down, and it’s designed to last a long time, made with durability in mind. Plus, its more local manufacturing means less gas and oil has been spent on trucking materials around the world.
Now, the focus, he says, is on ensuring that the company is making products that are actually serving a population’s needs — a focus on the technical details, that is. “More small business die of indigestion than a starvation of good ideas.”
This streamlined approach has kept them away from some of the major events of the outdoor industry. Instead, they’re thinking broader: wearable tech, automotive. “There are so many directions we can go with this because it’s based on the innovation of the materials.”
Smith’s version of sustainability narrows down to innovation, which he feels will get them (and the industry) to better, more eco-friendly materials, and ultimately, durability. For example, when it comes to DWR, a common coating used to repel water, Smith says, “We're working on a wide range of options/chemistries with durability as a key balancing factor." Basically, if it’s not durable, people will spray it with home care products with that have no environmental controls for application, he says. So, it’s treading a fine line of what works and what’s the most “sustainable” option.
Yet, given Voormi’s efforts to manufacture locally, in smaller quantities and with less waste, using primarily a natural fiber, he argues that is a model worth emulating.