This tech-driven clothing brand says American-made is still possible

This tech-driven clothing brand says American-made is still possible

Voormi is an American-made outdoor brand that mainly makes garments from wool. Started by ex-Microsoft employee Dan English, it is an experiment in material innovation with natural fibers.

Timm Smith, chief technology officer at Voormi, based in Colorado, says, “We like to look at everything from a technical perspective. In some ways, we are like a Tesla, breaking new ground, but in apparel and high-performance fabrics.”

Wool, an ancient material, has its limitations despite being so resilient in harsh climates. Smith and his colleagues want to see how they can adapt natural materials, such as wool, to the modern needs of the outdoor industry and those whose work requires exposure to nature in all weather conditions. “It’s only recently that we’ve entered the world of synthetic fibers when it comes to clothing for alpinists,” says Smith. “Yet to this day it is almost impossible to replicate the unique natural properties of wool in an extruded synthetic fiber.”

In 2010, English started SWNR, a technology-focused company that Smith says “isn’t that public.” Instead, Voormi is its public-facing arm, applying the research and design in performance textiles into products for consumers to purchase.

Smith, who previously worked at GoreTex, known for popularizing waterproof fabrics, was excited about England’s passion for innovation.

“When Dan realized that the outdoor industry had been selling more or less the same goods for a long time, and that many used synthetic materials, he was a little 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 clothes. So he decided to jump in,” he explains. “And the vision for Voormi was to show what we think could be the future of clothing.”

For three years, the company has only developed materials and designs. No product was sold. In 2014 they debuted their first collection. Despite not engaging in sales, discounts or aggressive marketing, they have found a niche market of customers looking for a premium product that can withstand everyday wear and tear.

“There is no fiber more versatile than wool. When you’re on long expeditions or outdoors all the time, you need to fit everything in one bag, and wool is ideal for that because it helps maintain your body temperature,” reiterates Smith.

Voormi’s wool comes from sources across the US and as local as the Rambouillet sheep in the Rocky Mountains near their offices. The clothing is also manufactured nearby in Colorado in smaller factories than abroad. During the pandemic, their staff was even able to return to work, while other large cutting and sewing facilities had to close, Smith says. “They just have staggered schedules.” As the company grew, they expanded their manufacturing operations to Montana. But all products are still made in America, a rarity in the outdoor industry.

This, he argues, has helped them in their innovation. “Being able to have our team in our backyard means we can change designs, adjust stitches and start testing products in days instead of months. We think that gives us an edge. And so our growth is facilitated by innovation, rather than just marketing.”

The pandemic has slowed down lead times. “It took about 9 months before we got wool at our doorstep. We also work with the agricultural industry, so it’s a bit more complicated than just adding more plastic pellets to a machine,” he says, referring to polyester production.

Although they use synthetic fibers blended with the wool, Smith states that a significant percentage of that garment is still biodegradable, meaning it breaks down, and is designed to last, made with sustainability in mind. durability. In addition, more local production means less gas and oil is spent on transportation materials around the world.

Now the focus, he says, is on making sure the company makes products that actually meet a population’s needs — a focus on the technical details, that is. “More small businesses die from indigestion than from a lack of good ideas.”

This streamlined approach has kept them away from some of the outdoor industry’s big events. Instead, they think more broadly: wearable technology, cars. “There are so many directions we can take with this because it’s based on the innovation of the materials.”

Smith’s version of sustainability is limited to innovation, which he believes will move them (and the industry) to better, more environmentally friendly materials and ultimately sustainability. For example, when it comes to DWR, a common coating used to repel water, Smith says, “We’re working on a wide variety of options/chemistry with durability as a key balancing factor.” Basically, if it’s not sustainable, people will spray it with home care products that don’t have environmental controls for application, he says. So it’s a fine line of what works and what’s the most “sustainable” option.

But given Voormi’s efforts to produce locally, in smaller quantities and with less waste, using mostly natural fibres, he says this is a model worth following.

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