In June of 2019, Steve Layton was named President of Polartec. The two years since that appointment, it’s fair to say, have thrown up more obstacles than anyone could have possibly foreseen. We caught up with Steve, who’s based in South Carolina, over Zoom to find out how he’s found the first few years at the wheel and what his vision for the brand is moving forward in terms of innovation and sustainability.
What’s it been like being the President of Polartec over the last, let’s face it, very strange few years? What have the main challenges been?
I will say first that working at Polartec has been a huge pleasure despite the challenges. The team is what has made this so enjoyable. Every year has brought about new obstacles to overcome, but they continue to answer the bell.
“We’re going to come out of this a better company”
In 2019, we were acquired by Milliken & Company and with that came an integration and change in strategy. Getting people on board with the culture and change of management is never a small task. Then 2020 hit, retail stores closed, and the bottom fell out. There were order cancellations, and we were asking ourselves whether stores were ever going to open again? And then this year the market recovered much faster than anyone expected, so supply became an issue.
Dealing with those issues in a short period of time has challenged the way we think about doing business. We’re going to come out of this a better company. We’ve accelerated our timelines in getting where we have to be, we have more robust sales, stronger processes, and the challenges have galvanised us to be stronger in the long run. The team’s ability to overcome one issue after another continues to impress me and makes it all worth it.
Do you think a year and a bit of not being able to travel, and being stuck indoors, has heightened people’s appetite for the outdoors?
Yes, it has and it’s changed the definition of ‘outdoor’ too. We historically think of the outdoor market as “top of the mountain” high end gear. It has taken on a broader meaning of “not inside”. More people are getting outside and staying active in less extreme ways.
“They’re looking for something technical and functional that looks good too”
I heard a great term this morning: ‘consumer’s revenge’. It’s the reaction to having been locked down for months at a time. People have rediscovered or found an interest in new hobbies like getting outside more, and they need gear for that. They’re looking for something technical and functional that looks good too
Polartec has, and I quote, been ‘Peaking Since ‘91’. In a rapidly changing world, what sort of challenges do you see a brand like Polartec facing over the next 30 years and how will it go about meeting these do you think?
Competition and cost pressures are always a challenge, but one thing that we have done and continue to do is invest in innovation. Since the invention of synthetic fleece in 1981, we’ve consistently worked with our partners to create new categories such as active insulation or breathable waterproof. We take it upon ourselves to continue to bring new ideas and show the market what’s possible. That’s the best way to stay ahead and continue to move the market forward.
“One thing that we have done and continue to do is invest in innovation”
What is it about Polartec, do you think, that keeps people coming back for more?
People have been having positive experiences with our products for decades. We’ve played a major role in creating core outdoor categories that have been worn by millions of people. The people that wear our products don’t have to be technically minded to feel the difference.
“The people that wear our products don’t have to be technically minded to feel the difference”
If they try something like a high loft, they can immediately feel cosy without wearing something heavy. When they put on a NeoShell the difference in breathability versus other waterproof fabrics is noticeable. It’s those unique things that we’ve done that have created great experiences for the users.
Obviously fully aware there are certain insider secrets you can’t talk about here, but what are Polartec doing at the moment that people should be particularly excited about? What are the headline acts, as far as you’re concerned?
We’ve been pretty quiet the last couple of years in terms of new launches. That was because we wanted to lean in with the Milliken R & D team to come up with some really special leaps. What I can tell you is our four product mandates, which revolve around sustainability. The first is longer durability. I want to have products that last a long time, even something you would pass onto your kids. Durability and longevity are key.
Second, smarter chemistry. We’re moving completely away from PFAS DWRS and will not be using them in any of our products. We’re also about to announce that we’re moving to a less metallic odour-resistant technology that is more peppermint-based.
“A truly circular model would be one that recycles a used garment at the end of life back into yarns that can be knitted and made into new fabrics for future garments”
Third, microplastic shedding. Polartec Power Air is a product that’s more of a bubble wrap fleece. We’ve seen an 80% decrease in microfibre shedding with this fabric than in traditional mid-layer fabrics. We’re also using more natural fibres so if the fabric does shed it won’t create a plastics issue.
The fourth mandate that we’re really looking forward to comes down to full circulatory. We’ve been using yarns made from recycled plastic bottles for a while and we are proud to have repurposed over 1.8 billion bottles, but that’s still linear. What do you do at the end of the garment’s life? A truly circular model would be one that recycles a used garment at the end of life back into yarns that can be knitted and made into new fabrics for future garments. The technology to do that hasn’t arrived yet, but there is a lot of activity going on into realising that ambitious goal.
To summarise, our four mandates are: durability, smarter chemistry, reduced plastic shedding and circularity. Every single one of those mandates has a sustainability angle to it.
How have Milliken & Company been fostering the Polartec brand?
Milliken & Company is a values-based organisation that has been around for over 150 years. That’s no small task for a company with primarily US-based manufacturing. Milliken & Company was able to stay competitive by focusing on operational excellence and continuously reinventing itself through innovation. Both of these core enablers have been plugged in to Polartec.
We’ve been leaning on central R&D scientists for some of our upcoming launches and continue to benefit operationally with Milliken’s help. We also can’t take for granted Milliken’s financial strength. Last year could have crippled Polartec but having a financially strong parent company allowed us to not just stay afloat, but to keep investing as well.
“We’ve been leaning on central R&D scientists for some of our upcoming launches”
I’ve been with Milliken since 2012 and I just love the culture. Polartec is viewed within the company as a strategic entity which is great for us. Milliken & Company believes in our brand and the products and continues to provide fantastic support to enable us to reach our goals.
In all the years Polartec has been going, what for you has been the brand’s standout piece of innovation? The ‘stick this in a history museum’ item…
Over the years, Polartec has created several meaningful categories such as active insulation and breathable waterproof shells. Having said that, for the museum, I would have to nominate the classic synthetic fleece. This product was invented in 1981 and changed the way we think about outdoor clothing. It was listed as one of the most important inventions in TIME magazine. That’s the clear choice for the museum.
“It was listed as one of the most important inventions in TIME magazine”
It’s the best product to have if you are going to be engaging in a variety of activities throughout the day
If you ask me what my favourite piece is, though, I would say anything that uses Polartec Alpha. Alpha is an active insulation, a category that Polartec worked with the US Special Forces to invent. When done right, a piece made from Alpha products can be used in a wide range of activities and temperatures. It maintains your body temperature in a way that traditional insulation can’t. When your body overheats, you don’t have to take layers off, you can continue moving and it will start pushing the hot air out. It’s the best product to have if you’re going to be engaging in a variety of activities throughout the day.
When you’re not being the President of Polartec, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I played American football in university and spent some time in Europe in one of the leagues out there. I’m not an endurance guy. Typical activities are cross training and functional weight lifting. I also coach my kids’ sports teams when time permit.
My favourite outdoor activity, the one I do two or three times a week, is rucking, or weighted hikes. As a minimum, I’ll have 20kg while we’re hiking with the family which lets the children keep up too. It’s the perfect blend of cardio and strength training for me. A lot of my peers on the team are into cycling and they are trying to get me into that, but I’m sticking to my weights for now.