True To The Core | How The North Face’s Scott Mellin Keeps The Brand Authentic

We chat to The North Face’s Scott Mellin – the man tasked with keeping the company tied to its roots

Take a walk down the streets of south, west, east and north London one winter’s evening. I guarantee that there’ll be a jacket that you see more than any other. This jacket, the Nuptse, reached the ripe old age of 25 years in 2017. Rather than being a thing reserved for the museum collection in the Royal Geographical Society however, it’s instead doing the rounds amongst the ’yoof’ of Peckham. 

Pictured: Scott Mellin. Photo: Anne Kaiser

The North Face have a lot to thank for this surge in popularity of the jacket; from the nostalgia driven rise in retro outdoor clothing to the explosion of block colour-ways storming the fashion world. Of course, clever tactical collaborations with brands with huge ‘Hypebeast’ followings like Supreme definitely haven’t hurt its cause either; sending the jacket hurtling into the popular culture stratosphere.

Go to an underground rave, and you’ll see a Nuptse tied around the waists of many in the crowd. Flick on the latest season of Top Boy and a blue Nuptse is worn by lead character Jamie. The jacket’s basically everywhere, even in places where you’d least expect it (i.e. hundreds of miles away from the mountains, and on characters who spend much more time in the city than out of it). 

Aside from the stacks and stacks of cash, high fives, and happy board members this level of fame can bring to the company, it can also, if left unchecked, become damaging for a brand like The North Face; one that looks to position itself in the heart of the climbing and skiing communities. With the core climbing and skiing community (myself included) so keen to see constant development of products, it’s sometimes hard to see a brand take a step away from the culture that helped it become as well established as it is today.

“Luckily for The North Face, they’ve got a man who’s able to position the brand at the forefront of the climbing and skiing world”

Just one simple Google search for “How did The North Face become fashionable?” (yeah, I do my research) brings up a heap of questions ranging from “What happened to The North Face?” to derogatory and politically incorrect ones like  “Why are chavs so fascinated by The North Face?” Of course, it’s not just The North Face that are after a chunk of the lifestyle pie – it’s just that they’re the biggest champions at positioning themselves in this market, and therefore get the most flak for it. Patagonia, Berghaus, Columbia – they’re all at it, but The North Face do often feel like they’re the most “seen.”

Pictured: The Nuptse Jacket

Advanced Mountain kit represents the highest level of athlete-driven textile and design development”

Well, luckily for The North Face, they’ve got a man who’s able to position the brand at the forefront of the climbing and skiing world. Roll up Scott Mellin – General Manager of Mountain Sports at The North Face – basically, the man hired to drive The North Face’s research and development (R&D) programme in an effort to keep the brand relevant, authentic, and core. 

And what a job Scott has done, with textile innovations like FutureLight and now their all new “Advanced Mountain Kit” (AMK). Poised to sit within their pinnacle mountaineering range – Summit Series – Advanced Mountain kit represents the highest level of athlete-driven textile and design development and most of all, shows us that all that cash from the one millionth Nuptse jacket sale is actually going back to give the brand credibility in the eyes of the core.

I sat down with Scott to get the scoop on the R&D process at The North Face, the new AMK line and what’s in the pipeline to become the next Nuptse to be worn by the kids on the street in 2040.

Credit: Mathis Dumas

JT: “It would be great if we could get a quick synopsis of who you are, where you’re from and what it is you do at The North Face?”

SM: “So I’m Scott Mellin, I’m the global GM of mountain sports at The North Face. I manage the strategy and innovation for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing and mountaineering. I live in Aspen, Colorado, but I work kind of virtually around the world with our athletes.

“I started with the brand in January of 2017 really with a specific focus on restoring trust and credibility in the mountain sport communities. The first product I started was this, the Advanced Mountain Kit (AMK). FutureLight came as part of the AMK development process. The origin of AMK was that we had an iconic Himalayan Suit that wasn’t in sync with the modern athlete.

“In the old days of the expeditions, you’d go and set up base camp at the foot of Mount Everest (I’ll just use Everest as a metaphor) and then you work over a period of two months where you establish high mountain camps, then you go for a summit push, but after two months at altitude, your body’s pretty destroyed and so you needed the insulation of the Himalayan Suit to keep you alive for a summit push.

Pictured: The original Himalayan down suit against the more modular AMK series

“But today, what we’re seeing is that the athletes are literally working on two week expeditions, through modern training techniques and hypoxic tents that they can use at sea level. This means they can train more efficiently, they can acclimatise more efficiently. As an example, Jim Morrison was testing FutureLight for me in the spring of 2018 – he climbed Cho Oyu and Everest in a week.

“So this kind of gives you an idea of what the modern mountaineer looks like in terms of timelines and how fit these guys are. And so what we wanted to do with the AMK was create a more modular, flexible system that was adaptable to a variety of different seasons, as well as different altitudes and different climates.”

Credit: Mathis Dumas
Credit: Mathis Dumas

JT: “Coming onto the development of AMK and FutureLight, talk me through the research and development process that brings these ideas to life.”

SM: “I have athletes come to Aspen, we typically work in 3 – 5 day increments; climbing or ski mountaineering, whatever the activity that’s core to them. We talk about product; what are their wants, what are their needs and typically out of those sessions I get at least one idea, of which I build a prototype at a development centre in Vietnam and I can have a product out in around five days. Sometimes the athletes don’t exactly know what they need, but I listen a lot and they can articulate what they need without saying they need it and I can go and build it.

“We then go through a process of evaluating the product whilst out in the field and also in the case of textiles, in the laboratory. We’ll go through two, three or four rounds of prototyping before it’s commercially ready and then it goes to the end line teams.”

“Every layer has been carefully considered to ensure that The North Face’s athletes are able to perform their best’

Scott then goes on to talk me through the AMK series of ultra-technical clothing aimed at high alpine mountaineering assaults. Every layer has been carefully considered to ensure that The North Face’s athletes are able to perform their best in some of the most inhospitable regions in the world. See the baselayer built from TNF’s all new ‘Dot Fleece’ – a hydrophilic yarn on the interior, coupled with a hydrophobic on the outer, to suck moisture and repel it away from your skin as fast as possible.

SM: Then we designed a new insulating fleece, so if you think of the baselayer as moisture management, this fleece – which we’re calling Future Fleece – uses a new yarn structure that uses an octagonal shape. Most yarns use a diamond shape, or are round – the octagonal structure is hollow which mimics the effect of down or a synthetic loft, so it traps heat, but it’s a super open weave, which aids breathability.

Pictured: The Summit Series AMK 50/50 Down Hoody
Pictured: Summit Series AMK L3 50/50 Down Hoody interior

“Some athletes prefer Dot, some athletes like Future Fleece, some are combining them; it just depends on the temperature of the athlete, how they run (hot or cold). Those foundational layers are super important as you start stacking from here.”

Then we moved onto the pièce de résistance for Scott and TNF at this year’s ISPO – their all new L3 50/50 down hoody and winner of the coveted ISPO Gold award for innovation.

SM: “We wanted a highly compacted, highly efficient midrange insulator that we wanted to remain breathable. There’s a couple of tricks here; the down tube fabric is coated with aluminium on the inside. We developed a sputter coating technique for the L3 which basically creates a micro layer that’s deposited on the interior of the fabric, which reflects heat within the tube and then the tubes are filled with 1000 fill power down.

Pictured: The Summit Series AMK L6

“You essentially have the thermal capacity of a traditionally baffled down jacket, but because of the high loft, we could use less down in the tube for better compaction and better breathability.”

Scott then continues to show me the rest of the extremely well thought out layers of the AMK system, with every fine detail explained as though he was a school boy bringing in a mad science project to show and tell. FutureLight shell layers were added on top, along with a final L6 layer which used (yet another) technology called Cloud Down, featuring a broken baffle construction to avoid any unwanted heat loss.

Then out comes one of those classic TNF duffles out from under the table, this time coloured in the AMK purple. Packing the duffel was a whole new range of gloves, sleeping bags, tents and backpacks all designed for full on alpine assaults.

SM: “So that’s the Advanced Mountain Kit; 21 new styles, 5 new technologies and three years to develop.”

JT: “So it’s obviously an extremely athlete driven concept, but you’re a company that needs to turn a profit. Where does all of this trickle down to the consumer? Obviously FutureLight is a good case for that.”

SM: “Yeah so this (AMK) launches in Spring 2020, it’ll be available in stores on May 4th. Those same technologies (50/50, Future Fleece, Dot Fleece, etc) will be available in retail styles from fall 2020, so just five months later. It’ll be available in retail products at more approachable price points as well. It won’t have the same level of detail and elevated fabrics and so forth, but consumers will be able to access this at either price point.”

It’s impressive to hear that these products (and textile innovations) are going to be made available to the consumer as early as the end of this year. See it the same way as a typical Formula One team. The North Face (Mercedes AMG), led by Scott (Toto Wolff), send their world class athletes (Hamilton and Bottas) out into most extreme conditions in the world to test products and ideas before allowing the best innovations to trickle down to the standard road car.

“My job is to make the next icons.”

JT: “Obviously The North Face most of all has the largest R&D budget to pump into outdoor clothing. Is the majority of this budget coming through the fashion side of the company – is that keeping the business going?”

SM: “In a way I like to think of the duality of our mountain business and our lifestyle business in that if we’re winning at Summit Series and we’re winning at Black Series (TNF’s pinnacle lifestyle range), then we’re winning as a brand. Our lifestyle business will adopt a lot of these technologies as well – you’ll see a lot of Futurelight styles and in fall 2020, you’ll see Cloud Down versions of our lifestyle business, so there’s a lot of cross collaboration.

“So much of our lifestyle business is based on icons like the Nuptse and the mountain jacket (which are old school Summit Series pieces) – my job is to make the next icons. I’m not a fashion guy, I’m a mountain guy, but these things end up as commercial opportunities five, ten, fifteen years on.”

Credit: Mathis Dumas

JT: “That’s an interesting way to put it. As far as you’re allowed to say, what’s next in the pipeline. Will there be a few changes to FutureLight?”

SM: “We’re constantly tinkering with FutureLight. We have a roadmap to 2.0 and 3.0, which are completely new technologies. We’re putting a lot of time into footwear, we’re going to reinvent our footwear business, starting in 2021, so there’s a lot of development going on there. Insulation is always really an interesting place to play. Similar to FutureLight, there wasn’t a lot of innovation in insulation over the past couple of decades, so I’m making a pretty big focus in that area.

“Everything you’re looking at here is made from recycled yarns, everything is PFC-free, including the membrane”

“And then we’re working a lot on sustainability. Everything you’re looking at here is made from recycled yarns, everything is PFC-free, including the membrane. I think when we can do the highest performance / lowest footprint products, that’s the right ethos for us, because if we won’t do it, who’s going to do it? As you mentioned, we’ve got the biggest R&D budget and if we can’t figure it out, then who is? We think it’s our responsibility as the biggest brand, to lead the industry in these efforts and not make excuses as to why we can’t get there yet.

“When I started with The North Face in 2017, 7% of our product was made from recycled content. In fall 2019, 70% was made from recycled content. So, it’s not all about performance, it’s also about sustainability. There’s a roadmap for all of our products to be made from recycled content by 2023 and that would just set the standard. The only thing that’s holding us back right now is choices that we’re making on our side, on zippers and trims.”

Head to the TNF website for more on The North Face’s Advanced Mountain Kit.

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