The North Face, normally known for making outdoor clothing and adventure gear, has developed a new fabric that it hopes will not only transform its own business but open the potential to change how we use materials in a range of industries from bags to clothes to cars.
Called Futurelight, the idea for the new breathable waterproof material was thought up by Scott Mellin, the man in charge of mountain sports at The North Face while on a climb in the Sneffels mountain range in Colorado.
"Right now, the expectation from a waterproof product is something loud, crunchy, muggy and unpackable. With Futurelight we can theoretically use the technology to make anything breathable, waterproof and for the first time, comfortable," explains Mellin.
Pocket-lint caught up with The North Face boss at CES 2019 to discover what the company has cooked up, and how the new material will quickly replace Gore-Tex to become the defacto material used by the company going forward.
Creating a new material
The journey starts in 2017. As many climbers, hikers, and runners will appreciate, staying warm and dry is one of the key aspects to not only exercising, but also staying safe - especially at high altitudes.
The problem - according to Mellin - was that on this eventful climb he and his climbing partner had to keep taking off and putting on their kit as the sun came in and out and their sweat levels went up and down. That led him to question whether The North Face could create a fabric that could cope with changing temperate both from the wearer and from the outside as well?
Initially the company turned to Gore-Tex to help create a material that would help them solve the problem, but with only one man in the materials division at Gore-Tex compared to 52 at The North Face, it quickly became apparent that Mellin and his team would have to do it themselves.
How it's made
Two years later a new material has been created. Developed using innovative nanospinning technology and sustainable practices, Futurelight is the most advanced breathable-waterproof outerwear material available today according to The North Face.
That nanospinning process effectively creates miniscule holes in the fabric that allows air to flow through the material but still maintains total waterproofness.
The resulting fabric is so breathable, that it means that if you had a bag made of Futurelight, wet clothes inside could still dry out even if that bag was itself left in the rain. Something that isn't really possible currently.
"Imagine a waterproof t-shirt, sweater or even denim that you actually want to wear. Today we start with jackets, tents and gloves, but the possibilities could be endless."
Clothing for different disciplines
In the flesh and the jacket we try is not only lighter, but softer too. Gone is the waxy crunch associated with wet weather gear, and in is an almost Lycra feel that is both stretchy and soft to touch.
The porosity of the material has positive side effects too, there is no need for breathing holes or zips under the arms, while the jacket we saw could be tightly folded making it even better for packing.
The North Face says that the manufacturing process gives their designers other benefits over the more traditional Gore-Tex as well.
"Nanospinning gives designers the ability to adjust weight, stretch, breathability, durability, construction (knit or woven), and texture to match athletes' and consumers' activity or environment."
It also means that the company is able to create different versions for different use cases such as performance wear, hiking jackets, or merely running tops to suit the activity at hand, be it climbing Mount Everest or simply doing a bit of fell running.
The North Face Futurelight range
Out in Fall/Autumn 2019, Futurelight will start appearing in three distinct ranges, before rolling out across the entire catalogue in 2020 completely replacing Gore-Tex.
To start with it will be available in three different jacket styles including the Summit series, the Steep series and the Flight series.
As the name suggests the Summit series will be geared towards performance climbers and explorers. The Steep series hikers and big mountain skiers and snowboarders, and the Flight series, runners.
But The North Face isn't stopping there, says Mellin. The company plans to launch trousers, gloves, bags, and tents, as well as looking at other potential solutions for the material.
Teaming up with Designworks
Clothing, it seems, is just the start. The company believes that the material will be incredibly effective elsewhere too, teaming up with Designworks, a BMW Group company, to create a camper concept based on the geodesic dome tent structure created by Buckminster Fuller in 1975.
Inspired by a 2008 concept car called the BMW Gina Light Visionary Model, the Futurelight Camper is made of a fabric outer shell, consisting of a flexible material stretched over an iconic geodesic dome to demonstrate the potential use of the new fabric.
Could we see the fabric in convertible sports cars in the future? Mellin hopes so.