The men behind Australia’s ‘everywhere’ puffer jacket

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Unless you’re a nudist, getting in touch with nature can add up to serious dollars.

There’s the waterproof pants, the hiking poles, the ergonomic backpack that won’t put your physio on speed dial. And of course, the puffer.

Jackets and vests that keep you very warm but look like the Michelin man are big business. Even Prince Harry and British Prime Minister Theresa May are partial to a puffer, while singer Solange Knowles turned one into a work of art at the Met gala in May.

At the centre of the outdoors industry in Australia is Kathmandu, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

A lot has changed since New Zealanders Jan Cameron and John Pawson opened the first store, in Melbourne, in 1987.

Technology has infiltrated travel and the outdoors; thick Lonely Planet books have been replaced by Kindles and iPads – and the outdoor industry has had to keep up, said Ben Ryan, Kathmandu’s chief product manager.

“We could probably get away with a lot more 30 years ago than we can now. Back then you could make a badly fitting jacket that kept you warm and people would wear it. But customers expect a lot more now,” he said.

For companies in the $1.3-billion Australian outdoor wear market, one of the greatest challenges is balancing function and form – pleasing both the hardcore hiker and the farmer’s market hipster.

“We have to deliver style but not at the expense of performance,” Mr Ryan said. “We have to understand consumers’ needs, not just looking like a dork in the bush.”

The rise of “normcore” and “gorpcore” – both terms that describe the elevation of utilitarian and outdoors clothing to high fashion – is also giving the puffer jacket a newfound street cred. In its recent Paris fashion show, Balenciaga included a blue puffer jacket that will costs thousands of dollars when it’s released.

But Canadian-born Tim Loftus, Kathmandu’s global marketing manager, dismisses fashion’s sudden obsession with outdoors-inspired clothing.

“I’m as far away from fashion trends as you could imagine. People want function and warmth and I don’t think this is a fleeting thing. People need function and style – so they’ve just come to their senses, as I see it,” he said.

Even for commonfolk, “not looking like a dork” doesn’t come cheap. A down puffer jacket can cost upwards of $500. 

Kathmandu has a reputation for promotions and discounts but Mr Ryan said it was not interested in a “race to the bottom”.

“In terms of price, it gets to the point you have to compromise your values or the quality of your product and we’re not prepared to do either of those things. There’s always someone who’s prepared to give up more of their values than we will ever be willing to,” he said.

Values such as sustainable and ethical fashion are ranking higher than ever with consumers, especially thanks to recent phenomena such as the ABC’s War on Waste program.

“We don’t want people buying a lot of stuff that’s going to end up in landfill. We want to give them great product that they want to wear and will look good,” Mr Ryan said.

In October, Kathmandu is releasing its greenest garment to date: a hoodie made from sustainable cotton and recycled plastic drink bottles, and dyed using a special patented technique that bonds colourings from beetroots and oranges to fabrics.

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