The North Face has been in our lives for years, keeping us dry, sheltered, and clothed as we walk the trails and streets. But while you've seen millions of backpacks and puffy coats, how much do you really know about The North Face? Since today is the 73rd birthday of founder Doug Tompkins, we've decided to dive deep and check out some of the storied history behind the brand.
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The Grateful Dead played the store's opening back in 1966. When the North Beach ski shop was opened, Doug and Susie Tompkins made that October 26th a night to remember, and booked the Grateful Dead for a set. Kool-Aid was served, among other things.
Creedence Clearwater Revival used to practice next door to their factory in Berkeley. John Fogerty and the Fortunate Sons played in the same gray-wooded, mud surrounded warehouse, providing the workers with a pretty sweet soundtrack.
Before The North Face, everyone got their camping stuff at surplus stores. There really wasn't much available aside from Army/Navy stuff, so people had to get their gear from musky stores like this. When it opened in 1966, The North Face finally provided an option for people who were sick of olive drab.
The North Face pretty much invented backpacking. Since the Army/Navy surplus store gear was so heavy, backpacking didn't exist — people simply went camping. But when The North Face started taking Vietnam surplus materials like ripstop parachute nylon and aircraft aluminum and turned them into tents, sleeping bags, clothes, and pack frames, the weight of camping gear was so low people started venturing into the wilderness.
The North Face didn't used to make its own products. The brand started out in 1966 as a retail store for high-end ski, mountaineering, and camping supply store, with Bob Dylan conspicuously glaring in the window. A few years later, they moved across the bay to Berkeley, where they making their own stuff.
The iconic logo is of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It wasn't just some abstract graphic design. As for the name, that came from the fact that the north faces of mountains in the northern hemisphere are colder and more technically challenging due to the lack of sun.
The North Face staff used to get a sneak peak at new Clapton tunes. Though former EMI Music CEO Jim Fifield led North Face to the verge of bankruptcy during his tenure as company president, he would play the staff demo tapes while on ski trips.
The North Face supplies the U.S. Marine Corps with tents. This is the ECWC tent — rated for extreme cold weather conditions. We wonder if the government bothered testing this tent or simply looked to The North Face's decades of Himalaya experience.
The North Face has always walked the walk. Even before they made their first pack, they were serving as guides for the California Mountaineering Guide Service, which they based out of their original store. On the upper right is the founder himself, Mr. Doug Tompkins. To this day they remain dedicated to sponsoring athletes and expeditions.
Revolutionary architect and futurist Buckminister Fuller's designs were instrumental for some of The North Face's tents. In 1975, the North Face put Fuller's geodesic design to work with their Oval InTention tent, using curving poles to render the A-frame tent obsolete. Judging from the photo above, Fuller looks pretty wowed. They still use his design today.
The North Face would be screwed without its lifestyle and leisure markets. People love to hate on The North Face because college kids can't get enough "Wilderness Chic," but that actually has allowed the brand to avoid bankruptcy, keeping it afloat through some tough times. If your freshman year roommate didn't have a puffy coat, vest, backpack, and hoodie, tons of athletes wouldn't be getting sponsored and The North Face's "Never stop exploring" motto would have fallen flat.
Ethan Wolff-Mann is the Gear editor of Supercompressor. He has tested North Face stuff in the southern hemisphere, and found that it still works. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.