BY JON BELL | PHOTOS BY ANTHONY PIDGEON
While on a trip to Japan this past April, Dan Tiegs saw something that sums up a lot of what’s happening in Oregon’s outdoor apparel industry these days: a pair of boots.
Actually Tiegs, a veteran of the technical outdoor and ski industry who has done time with the likes of Columbia Sportswear and Hi-Tec Sports, saw at least three or four pairs of the boots on the feet of young Japanese men while in Tokyo and Kyoto as part of the Portland Development Commission’s Popup PDX trade mission. The trip’s goal was to expose nine Portland athletic and outdoor companies, including Tiegs’ WILD Outdoor Apparel, to potential buyers and distributors.
The footwear at hand wasn’t some stylish Japanese boot designed for a night on the town, but instead a rugged hiker that would seem much more at home on a Cascade mountain trail. And unlike so many shoes and boots available today, which are manufactured largely in Asian factories, these boots were in fact made in the U.S.A., right out in Northeast Portland by Danner Boots, the storied Oregon company that got its start making boots for loggers in 1932. Danner’s domestically produced, Oregon-inspired Stumptown collection has been a big hit with Japanese consumers who can’t get enough of the Beaver State mystique.
“Danner has really done a great job of branding this made-in-Portland boot as a real lifestyle boot, and it’s gotten big with Japanese consumers,” Tiegs says. “They want it made in the U.S.A., and made in Portland is even better. There’s something about the authenticity of the lifestyle here that carries a lot of weight.”
That Oregon appeal — and the stateside manufacturing that comes along with it — is just one of the trends driving the outdoor and apparel cluster as it continues to evolve and mature. In what might be considered a new wave washing over one of the state’s strongest clusters, Oregon’s outdoor industry is becoming hipper, more youthful and more diverse, as entrepreneurs in the space embrace crowdfunding and social media, along with new designs blending urban and wilderness flair.
The outdoor apparel sector here does have its gaps — investment can be hard to come by and talent often gets imported from out of state — but the numbers are hard to ignore. According to the PDC, the Portland area has the highest concentration of athletic and outdoor industry firms in the nation. The state is home to no fewer than 810 companies employing nearly 15,000 people for a total payroll of more than $1.6 billion. Overseas markets are hot for Oregon goods, and even though the Nike swoosh still reigns supreme, other icons are making their mark. A case in point: in performance after performance, including on The Late Show with David Letterman, Grammy-nominated musical group Band of Horses sports T-shirts and hats from Portland’s very own Poler Outdoor Stuff.
“I think in the U.S., Portland is certainly the hub of the industry, and it’s known as that,” says Lisa Thompson, president of the U.S. arm of Icebreaker, the New Zealand merino-wool clothing company that had global sales of more than $180 million in 2012. Along with companies like REI, the North Face, Poler and Mountain Hardwear, Icebreaker’s retail store is just one of countless businesses that give downtown Portland and the Pearl District an unmistakable outdoor flavor. Canada’s Arc’teryx will join the club with a 3,100-square-foot retail store on Northwest 33rd Avenue this fall.
“I don’t know if that [reputation] goes as far as Europe or elsewhere in the world,” Thompson says, “but definitely in the U.S., Portland is the hub.”