Lisa Huang, product line manager of Patagonia’s kids’ division, explains how the iconic outdoor company turns its eco-conscious, anti-corporate ideals into profit.
Since its founding in 1973 by French-Canadian environmentalist and rock climber Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia has spent more than 40 years proving corporate responsibility is très chic. Decades before businesses embraced the green movement and other cause-related marketing initiatives, Patagonia’s maverick founder spearheaded campaigns to use eco-friendly materials in its outdoor clothing and pioneered sustainable manufacturing practices. Known as the first major clothier to make fleece jackets out of recycled bottles for children and adults, Patagonia continues to introduce eco-friendly initiatives out of its Ventura, CA-based, solar-powered headquarters. Of late, the company has been in the headlines as it, along with a coalition of environmental groups and Native American tribes, have entered a legal battle over President Donald Trump’s plan to reduce the size of two Utah national monuments. No matter who or the size of the foe, Patagonia has built its reputation on fighting for its eco-friendly and conservation principles. Along the way, it has developed a loyal following, spanning kids to adults and outdoor adventurers to city slickers.
“I had always admired Patagonia for their environmental philosophy and knew I wanted to work for a company that stood behind its values,” says Lisa Huang, product line manager for Patagonia’s childrenswear. An executive at Patagonia now for nearly 14 years, Huang joined the company after working at one of its largest outdoor competitors for three years. She says that while plenty of brands educate consumers about environmental and social issues, Patagonia goes the extra mile by proving it can reform its customers’ behavior. “It’s necessary to protect and preserve the environment we love to play in for the next generation,” Huang says. “New generations are even more aware of the need to preserve resources and want to be engaged in change.”
When it comes to working to preserve the environment, Patagonia means business—even at the possible expense of its own business. In 2011, the company rocked the fashion world with the ad campaign “Buy Less,” which urged consumers to avoid over-buying its apparel to address the rampant waste in the industry. Ironically, the plea spurred an increase in sales for the brand overall. The success, however, didn’t derail Patagonia from its mission. In 2017, after years of hosting pop-up events for its “Worn Wear” program that collects used Patagonia clothing for resale, the company took the concept a step further with the launch of a “Worn Wear” website. Consumers are able to purchase, trade and sell second-wear Patagonia products by taking a box of their clothes to a local company store for an appraisal. There, employees offer to wash and repair the used items for resale. “This simple act of extending the life of our garments through proper care, reuse and repair reduces the need to buy more over time,” Huang says, noting the conservation of CO2 emissions, waste output and water usage. While reselling is by no means a new concept in fashion, Huang says it’s rare for a company to embrace it as strongly as Patagonia.
It’s also rare when a company debuts its first-ever TV commercial that doesn’t pitch its products. Patagonia did just that last month. The one-minute spot, costing $700,000, primarily featured Patagonia’s founder discussing the needs to protect and cultivate America’s public lands in response to President Trump’s request to review 28 of America’s national monuments that may result in downsizing many of them. Chouinard states, “This is not about politics or partisanship—it’s about standing up for places that belong to future generations.”
Huang believes Patagonia’s strong ethos is what makes the brand particularly attractive to today’s parents. In fact, its children’s division is a major contributor to the company’s nearly $1 billion in annual revenue. The kids’ merchandise is distributed worldwide in hundreds of retailers, from specialty outdoor to children’s boutiques to big box, as well as in more than 30 Patagonia flagships across the U.S. It’s one of the few brands that can span tiers without losing cachet. “Parents today want to know the story behind a purchase, making sure their money is supporting a good cause,” Huang says, noting that Patagonia has donated 1 percent of its annual sales to hundreds of environmental organizations since 1985, partly as compensation for its impact on the environment. “Patagonia’s product durability, reparability and lifetime guarantee is a great value that keeps customers coming back,” she says. “Our customers know that we build our kids’ products with the same materials, construction and testing standards found in our adult line. Plus, we offer a lifetime guarantee, and will fix any product whenever possible through our ‘Worn Wear’ program.” Huang adds, “We always have our customers’ back, from product details to building a better tomorrow.”
Who is the Patagonia Kids’ customer?
Our customer is someone who has spent their life in the outdoors and now has a family. They want their children to come along on their adventures and to discover and develop their own love of the outdoors. They want quality and durable products that can be handed down and used by multiple kids.
What are your best-selling styles of late?
Our Hi-Loft Down Sweater Jackets in baby, boys’ and girls’. They are filled with 100-percent recycled down insulation, and the shell fabric is made from 100-percent recycled polyester. Our re-launched ski collection is also performing well of late. Those garments not only contain recycled materials that are tested to the same quality standards as our adult skiwear but have new features that make the product even better for the slopes like pass pockets, powder skirts, 100-percent seam-sealed waterproof protection and grow-fit extension for longer wear.
What other eco-friendly materials are featured in the kids’ collection?
We use recycled polyester and nylon, as well as organic cotton in many of our products. In addition, many of our offerings are produced in Fair Trade-certified sewing factories. However, just because the products are environmentally friendly doesn’t mean we sacrifice fun elements like color and prints.
What trends are you seeing for Fall ’18?
Customers are not only looking for performance but features that provide value or style like reversibility, snap-off hoods and growth extension. For Fall ’18, we are introducing the B’s and G’s Tres 3-in-1 Parkas for kids. These are our most protective cold-weather winter outerwear for everyday use featuring classic styling. Overall, colors have become more sophisticated as kids want to look like mini-me versions of their parents—more browns and charcoal gray for boys and softer pinks and turquoise blues for girls. I also see more gender neutral offerings performing well, especially in families with multiple kids. Blues and grays are great for fulfilling those hand-me-down needs.
What effect has the mini-me trend had on your business?
The mini-me trend has definitely helped drive our youth business. Matching seems to outweigh coordinating as the kids want the same best-selling styles and colors from our adult collection, but we do offer other options for those who prefer to coordinate.
What’s changed most about the outdoor apparel industry over the last decade?
Customer expectations have certainly shifted. Kids’ clothing is no longer an afterthought. Parents are better informed with higher standards and expectations. The overall outerwear industry has also come a long way in making more technical products for kids. The products are not just dumbed-down versions of what their parents wear but are of equal quality, using the same materials and construction but made to fit kids. Fun, on-trend colors and prints are also more prevalent. We have seasonal design themes that set the tone and direction, and the inspiration for the products comes from market travel mixed with our heritage that is rooted in timeless versatile design.
Do you conduct focus groups?
No, just a lot of field testing. Product can be internally tested, where we have various employees with children use the product and provide feedback, or externally tested through our network of adult ambassadors and field testers who have children. Depending on the type of product and material, the tester could be an infant, toddler or youth. Their likes and dislikes, as well as any functional comments, are relayed to us through their parents. They tend to get creative with videos, photos and PowerPoints, which are always fun to read!
Well, I suspect kids tell it like it is? Exactly. Kids are very tactile and will always tell us if a material is too stiff or crunchy, and if there is something scratching them like labels, thread or seams. Oftentimes, we get feedback that the child loved the product so much that they refused to take it off or will only wear that garment, dirty or not.
What’s the most important quality of kids’ outerwear?
Function. If it’s meant for snow/wet weather, it must be waterproof. If it’s meant for warmth, it must have the right amount of insulation. We approach the fabric choice, aesthetic and styling for products used in a warmer year-round climate differently to those used in places with significant seasonal weather.
In terms of function, what are the critical needs for each age group?
From infant to child, design needs are primarily based on the stages of mobility. For infants, we have an organic layette collection and buntings that range from fleece to down insulation. These styles must be comfortable and easy for parents to take on and off for diaper changes. Also, no hardware can be near the baby’s face. And for those learning to crawl and walk, grippers must be included on any foot-covered styles.
How about toddlers?
They are now walking and playing, so we include pockets for them to put their found treasures and keep their hands warm. The zipper pulls need to be big enough or have webbing as the child is just learning to zip their own jacket. The colors for this age group are typically brighter and more playful with lots of fun prints.
For big kids, the purchasing decision starts to move away from the parent to the child. They want to look less like their younger siblings and more like peers and adults. Boys like darker, more masculine colors and girls want to look more sophisticated yet still feminine. While we stay true to our heritage and the outdoors, these styles need to reflect market trends in terms of length, shape and styling more.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve been given a lot of advice, but it’s life’s experiences that I’ve learned from most.
What do you love most about your job?
There are many rewarding aspects of my job and our company, but specific to my everyday responsibilities, I would say the proto fittings. No matter what kind of work week I may have, the children are adorable and we always end up leaving with a smile and a good laugh. •