The North Face

As I’ve said many times, it’s not the manufacturers that decide what we get to see, it’s the store buyers.
No forward orders and the left field, the interesting and the expensive get dropped and we’re all left bitching about what we do find in the shops, and then then logo attached to it. 
The North Face are one of the brands that come up for criticism for somehow lagging behind, or having sold-out and are happy being a dog-walkers or fashion brand. I’m finding out that such notions are wide of the mark, the exciting samples get made, but the assault course they have to cross to get to us is very slippy. The store buyers and the established media have been building some of the obstacles on that assault course, but things are changing.

So, although I’m looking up at the sign in disbelief, I did indeed spend a fine afternoon with the girls at TNF’s UK kit bunker.

That red and black affair I’m wearing is the new-for Spring Aero jacket. TNF makes samples in a size medium, so everything is a little neat on me, but this was soft and stretchy enough for it too feel good on.
It’s got a low profile permanent hood, four pockets and soft inner cuffs with thumb loops. The advertised weight is 480g which is bloody good for what you’re getting. Interestingly it only comes in colours with black, no plain black option. The other colours are the green seen below on the shell and a nice bright blue.
It’s in a light Gore Windstopper, which having used all year on another jacket, I’ve found to be much improved over the sweat boxes of only a few years ago.
I’m coming the TNG gear completely fresh, and I have say I liked this instantly. It was light, the cut is perfect for being actively mobile, the the features were good. Proper mountain wear you could say.

Below is the 370g Heathen in Gore Tex Pro Shell. The fabric has the woven backer and is a new version which feels very supple, the days of crinkly shells really are fast disappearing.
It’s a minimalist bugger this, there’s not much to talk about, water resistant zips, two chest pockets, laminated peak on the hood which has good adjustment, the articulation is good and the fit is slim, so the detail shows in the wearing rather than a list of stuff on the swing tag.
I’m going to say it again, I like this a lot. It’s the classic configuration with those two chest pockets and proper hood, it’s a winter jacket but it’s still properly light.

Above we have TNF’s Penny in her new Ugg boots, and the both of us in Meru Paclite jackets. It comes in at 400g and has that extra Napoleon pocket over the Heathen which will account for those extra grams.
The fit is the same again, it’s that Summit Series thing, slim with great free movement. The Paclite performance debate is an eternal one, but the features and fit of the Meru are good.

Below we have the eyebrow lifter, the piece that said to me that TNF weren’t just spinning their wheels. This is the Trajectory Hybrid.
We’ve seen a few bits of gear made from different fabrics front and back, but the pattern is always the same weather resistant front and breathable back. It’s not new either, I had a Karrimor Kalahari way back for the bike, a fleece jacket with a Pertex shelled front and arms. The Trajectory though sticks its neck out a little more with a waterproof front, arms, shoulders and hood, with a light stretch fabric where your pack sits and where you want heat to escape.
The shell fabric is the 2.5 layer Hyvent DT and the poly stretch sections have a bit of bamboo in there for bit of freshness retention. It’s 210g, has a Napoleon chest pocket, adjustable cuffs, glow-in-the-dark zip pulls and that hood is a proper adjustable type.
Winter running or biking? It’s ideal for it, and whether or not folk “get it” and it sells, it was enlightening to see that TNF had actually made it and were showing it.

The gormless man above is wearing the Zephyrus Pullover, a 286g smock lined with 40g Primaloft One.
One chest pocket, lycra hem and cuffs and a nice neat fit. The outer is a 40g/m² nylon which puts is somewhere between Pertex Quantum and Microlight. It has TNF’s PU “kiss coat” (which says to me it’s like Gene Simmons’ bat cape thing) which is their super DWR treatment.
It’s going into an area with a few models vying for supremacy, Rab, Berghaus, Haglöfs and soon Montane and OMM, all have contenders. The Zephyrus is looking good though, I’ve tried all of the other versions and this isn’t going to struggle at all. The LIM Barrier Pullover might be dead this year, but the fight to be the new king of Primaloft jumpers is going to be good for us punters.

Below I’m wearing the familiar Redpoint Optimus while TNF’s Helen is trying to fill in the huge gaps in my knowledge.
The Optimus has been about for a while, but I’d never tried one. It’s nice kit, heavier fabric to the Zephyrus and many more features, but at 600g is compares well to other hooded sythetic insulation pieces.

Another current model is the Apex Zeitgeist below. It’s a softshell pullover, the subject of which is current talking point on here, and is a basic functional bit of kit. The medium sample was pretty good on me, the single pocket is well place high-up, and I really liked the high collar. Too many collars out there are doing half a job.
I don’t know the fabric never having used it, but it’s quite robust feeling ( weight as advertised is 465g), but still with a good bit stretch in there. It super breath wind resistant from what I can tell, and if it wicks and breathes as you’d like it to, then it’s simplicity would be boon I should think.

Penny and I are wearing his and hers Refraxion jackets, new for this Spring. They’re basic full-zip wind shells with softshell panels (the grey bits on Penny’s), there’s a chest pocket and handwarmers pockets as well. It’s 400g, so I see it as a trail or road runners wear-from-the-house jacket in winter, although it does have a Roll-N-Tie system (demonstrated below) for sticking it around your waist with out getting it all muddy like I used to do with my cagoule in the 70’s.
The polyester fabric of the main body was soft and pleasant to wear, and beefy at 98g/m². I’d like to see a mountain smock cut from it.

There’s a stack of great stuff in the Flight Series and Performance range, and it’s all the light, minimalist stuff that we’ need to see and the shops frustratingly don’t stock. There’s a gilet with a windproof front and mesh back, a 166g waterproof smock and baselayers aplenty like the Ultra GTD ¾ Zip below.
It’s got a lovely smooth fabric, a wee rear pocket, more glow-in-the-dark zip pulls and would be at home on summer trails at speed at leisure or on 26″ (maybe even 29″… ?) wheels.

Footwear is another unknown so I had a look at a couple of models. The Assailant Mid WPs are 916g per pair, have a decently aggressive Vibram sole for all-round use, and interestingly have a HydroSeal waterproof liner. Given the amount of reports you hear of Gore Tex liners giving way in footwear, I’m not seeing own-brand liners as a weak link at all.
Lots of mesh to let the steam out, a nice ankle height to keep the crap out and toe bumper for when you’re looking at the view and not the terrain.
Below is a single 493g Vindicator, a chunky trail shoe. It does have a Gore Tex liner this time and a nice blocky Vibram outsole.
There must be about 200 TNF footwear models across the mens and wummins ranges, and it’s the same across the board when you look at the workbooks, there’s huge depth in there.

Penny is hiding behind a Kilo down bag above, which does indeed weigh just under a kilo at 975g for the regular length.
Clara, Helen’s four year old wee lassie who came along and joined in the fun had a great time pretending to be a caterpillar in this and dragged it around the showroom all afternoon. By the time we had rescued it, it was bogging, had been snagged on stands, furniture, the door and extensively abrasion tested on the wooden floor. When we got a hold of it, a quick buff up and it was as good as new, so whatever the bumff says, I know that the Shadowlite SL nylon outer can take a bit of abuse. I think all gear should be child tested, I know at home jam is applied to most of my gear by Holly and getting jam off a down bag is a very good test of both it and me.
The Kilo has trapezoidal baffles which I like and a wee draught baffle below the neck line, which I’d forgotten exist in sleeping bags! There’s a lot of effort gone into this bag, there’s a lot of extra construction touches that’s knocked the weight up a little, but it’s well shaped and robust, and for the current price of £150 (goes up to £169 in Spring), any bitching is misplaced.

Below we have some more wackiness in the shape of the Mercurial Bag Liner. It’s reversible for different temperatures, meant for carrying if you’re travelling and want to try to minimise of kit.
Keeping the square baffles inside is warmer that putting them outside as it allows more heat out through the gaps. Facing in, the squares close up and keep more heat in. the bottom is just a smooth polyester, no fill in there. It opens right up as a blanket too.

Above and below are just some items that made me smile, a hounds-tooth pattern rucksack, luggage in the colours that make the world go round and at the bottom, Penny in a mental Europe here-we-come ski jacket (check the duvets behind her as well though, and there was other half down/ half Powerstrech madness, so much kit…).

What we have is a brief glance through the range, and now I’ve got the workbooks for the next couple of seasons I’ll know better in the future. But, it’s like I suspected, there’s kit in there that is made of freshly baked uncompromised technicality. And, that what we get to see on the racks is the more mundane stuff in all those shades of black, is a source of as much frustration to TNF as it is to us.
I’ll have stuff coming in for test so It’ll be good to see if it lives up to the first impressions.

21 thoughts on “The North Face

  1. TNF do some great kit, you just need to raid the Flight and Summit Series. The shop’s play it safe, more fleece! I use their running gear, and have a great rucksack by them the Skareb 55, uber lightweight for it’s carry capacity. The Vario tent is great too, we’ve survived gales and torrential rain for days holed up in it. The better half swears by their trail runners with the Boa system. Not convinced by all the coloured bags though, was easier when the duffels had 4 colours, and the tarp fabric seems poor compared to the old stuff!

  2. Some interesting stuff here. I’d agree re the Flight series. There have been some quite nice smaller packs. I’ve had a TNF Angstom for a couple of years – this is a great 25l pack with an excellent hipbelt and harness that holds on like limpet, and has a full array of useful mesh pockets.

    However, unlike the fleeces etc it was not widely stocked. A familiar story.

  3. When you say it’s the shops that decide what we see, is it just a limited number of the bigger stores with a lot of buying power, or do all stores, even the small ones only ever play it safe? Or is what the small stores sell controlled by what the big stores think they can shift?

  4. If you saw where Mountain Hardwear was based and the other business they run, it explains plenty of why only part of the range is imported for the shops to get from the ‘Importers’.
    At least with TNF the operation based in Europe means the nicer stuff is available special order.

  5. Interesting comments folks. It does look like the Flight and Summit stuff is where it’s at then (a bit like what I found out with Berghaus and their Extrem kit).
    I’ll watching for what actually appears in the shops from the Flight series workbook.

    Shuttleworth, it’s partly what you say there, but it’s minimum orders as well. If an independant staffed with climbers loves that cracking 250g shell with no pockets and helmet hood and forward orders two of each size you still might need other shops to order several hundred in orded to make production viable.
    So the desire might be there, but the numbers might not be. You just have to hope that there’s enough global orders to make it worthwhile.
    No one’s immune, for example Rab weren’t sure if the Demand was going to make it to the shops.

    I know I oversimplify a bit with this stuff all the time, but the market really is shaped by the buyers and our reaction to what we see in the shops, and if they gamble on something either a bit unusual or very expensive that ends up on the sale rack at trade+VAT at the end of the season, that carries on and they play safe next time.

    We’re all kind of stuck with it unless we go with my “everybody pre-orders from next seasons workbook”`plan :o)

  6. North Face (whose $7B parent company VF owns a bunch of other manufacturers http://www.vfc.com/brands ) may or may not have good kit there, but here in the US, they’re a ubiquitous fashion statement – an enterprising young man near St. Louis, MO saw fit to indulge in a little mockery of the trendiness in order to help his parents pay for college:

    http://www.thesouthbutt.com/

    (Motto “Never Stop Relaxing”)

    Which promptly got them sued by NF. The suit press release is on the website and its answer, a splendid example of in-your-face rebuke, is worth a close read over your choice of beverage.

    http://www.thesouthbutt.com/2010/01/06/our-response-to-the-north-face-lawsuit/

    My own experience is that their products are good but their customer service just awful. Their marketing department on the other hand ought to realize that a little satire will likely have the knock on effect of increasing sales.

  7. Ive an old pair of “TNF Cooper’s Hill” Trail runners and they are fab. Unlined uppers with a sole unit to rival the likes of Walsh and innov8. They changed then to gore lined affair and I’m not sure they even sell them anymore.

    Oh aye, and I did my WHW in a pair of hedgehogs which are now general everyday/pub gutties.

  8. “The Zephyrus… Rab, Berghaus, Haglöfs and soon Montane and OMM, all have contenders”. Any idea which company will have a super simple pull-over ‘Primaloft jumper’ with a hood for those of us with hoodless sleeping bags/quilts?!

  9. Shops play safe, easier to sell TNF Fleece and the regular stuff, it’s a brand known the world over. The Flight series stuff in the shops will amount to a pair of tights, some tee shirts, a soft shell jacket and a few packs! Same as the last 5 years! The stuff that sells.
    One of the best pieces TNF have had this season is nowhere to be seen in the stores, the Animagi Jacket. Still the cotton tee’s and hoodies are easily available!

  10. TNF does do some good stuff, I have one of their 100 weight fleeces and some nice power-stretch gloves but it does seem than everyone and their uncle own TNF down jackets here in Brighton! (Some of them even wear them in the rain!)

    I suppose one measure of their ‘popularity’ is the amount of copies that appear on e-bay!

  11. Thinkerer, thanks for that link, magic :o)

    BBF, the Cooper’s Hill must be dead, I can’t find it in the workbooks.
    That’s whay I have to have two of my favourites…

    Holdfast, the OMM one originally had a hood (preview live tomorrow), but it got dropped. Do backpackinglight.com not make a hooded Primaloft/Pertex pullon?

    DNF, the Animagi was one of the bits of kit I fancied a look at. That split construction creeps up a lot with TNF, but do we see it in the real world?

  12. Mr Sworld, TNF used to have their HQ near me in Port Glasgow, and everybody from kids in the street to grannies usd to wear TNF, the whole place was black and yellow or black and purple Gore Tex jackets :o)

  13. The Animagi is great, I use it on evening runs and cold bike sessions, I get the warmth of gilet and something warm on my arms, perfect at the minute, if it’s dry! I really like it.
    The split construction is a great idea, I picked up some running shirts last summer, couldn’t get them in UK, was out in Chamonix and they had a few bits more of the Flight Series, but the heavy front and really lightweight back are great for running and biking.
    My GF and I realised years ago, if you wanted good TNF you needed to search out the Flight and Summit, they should get good athelete feedback as they have some of the best names in the book on their roster, Karnazes, Hawker, Benegas, Moro. Shame the Summit series tents weigh so much!

  14. Split construction is such a “real use” feature, use it for what it was intended for and you get the benefit, but you can see the poor sod looking for a TNF jacket standing there with it in his hand thinking, “There’s something awfully wrong with this…”.
    I suppose shifting a million fleeces with only hip pockets does let you play with design for your specialist kit without sweating over getting a big return. Still doesn’t get it into the UK shops though!

  15. ok now, see the last picture… see the jackets and stuff behind the girl?… those are the colours we need in womens outdoor WALKING jackets AND trousers and not just ski-snowboard wear! (except the big colour block one on the dummy, I had one like that when I was about 11, it wasn’t cool). But imagine… green trousers, summer sun shining, nice yella t-shirt, red jacket! It would make anyone smile :o)

    Plus those bags are just wonderful! I’m getting one… for my bike… when I eventually get it delivered!

  16. One thing I’ve noticed with TNF recently is a very different cut creeping it’s way into their range: longer arms, slimmer body, perhaps slightly longer body too. It’s cropped up on softshells in particular (their Magnus and Valhalla (I think?) jackets stand out). Last summer’s Heathen I remember as the world’s boxiest shell, so boxy it was ridiculous, but quite possibly they’ve slimmed it down, as the one in the photo looks pretty trim. Interesting stuff.

  17. It’s all new to me, so I can’t compare. The last TNF I bough was a yellow Denali fleece in er, ’98 or something!
    I suppose the fit test will be when I get size large samples in for test, the mediums were a bit neat. I’m hoping the gap between medium and large isn’t huge.

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