Let’s face it. No one likes to drop $500 on a jacket. Time and time again, while working at Whistler’s Escape Route, I’ve been asked by customers how Arc’Teryx can “get away” with charging so much for a jacket.
That’s because they don’t know what they’re paying for. I mean, what they’re really paying for, as I discovered on my recent factory tour of Arc’Teryx. Because Escape Route is a company that believes the best employees are those who understand how the products they sell are made, they arranged to visit Arc’Teryx’s factory and head office.
Let’s put aside fun facts like the company’s growth of forty percent in the last year, because the real story lies in understanding what goes into the making of that five-hundred dollar jacket.
I started to understand the second I walked through the factory’s doors. After I signed my life away and swore not to tell any trade secrets (which means this is strictly between you and me), I expected to enter a, well, factory. I thought I’d be surrounded by large, industrial-sized machines clanking and humming away, efficiently spitting jackets by the hundreds out a silver tube and onto a conveyor belt.
Instead, I walked into a single-levelled forty-two thousand square foot room full of sewing machines. And people. Behind every modest-sized machine was a person, and beside each were small piles of fabric. Everyone was working quietly and independently. There was a hum in the room, but it wasn’t overpowering. Conversations could occur, but there weren’t many going on, not because some loud-mouthed factory boss was barking orders and cracking a whip, but because, as I later discovered, all the workers were intently focussed on their jobs.
Our tour guide was Dave Gardner, the production manager of the company’s hardgoods. Hardgoods comprise of anything that isn’t clothing, like backpacks, harnesses, and knee cap protectors. Along for the ride was Ryan Letchford, the sales manager for Canada. Both Dave and Ryan have been with the company for over a decade, and have worked up to their current positions.
We began our tour in the receiving area, where twice a day raw materials are transported to the Burnaby factory from the warehouse in Coquitlam.
But an Arc’Teryx item’s story begins far before that.
At the stylish North Vancouver head office lives the design team, the creative brains of the company. There, in a large open space filled with tables piled high with rolls of fabric, ideas are transformed to paper. Literally. Instead of using digital software, Arc’Teryx designers begin with cardboard cutouts of their patterns. Cardboard is cheap and tangible, allowing designers to physically work with their patterns.
A jacket’s birth into the world isn’t on two or three-ply Gore fabric, as I naively thought it would be. Its first inception is on cheap muslin, with a clunky zipper sewn in.
Designers then continue refining and changing the material, using scraps and odd-coloured pieces, until they are satisfied with the product. All of the designs are built right in the office, not in the factory, as one might expect. Tucked into the far corner of the spacious design studio is a mini-replication of the factory. There is one of each machine, allowing designers to cut, press, sew, and laminate right on site. New designers typically intern two weeks with a factory operator, learning from a skilled master how to use the custom machines Arc’Teryx has created for its production facilities. After time on the production floor, they begin their design apprenticeship at the head office design studio.
It’s rare that the design area is ever empty. Creativity doesn’t know the boundaries of 9 to 5, so neither do designers. Ryan recounted a story of designing his own windsurfing board bag, and showing up in the wee hours of the morning, only to find the lights on and a few people hard at work.
Once a design has met approval, had its colour and material chosen, it is ready for production, which is where the factory comes in. Ten years ago, everything was located in one building – office, design, storage, shipping, and production – but because of the company’s rapid growth, the factory expanded to take over the entire building. Ten years ago, the company was producing one million dollars a year; this September, Arc’Teryx shipped twenty-five million dollars in a month. Few other companies within the industry have experienced that type of growth.
At the factory, an item is created in parts, and each part is assembled separately. A jacket consists of a collar, two front pieces, arms and a pocket. Each piece moves along in the factory in a plastic bin, which is either pushed or carried by a person. There are no conveyor belts, no automated robots, no large silver machines that clunk or hiss with steam. The largest machine is an automated cutting table, used for pack back panels. It is one of only three automated machines in the factory. The embroidery machine is the only automated process in making garments. Eighty-percent of the machines have been either built from scratch or modified from stock specifications by the engineering team. This allows the company to produce its equipment through unique processes.
“We’re not just building custom apparel; we’re also building this factory,” noted Ryan. “Not many other companies do this because they don’t have their own production facility.”
Every product starts in the cutting department, and at the helm is master cutter Mr. Lee. He has been with the company for over twenty years, and is a skilled craftsman at his job. While it makes no difference to him whether he cuts through eight or forty layers of fabric, his typical batch is about forty. Depending on the pattern, he can do this is in anywhere from thirty seconds to just over a minute.
One of the toughest jobs in the building is the seam taping of Arc’Teryx’s innovative tiny tape. It’s kind of like sewing, but instead of doing it on a flat surface, the seamstress does it on a ball the size of a child’s fist. Because many of the seams, like cuffs, are designed to fit the curves of the body, if seam taping happened on a flat surface, wrinkles and bubbles would occur. While most companies end the process at seam taping, Arc’Teryx takes waterproofing one step further by hot pressing the seam in its intended end shape (like an elbow or knee), then cooling it (in that shape) to set the lamination while it is still under pressure.
Once a piece of waterproof clothing is complete, it must pass the Suter test, an industry standard for waterproofing. At Arc’Teryx, the most complex seam – one that will probably fail – is subjected to three pounds of water pressure, for two minutes.
The factory produces not only clothing, but hardgoods, which are Dave’s specialty. He showed us how Arc’Teryx eliminates the need for bar tacks (small sewn lines, and points of weakness) by gluing, or laminating, parts directly to the pack. Taking this step requires time, but allows for a simple design and doesn’t compromise the integrity of the pack with stitching. “No one else would think to do [this] in mass production,” said Dave.
Because the factory relies on human production, the amount of time it takes to produce an item varies. The front zipper on a Sidewinder jacket takes forty-two minutes alone to be sewn in, and is only done by three ladies in the factory. A Theta AR jacket takes 198 steps, and is touched by over sixty people. An Alpha SV jacket takes 268 minutes (1.5 minutes alone for the cuff tabs), is built in 210 separate operations, and passes through 65 sets of hands (many times more than once). This doesn’t mean that if you call Arc’Teryx and ask them to make you an Alpha SV jacket, that they can do so in 268 minutes. Because work is done piece-by-piece, that 268 minutes translates into five or six weeks on the production floor. The winner for the item that takes the longest to build, however, is this season’s new Ventii jacket. It takes over ten hours of touch time to produce, taking close to 2 months to turn out the small batch of jackets. Small wonder the piece costs over a thousand dollars. “The general public wants more for less. That’s not realistic. Our customers expect more from our products. We produce beautiful pieces that perform for years. That craftsmanship takes time, and time is money.” said Ryan. The speediest items are kneecaps, which take a mere 17 minutes per pair. One hundred are made every day, of every week.
When you consider the amount of time and human energy required to make each piece, it’s hard to imagine how it all happens in a ten hour day. But it does, and it’s mostly because of the incredible talent each worker possesses. While one may scoff and think factory work is as simple as screwing on bottle caps, at Arc’Teryx, not even upper management can laminate tiny tape in a straight line, or cut out a pattern without going off course. Each worker has perfected his or her skill over the years, and has become an expert in what he or she does. “These are the best of the best that we can find,” said Ryan. “Although they may not climb or ski tour like the designers, they take pride in producing the best equipment we can dream up, and that takes 5.13 skill.”
So at the end of the day, when a customer asks how a company can get away with charging so much for a jacket, you can rattle off impressive figures about the number of minutes it took to make the jacket, or you can ask him whether he’d like his jacket built by a robot or a human.
I know what my answer would be.