The first ever Struktur conference recently took place over two sunny days in early May. Located in the beautiful Ecotrust building in downtown Portland, Oregon, the conference was billed as “the first creative conference for the active outdoor industry” and brought together some of the most innovative minds in design, fashion and outdoor technical apparel for two days of presentations, networking and collaborative brainstorming.
Surrounded by forests, mountains and rivers, in a city teeming with parks and a mere hour's drive from both rugged coastlines and vast deserts, Portland is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Companies like Nike, Icebreaker and Columbia set down roots here, which has in turn attracted talented designers; in his welcome speech, Patrick Quinton from the Portland Development Commission estimated that around 15,000 people are employed in the sportswear industry in the Portland metropolitan area. With a surfeit of local talent, the city is a prime launching pad for businesses catering to a new demographic—the urban adventurer: a city-dweller who retreats to the wilderness for relaxation and recreation without sacrificing their sense of style.
Struktur organizers Michelle Rose and Sam Ward both have backgrounds in the sportswear industry. After working for Columbia and The North Face, Rose now heads the design team at women’s athletic apparel retailer Title Nine, while Ward worked at Nike and on media productions for clients like the Smithsonian and PBS. “When we first launched the conference, we got some great advice from Brad Smith, who started the Web Visions conference,” Rose tells CH. “He told us to ‘design the conference you would want to go to’ and that has been key to us in choosing speakers.”
The result is a fascinating mix of technical and business expertise from the likes of Robert Fry, global director of product merchandising and design for Mountain Hardwear, and Columbia’s global director of fit Eryn Gregory, along with the trend-spotting abilities of stylist and consultant Jeanine Pesce of This is Range and retailer Andrea Westerlind of Westerlind. The list of speakers also included visionaries like Mark Galbraith, the general manager for pioneering sportswear company Nau, as well as design thinkers like Roman Mars from the radio show 99% Invisible and William Lidwell, the director of design at Stuff Creators Design in Houston, Texas, as well as the author of the book "The Universal Principles of Design." Lidwell’s top 10 heuristics gleaned from the most successful designers include practices like embracing failure over fearing failure, and choosing to be a zealous missionary over an indifferent mercenary; they may well serve as practical rules for creative living, above and beyond designing.
Much of the conference was aimed at helping entrepreneurs launch their own businesses aimed at the emerging outdoor-fashion market. Pesce’s and Fry’s panels gave practical tips, as did a talk and panel on crowdfunding led by Mike Brown from Alpine Hammock, whose Kickstarter for an alpine hammock/bivy hybrid served as a model for success. Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez of Makers Row, as well as Sara Tunstall of Portland-based Spooltown, also led a panel for small businesses interested in exploring the possibilities of domestic manufacturing.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the conference, however, was the ongoing discussion over the new outdoorsy demographic: the person who (to paraphrase Andrea Westerlind’s words) is not necessarily the strongest or the fastest climber, surfer or trekker, but who still finds communion in the wilderness. In short, that person is most of us, and talks by Benji Wagner from Poler Stuff and Abe Burmeister from Outlier clarified this person’s needs and desire for attractive gear and garments that are also versatile, durable and functional without being over-designed. This new customer is stylish and sophisticated, and doesn’t need a burly helmet or pair of mountaineering boots when a more stripped-down, attractive and affordable model would do just as well.
Hopefully, this year’s conference will be just the first in a series of intimate, engaging gatherings that bring together people from different fields that nonetheless have the same vision—elegant, effective, problem-solving design that addresses the needs of wilderness junkies everywhere. To keep updated on next year’s conference, follow Struktur on Twitter or subscribe to their mailing list.
Lead photo by Adrienne So, other images courtesy of Halley Roberts