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Off Piste: Westcomb

We visit the Canadian brand's Vancouver factory and speak with founder Alan Yiu on innovations in the outdoor market

by Graham Hiemstra in Design on 09 January 2014

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Commonplace in innovative markets like the tech industry, the term "early adopter" is generally used to describe influential individuals doing just as it sounds; taking a leap of faith with a new product or technology. While often attributed to an individual, the term in its truest sense applies to companies as well. Enter Canadian outerwear brand Westcomb. Since its founding in 2005, the small Vancouver, BC-based company has chiseled a modest niche for itself in the light and fast outdoor market by partnering with the world's most forward-thinking textile manufacturers to help introduce the most cutting-edge material innovations each season.

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While Westcomb itself is relatively unknown outside of core outdoor enthusiast circles, the family behind the brand has in fact played an integral role in the North American outdoor industry for decades, operating a factory that produced garments for well known brands until many of them moved overseas. The loss of contract manufacturing freed the Yiu family up for another endeavor. Son Alan Yiu seized opportunity to turn the know-how he'd garnered from growing up in the factory into his own operation. With his mother running the physical production floor and his father lending his talents in the pattern-making and design departments—Mr Yiu has a degree in costume design from the London College of Fashion—Westcomb is a true family operation. (When we visited the Vancouver factory in December, Mrs Yiu personally hemmed gear to our measurements while we toured the factory.)

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"It's really [important] just being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with an industry veteran like the Polartec, Schoeller Textiles or PrimaLoft. I think that's huge for consumers who may not recognize the Westcomb name," explains Yiu. By aligning with such renowned brands, the consumer is reassured of Westcomb's quality. And the benefit of bringing material innovations to market before better known brands is obvious. "If a product should fail, it's not just our brand name that suffers, but the ingredient [tech fabric] brand also takes a hit," continues Yiu, suggesting that it's in both brands' best interests to live up to their claims. While the notion is important to point out, our experience with the brand implies failures are few and far between. "I think our product speaks to the quality that we're trying to achieve. And even the word quality—the more accurate word is workmanship, like an artisan or craftsmanship description. We put a lot of emphasis on the details, making sure the seams are straight and flat—high stitch count."

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Best known for their lightweight, shell-based technical outerwear, Westcomb is now ready to step into the expedition category with the introduction of the Subzero collection. For this, Westcomb has partnered with Schoeller textiles and PrimaLoft down to be one of a select few brands to introduce the new water-resistant down technology. The jackets will debut a unique fill made up of 750 Hungarian goose down woven with Primaloft yarn. By blending the materials you ensure an even distribution of down throughout the garment, as well as creating a natural fill that still insulates when wet. Whether the fill gets wet from perspiration or precipitation, the PrimaLoft blend dries four times faster than conventional down.

"Usually you see 650 duck, so we're offering a 750 goose. I don't know anyone who uses goose in this category—even when the brand has goose in their name," explains Yiu. And while many other brands offer a water-repellent down, they achieve the rating with chemicals."I just think we have enough synthetics, we have enough chemicals in this day and age, and we just don't need another chemical against the body, right?"

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The Subzero collection will debut to industry insiders at Outdoor Retailer trade show later this month in Salt Lake City, and the rest of the world next fall. In the meantime, Westcomb will continue to rely on their brand pillars; using new, updating classic silhouettes with new, innovative materials and technologies and producing high quality products with a proud sense of craftsmanship entirely in Canada. For more information visit the Westcomb site and read our previous outerwear reviews of the Switch LT Hoody and Focus LT Hoody.

Lead and down jacket images by Bear Simmons, all others by Graham Hiemstra

Off Piste encourages exploration. With each feature we'll introduce the people, products and places that make life outside the city possible and life in the city more down to earth.

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