5 Questions for The North Face’s Brian Moore

As the outdoor category enters a new world, Brian Moore helps shape it.

Moore, VP of global footwear at The North Face, has been with the Alameda, Calif.-based brand, a division of Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., since 2012. Under his leadership, the label has infused a fast, athletic feel into its footwear line. For example, the spring ’14 launch of the 10-style Ultra Protection series, a collection of training, hiking, backpacking and trail-running styles, featured lightweight synthetic uppers, a low-profile but shock-absorbing underfoot construction and bright colors.

This fall, the brand will introduce winter-specific running and hiking product, adding more insulation and increased waterproofing. All will keep the same low, light, fast and protective elements of previous styles.

According to Moore, maintaining a balance of the necessary elements requires rethinking old ways of manufacturing and making a commitment to sourcing improved materials, which leads to better product.

“Instead of it being all gadgetry and gimmicks, it’s about engineering,” said the executive, who previously was VP of men’s footwear at fellow VF brand Timberland. “How we make it, that’s where it gets interesting.”

Here, Moore talks about the changing look of footwear, the importance of good materials and why there’s no new China.

How have changes in the manufacturing process affected the appearance of outdoor product?
If you look [at footwear] before minimal happened, essentially every shoe had a white overlay and a navy underlay, and that was from the days of using leather and suede. But [even after the development of] synthetic leather and synthetic suede, we kept that same [aesthetic] model for 10 years. We were essentially re-creating the same idea. The reality is that with the TPU films and synthetics now, we don’t need to replicate leather and suede anymore. We can use a one-piece film over a one-piece air mesh for support and get what we used to get with layers of leather and suede. By welding uppers versus stitching, you start to reduce layers, reduce weight and all those other things we don’t need. From a pure aesthetic standpoint, it makes them look more modern.

Have consumers been receptive to this new approach?
The biggest challenge, honestly, is that shoes have gone unchanged for 300 years. People are not quick to change what they expect the look of a shoe to be. As we make more engineered-looking product in a space dominated by a lot of brown leather, getting the consumer to understand that they are getting the same — if not a much better — benefit at the same price means giving up on an aesthetic to which they’ve become very accustomed. But the reality is we are learning that it’s every bit as relevant for outdoor activities as it is for athletic ones.

The new techniques require less labor as well. What implications does that have for the future?
Years ago, when labor costs were really low, you could put a lot of parts and pieces [on a shoe] and stitch them all down, because stitching was essentially free. Now you have to limit yourself to only one or two layers and weld it more than sew it, trying to find ways to make it that don’t require a lot of [expensive] handwork. Now to make a great shoe you have to use the best possible materials. Instead of using three layers of plastic overlays, you need one really good TPU film. If you’re going to go low-profile on the midsole, the EVA quality has got to be really high. When you streamline, you have to use amazing materials.

Does this mean the industry-wide search for less-expensive labor is a thing of the past?
I really do believe — and I could be wrong — that those days [with a] market that will give us an unlimited sourcing base are essentially over. I don’t think there is another China after China. We no longer have anywhere else to go to make product cheaper. We’re actually assembling some footwear in the U.S. You’ll definitely see it more distributed, with [companies] looking at regional levels of expertise as opposed to chasing the lowest possible [costs].

Where does sustainability come into play nowadays?
It becomes not only the right thing to do but a necessary thing to do. Without these really low costs of labor, we can’t afford to cut off a little bit of material and throw away the rest. Yields, the types of materials that we use and recycling scraps of materials are [all] very important. When I was at Timberland, we started to do it even before it was necessary because it was the right thing to do, but now it’s pragmatic. We all need to be a little smarter.

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