How the North Face Is Making Moves in the Big Apple

The North Face has spent 50 years building its reputation on mountains and trails, but the brand is also working hard to resonate with city dwellers, too. That city connection has the Alameda, Calif.-based outfit setting up shop on the East Coast, bringing its range of footwear, apparel and equipment to the Big Apple. Opened on Oct. 14, the new Fifth Avenue flagship — highlighted by a massive eye-catching yellow dome tent at the entrance — spans two floors and consumes 20,000 square feet of retail space. As part of the opening, the label unveiled a new campaign, “Question Madness,” which shines a light onto the reasons for exploration and the feeling of accomplishment when limits have been defied. 

The North Face Question Madness
An image from the “Question Madness” campaign.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The North Face.

The new initiatives follow two quarters of single-digit growth, with back-to-back quarters of single-digit increases in the Americas and high-teen-percentage rate increases in Europe. The brand helped the VF Corp. Outdoor & Action Sports category — which includes Vans and Timberland — bring in $1.6 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively, in the two quarters.

Despite the brand’s growth, president Todd Spaletto believes The North Face needs to bolster its shoe business. “Consumers are telling North Face to bring that spirit, that freshness and that active outdoor-ness to the footwear in a bigger way,” he said.

The exec highlighted the brand’s hiking and trail running shoes that dominate the spring and its winter boot business. Some of the label’s retail partners have seen early success with the offerings.

“The North Face footwear has done well for us this year, up double digits in sales highlighted by their Gore-Tex light hikers and trail shoes,” said Eoin Comerford, CEO of Moosejaw Mountaineering. “Once [cold] weather hits, we are looking forward to seeing some robust sales from their new Thermoball insulated product.”

But industry insiders suggest the label would be best suited with putting an emphasis on its heritage styles. “They make great shoes; they’re high-quality performance shoes, [but] I see North Face primarily as a sportswear brand,” said Matt Powell, global sports industry analyst with The NPD Group. “I would take much more of a sportswear focus to footwear — outdoor-inspired casual footwear with some minor performance characteristics.”

Spaletto spoke with FN about the new flagship and making the footwear business a bigger piece of the pie.

Todd Spaletto The North Face
Todd Spaletto, president of The North Face.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott.

Some outdoor brands hold on to tradition, while others embrace a modern outdoor consumer. Where does The North Face stand?

TS: There are moments where we’re hiking, climbing and backpacking. But a lot of the times our consumer goes to the mountains for social experiences before and after that activity. Retro looks at that social base camp — that’s a powerful part of our brand — [and] we have 50 years of heritage, [so] we have a right to be there. Our consumer spends thousands of hours preparing their bodies for the things we do on the mountains. A lot of those people live in urban environments [and] are looking for unique aesthetics that tie into them being into exploration on a daily basis. Some brands say, “I’m going after active” [or] “I’m going after the cultural side.” The North Face is being asked by the consumer to fulfill all those different dimensions of the same consumer’s life.

What does the 50-year mark mean to The North Face?

TS: We’re proud that this has grown from a single outdoor store in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco to being the world’s largest outdoor brand [and hitting] the $2.5 billion mark. But we’re more proud of the fact that the things that define us today are what defined us 50 years ago: providing the first steps to the outdoors, making the best products in the world.

Who is The North Face consumer?

TS: We did a deep consumer segmentation study — six countries, 16,000 people. We studied the physical and emotional attributes of the consumer we believe is best connected to our brand. We call them “the progressive explorer” — they’re competitive with themselves, they’re searching for meaning and they’re highly active.

How has this consumer changed?

TS: Ten or 15 years ago, we would say these are people in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in Colorado, and live active lives in mountain towns. Many of [our consumers today] live in a city because there’s diversity and culture and exploration.

What can consumers expect from the Fifth Avenue store?

TS: It presents an incredible opportunity to showcase the different dimensions of our brand and our consumers’ lives. This store exists to talk about the stories of our athletes and our products, and activate consumers around those areas. There is such a powerful authenticity and emotional connection with our consumer, and this is one of the best global stages to plug people into. When they come in, [they can imagine themselves] hiking, backpacking, mountaineering or skiing. They should feel that commitment we have to our fastest-growing categories right now: training and running and indoor climbing. They should feel that dimension of our brand that plugs into urban exploration. We’re going to have a team who will lead run clubs, boot camps, partner with climbing gyms and climb in Central Park.

The North Face store
The North Face’s new flagship store in New York.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

Does footwear get overshadowed at The North Face by equipment and apparel?

TS: Outerwear and apparel is the largest part of our business, and we like equipment because it’s a grounding cornerstone of outdoor authenticity. We have a good footwear business, but it could be a lot bigger than it is today. Consumers say North Face is an active outdoor brand — faster, more skilled, more adept and very current.

Those attributes aren’t often used in the outdoor footwear category; it tends to be slow, heavy and not active. We’re redefining what outdoor footwear is from an active perspective and then growing that connection we have to consumers in those cold, extreme environments through our boot business.

How will you make shoes more prominent?

TS: We like the spring/summer active positioning with hiking, backpacking and trail running. And we like the Q4/Q1 nature that comes with our winter boot business. That provides us a strong year-round opportunity we can grow off of. We’ve measured the size of the categories we choose to play in — for outdoor overall, shoes are 25 percent of the market. But [footwear] is not 25 percent of our business, it’s less.

What challenges is outdoor facing as a whole?

TS: We talk a lot about inactivity. But we’re in a fortunate position where the idea of the outdoor is starting to surge. There are a lot of people looking to get off the grid who want to feel the emotional benefits of getting outdoors. One of the challenges we have is how do we transfer that positioning into a real experience.

How does The North Face get people outside?

TS: We do things like the Explore Fund, which is a grant-giving organization that encourages people to get into the outdoors. We do events such as the Endurance Challenge, where we bring 15,000-plus people into the outdoors to have their first trail running experience, we partner with run clubs, we do boot camps in key cities across the country, we partner with the November Project.

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