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Voormi Makes Wool Cool: Q & A with Director Dustin English

It's almost 2015, and by now craft foods are old hat. But let's talk about small batch, craft ski gear, shall we? In Pagosa Springs, Voormi has dubbed itself the "microbrewer of apparel." The four-year-old, family-run company manufactures domestically-sourced merino wool base and mid-layers that are setting the bar for outdoor gear, from both a performance and an ethical standpoint. Curbed Ski chatted with Managing Director Dustin English (he's also a guide for Alaska Mountaineering School). His father and CEO Dan English co-founded Voormi after leaving a career in tech, partnering up with two veterans from GORE-TEX and Polartec. Find out why not all wool is created equal, and how Voormi manages to make a day at the office sound like your dream vacation.

Curbed Ski: First things first. What the heck's a Voormi?

Dustin English: It comes from Greek mythology based on prehistoric times of endless ice and winter. The Voormi were a legendary race of yeti-like beings from somewhere in or around what we now know as the Arctic Circle. These creatures survived comfortably in harsh, cold climates by adapting local resources and exploring the planet's frozen places, and our brand is built solely around the belief that true backcountry gear should be just as unforgiving as the remote and rugged places in which it's used.

CS: Your family has been in Colorado a long time, and you grew up in Boulder; what made your dad decide to base Voormi in Pagosa Springs, which is still primarily a ranching community [with some tourism from its natural hot springs and proximity to Wolf Creek Ski Area and Silverton Mountain]?

DE: Well, we believe this relatively unknown region of the state is a very special place when it comes to building clothing and gear for real-life backcountry experiences. Granted, the 700 miles of unpaved road across the Archuleta/La Plata span make access and shipping a bit of an adventure, but that's the point. We're convinced it's a small price to pay for the ability to focus solely on what we want to be doing every day, which is making better gear for real people.

Living and working in a remote area of Southwest Colorado has its challenges – but one significant advantage is our ability to get real time and rapid feedback on prototypes. Every product is field tested rigorously by various mountain professionals; before we launched our 2014 base layer, we outfitted the Wolf Creek ski patrollers and got their feedback. They said the wool was stretching out, so that enable us to go to our fabric processors and get them to add more elasticity to the fibers. Having the ability to test rapidly from our own backyard allows us to bring products to the market sooner, through our "rapid prototype" methodology approach. The outdoor community here is a very core, authentic crowd, as well.

CS: One of the things that sets Voormi apart from other base and mid-layer gear manufacturers is your wool sourcing and manufacturing, both of which are domestic. How does Rocky Mountain Region (RMR) merino differ from that of New Zealand?

DE: When we started, we knew we needed to innovate- there's a lot of great companies with great product out there. We wanted to take wool and push it to new levels. The sheep grazing at the high elevation in the Rockies - we source from Colorado, Northern New Mexico, and Montana- are adapted to their environment. Like the importance of terroir to coffee roasters, winemakers, and brewmasters, we believe where our wool comes from is an integral part of ensuring we get only the longest and strongest fibers. Our relationships with ranchers, wool buyers, and the extreme temperature variations have resulted in wool fiber that is perfect for our apparel construction.

We've found the RMR fibers have more "crimp" due to their environment and which makes them stronger. Combining this natural attribute with our meticulous processing of removing the shorter fibers and our unique knit and woven constructions enables us to move "wool" from the socks and underwear segments to legitimate and durable outerwear apparel products. It also prevents pilling.

CS: How do you source your wool?

DE: We work with industry experts, including the American Sheep Industry (ASI), which has allowed us to develop a new and robust supply chain for premium wool/ Not only has this become a key point of differentiation for our products, we believe that the creation of a branded, premium form of American wool has the long run potential to reinvigorate the domestic merino industry.

CS: Do you do your actual fabric manufacturing in-house?

DE: We process and construct our proprietary fabric on the East Coast, under the leadership of our own 40+ year industry veteran. That said, we're intimately involved in every step of the process. In terms of production, we've chosen to partner with a small group of family-owned American mills that managed to weather the Asian migration through their dedication to high quality and innovation. Our Precision Blended Wool™, the concept of surgically introducing just the right amount of synthetic fibers into the wool, in just the right places (as compared to bulk blending, usually done for cost savinigs), has allowed us to create what we see as a breakthrough in fine micron wool performance, producing garments that are tough enough to withstand a rugged lifestyle and backcountry experience.

CS: What else is distinctive about your manufacturing? It seems like your gear really has a "human" touch to it.

DE: Everything about a specific piece of clothing, from the way a zipper feels in your hands, to the way a stitch rolls smoothly over your shoulder (or doesn't) is inherently human. It's incredibly easy to get it wrong, and takes painstaking work to get it right. That's why we have so much trouble with the concept of having it done overseas, to be carried out every day alongside hundreds of thousands of other mass-produced items. We believe the only way to get it right is to make it, test it, and make it again.

Producing domestically/locally not only allows us to keep a pulse on production, it also means that we're not constrained by traditional annual design/ production cycles. If something isn't right, we fix it. We don't wait until next year, knowing all along that it could be better. To us, being local is about being connected. It's about being nimble. And most of all it's about being able to build with a true dedication to purpose. Because of our small-batch manufacture techniques and philosophies we're also able to offer unique styles and colors throughout the year.

CS: Why do you think there's this big merino wool renaissance right now? It's the original ski gear material, and then it fell out of fashion due to the development of synthetics, and now we're seeing the wool industry blow up again.

DE: We like to think of it as a consumer and retailer revolt. They're tired of the "sea of sameness" in products. Consumers read the same hangtag information from one garment to the other. The products often look very similar and offer the same level of performance, or lack of.

Today's consumers are in-tune and often aware that many of the brands are made in the same overseas factory that uses the same fabric – only the brand and crafty marketing drives separation. Retailers are also tired of selling the same thing year after year and competing against the retailer down the street who's also selling the same thing. Manufacturers force or "entice" retailers with price breaks to place early orders (a year in advance) in order for the Asian manufacturing superhighway to work efficiently.

At Voormi, our proprietary wool constructions and our flexible domestic supply chain processes allows us to bring true innovation at "Silicon Valley" pace to the textile industry. We believe the natural characteristics and the sustainability of wool is paramount. However, we also recognize the importance of various synthetic fibers related to performance. Hence our construction strategy, which surgically and deliberately places the right amount of synthetic fibers in critical areas in order to accelerate moisture movement, or provide a greater amount of durability, while maintaining wool as the hub or core of the product line.

CS: Speaking of, you have a new product launching for the holidays…
DE: Well, with this new construction technology, we're now able to move wool to the outside, a true first-of-its kind approach. We're now able to produce durable and waterproof wool outerwear, along with killer base layer and mid-layer products.

CS: Sounds pretty sweet. What's next for Voormi?

DE: We're lucky to work with like-minded folks across the country who want to think about garment production differently. Right now we have just six full-time employees and a few contractors. Longterm, we're working toward building an apparel and gear innovation center here in Pagosa, and to carry on making small-batch garments and hiring passionate, qualified people who bring their game.

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