Originally founded in 1968, The North Face has developed a reputation as being one of the leading providers of outdoor clothing, footwear, and related products operating anywhere in the world today. Based in Denver, Colorado, the company’s story up to this point is every bit as fascinating as the items it sells — a sentiment that is equally true about the people who worked so hard to make the company everything it is today.
Recently The North Face CMO and Vice President of Product Creation Steve Lesnard sat down with Pascal Monfort for a wide-ranging interview. In addition to touching on the company’s unique collaborations and some of the challenges it faced as a manufacturer of outdoor items when virtually the entire globe was stuck indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lesnard also talked about staying true to the vision for the brand itself — and where everything might be headed moving forward.
The North Face: The Story so Far
Steve Lesnard indicated that while The North Face may have evolved dramatically as a business in the five decades since its original inception, the core vision behind the company has not. “Since the very beginning, the founding fathers believed in the power of exploration,” he said. “They believed that access to exploration should be for everyone.”
He went on to reiterate that at The North Face “we say that we want to dare to lead the world forward through exploration because we believe that whether you’re an elite athlete who wants to climb one of the highest peaks or just a consumer who wants to go further in discovering this new view that will leave an incredible experience for you, you deserve it.” That has always been the connective tissue for The North Face that informs a lot of organizational leadership decisions and a trend that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Of course, that’s not to say that the last year hasn’t been without its fair share of challenges — a sentiment shared by just about every industry you can name. Still, with vaccines rolling out across the globe and a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that may finally be in sight, Lesnard sees new opportunities just waiting to be taken advantage of by companies like The North Face.
“As people got stuck in their own home with COVID, with a deprivation of access to outside and to nature, we’ve seen an explosion of not only ‘committed outdoor aficionados’ but also newcomers.” He indicated that around the world, the sales of tents from The North Face exploded during the pandemic. In the summer of 2021, they didn’t have enough tents because many families were buying them for backyard camping. They were still yearning for outdoor experiences but needed a safe way to do it, and for many, this was a viable option.
Due in large part to the pandemic, people were eager to embrace any outdoor opportunities that they could, and it brought new consumers to the industry who may not have considered such things in the past. Lesnard indicated that The North Face was committed to doing its part to not only meet this peak in demand but to keep as many people interested in getting outdoors and connecting with nature as possible.
Strategic Partnerships for a Strategic Tomorrow
Steve Lesnard also took the opportunity to speak a bit about some of the partnerships that The North Face has forged over the years — each having a unique role to play in the company’s story to that point.
Lesnard indicated that no matter what, they always look for partners that are closely aligned with their strategic vision. Gucci is just one example to that end. “They had a real appreciation for the authenticity of The North Face,” he said. “Our values really align: for us, it’s exploration. For them, it’s self-expression and creativity.”
Steve Lesnard said that in terms of the Gucci team, they wanted to do something that had never been done before. The goal was to uncover some of the archival products from The North Face that nobody knew, that were present in the very first catalog in the 1970s. They reinvigorated some products that had never been released since then, bringing a modern and progressive point of view to a collaboration that served both organizations well.
The same is true with some of their partnerships. One of the athletes that The North Face has partnered with is Jimmy Chin, and actor Jared Leto participated in a collaboration between the company and climbing magazine Sidetracked.
Speaking to the future, Steve Lesnard also took the opportunity to get candid about what he and some of his colleagues are excited about looking ahead in terms of brand marketing. “We believe that a life without access to nature will be a life that won’t be worth living,” he said. “The pandemic taught us that. If the products made for the outdoors, from a technical standpoint, keep being designed in a more contemporary way, they are going to continue to become a bigger part of people’s wardrobes.”
He said that over the years, he’s seen consumer expectations change — people these days expect a certain level of performance from the items they buy and a versatility that is expected in how people dress every day, too. He spoke to a similar shift that happened over the public’s perception of sneakers. More than just a utility item, sneakers became democratized to the point where they’re a legitimate part of streetwear and fashion. Today, you see that sneakers are an organic part of every attire for every occasion. Lesnard says that he and his team members see a future where the same is true for outdoor and more technical-related products, too.