When freeskier Scot Schmidt pitched The North Face his own line of skiwear in the late ’80s, he faced some harsh critics. 

Schmidt arrived at The North Face’s headquarters with pieces of skiwear heavily reinforced with materials like Cordura, a fabric seldom used for ski apparel. Dense plastic foam pads were even built into the knees, shoulders, and elbows, which were meant to withstand the impact of rocks and tree stumps hidden beneath snow. He also presented these unconventional samples alongside garments that inspired his designs, like European motorcycle jackets and parachutist suits. It was something The North Face team had never seen before, or considered. 

When Dave Wachs, a graphic designer who helped Schmidt create his first samples, flipped through storyboards depicting Schmidt as a skiing superhero with body armor on, he remembers one product designer responding disdainfully to the collection

“She said something like, ‘You guys don’t understand that The North Face isn’t about fashion. Our heritage is mountain climbing, alpinism and mountaineering,’” says Wachs. “It got kind of heated and I said: ‘Well, it is fashion. If it’s not, why do you make the same jacket in different colors?’ That woman turned fluorescent red, she hated my guts. I wasn’t trying to take her job or anything, we were just trying to bring something different to the table.”

Not only did Schmidt and Wachs bring something new to the table, but they revolutionized skiwear and The North Face forever. This winter, The North Face relaunched Steep Tech, a skiwear line designed by Schmidt that was first released in 1991, killed in 1998, revived in the 2000s, and has sporadically popped up since 2007. Steep Tech helped The North Face build a cult following in cities, pursue ambitious collaborations with luxury fashion houses like Gucci and streetwear brands like Supreme, and even became an early predecessor to contemporary functional outerwear designs known as techwear today. But one of the brand’s most impactful lines almost didn’t happen. 

“It was a little difficult because nobody was building anything like that back then. It was a pretty complex design,” remembers Schmidt. “The designers kept saying, ‘This is too complex, there are too many pockets, and too many functions. We don’t think we can do it.’”

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