After being in the outdoor trade for over 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to visit the factories and head offices of many of our suppliers, but never had anything to compare to my experience last April. I was fortunate enough to be invited to see Arc’teryx in Vancouver.
The Arc’teryx brand is synonymous with quality; for those of you unaware of the company then I’d advise you to look at some of their products next time you are in the store. The clean design lines, quality of materials and incredibly precise manufacturing really sets the brand apart, whether you’re looking at their clothing, rucksacks or climbing harnesses.
There were six of us on the trip; two other retailers and three journalists. We began with an early morning start at the Arc’teryx factory in Vancouver, an unassuming place in the suburbs of this Pacific coastal city. Inside the factory looks much like any other; raw materials entering at one end, people beavering away at production lines, and finished products leaving at the other. It’s only when you look closer you can see that you’re in a very special place indeed - as you walk around the impression you get is one of craft, not of large industrial methods. It’s more like seeing skilled artisans at work.
We also realised that wherever you look, much of the equipment has been modified. Arc’teryx has its own engineering department, which allows them to adapt or add to their machinery so that it is perfectly tuned to cut, shape, weld, mould or glue as each product requires. Not surprisingly we weren’t allowed to take photographs and I’m unable to describe any of these ‘Frankensteined Machines’ (as Arc’teryx describes them) – their manufacturing solutions are firmly protected!
Perhaps it was most fascinating to see an Arc’teryx Warp Strength harness being constructed. Every harness is hand-built – the whole process from die-cutting, lamination, heat-moulding, fixing of gear-loops etc is carried out by hand. The product is made outside-in so the most hands-on procedure is when the harness is turned the right way out through a small hole in the end of the belt. Seeing this from start to finish makes you think that £130 is incredibly good value for something that has taken so much time to create!
The Vancouver facility still accounts for about 20% of the Arc’teryx output - the rest of their production has moved to the Far East where they not only work in dedicated factories, but they have also shipped over their Frankensteined Machines! Whether the product says ‘Made in Canada’ or ‘Made in China’ the standard of manufacturing is the same.
After leaving the Vancouver factory we moved onto their Head Office. I was astonished to see the size of their design department; the sheer number of people involved in creating their products spoke volumes. Wherever you look, rather than buy-in expertise Arc’teryx use their own people, develop their own solutions and sort everything themselves.
After our visit the Arc’teryx team took us on a gear test; I won’t bore you with the details (because it only irritates my colleagues!) other than to say we spent two days in a lodge, set in its own secluded valley, accessible by a 13km snowmobile journey and with nobody there other than our group. Needless to say we had two wonderful days in perfect winter conditions and the Arc’teryx gear performed as you’d expect!
It certainly was a long journey for a factory visit, however it had its benefits. Not just for the time in the mountains, but because the Arc’teryx team totally reinforced my appreciation of the brand. Their commitment to develop the best possible gear is tangible wherever you looked and in every conversation with any staff member; their desire to control every step in the design and development process right through to finished manufacturing is incredible and the end result is plain to see.