Oi Polloi

An Interview with Warren McLaren - Man of the Outdoors

Published: Fri Oct 11 2019

You may have noticed we've recently taken stock of some rather tasty Berghaus bits. To gain a bit more perspective on the hallowed brand, righteous wordsmith Sam Waller pestered former Berghaus designer Warren McLaren about all things concerning the great outdoors...

If there’s any evidence out there that mankind isn’t all bad, it’s in the sheer number of people who use their precious spare time to upload old stuff to the internet. From long-lost B-sides captured in all their crackly glory on Youtube, to concise Wikipedia entrys about films that were never even made — helpful folk around the world are selflessly contributing vital artifacts to the pit of knowledge, with no thought of financial gain.

One such helpful chap is Warren McLaren, the man behind an amazing treasure trove of classic outdoor-wear imagery called Compass Innov8. I think this site has been mentioned on the Oi Polloi blog before, but for those not blessed with hyperthemesia, it’s full of scans of old adverts and catalogue imagery from the early frontier days of outdoor clothing — a time when new brands were being formed by bold climbers and ramblers around the world — and the closest thing to a showroom was the back of a dusty station wagon parked in a Yosemite campsite.

After a bit of delving it turned out that Warren wasn’t just a man with a well-used scanner and a fondness for 1970s down jackets, and he has actually been involved in pretty much every aspect of outdoor life imagineable - starting out as an outdoor education instructor, before design stints at Australia’s Paddy Pallin and Berghaus, and over 20 years in the eco-design realm — as well as actually… er… being outside loads.

Here’s an interview with him about a range of subjects, from his website to his thoughts on outdoor clothing today…

The first thing I wanted to ask you about was your Compass website, which archives old hiking gear through adverts and catalogue imagery. When did you start scanning all this stuff in, and I suppose more importantly, why did you start?

I’d been looking in the internet for some extra information about some influential outdoor gear companies and their products, and there was next to nothing. From memory, it was an Early Winters tent — in particular, their iconic Omnipotent — that I was scouring the web for. I’m pretty sure they didn’t even have a Wikipedia page at that time. The only real reference I found was on a Polish mountaineering website. I was appalled that this slice of outdoor history was not better represented — Early Winters’ next product was their Light Dimension tent — the first commercial outdoor use of Gore-Tex.

Nor was there any historical account of the British brand, Rohan — A company that can lay claim to the first softshell jacket and pants, and first lightweight dedicated travel clothing, amongst many other game-changing innovations in the outdoor industry.

By the time I’d gotten around to converting my annoyance into action, it was about 2008, which makes the Compass website about 11 years old.

Do you think it’s important for people to document this old stuff? Is there a risk of things being forgotten?

All design is iteration. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. The designs of the future will be better for taking a peek at the past.

The Director of Brand Marketing at Arc’teryx, hardly a shrinking violet brand when it comes to innovation, once wrote to me, saying “… what a great resource! Thanks for putting it together. I'll be forwarding it to our sales reps for their resource …” Similarly, the Program Coordinator with the Outdoor Product Design program at Utah State University got in touch, noting, “We are training the next generation of product designers for the outdoor industry. Is there any way we could work more closely with you to preserve outdoor product history?”

Gore has two archivists on staff, just to record the history of the company across all its many fields of endeavour. Hard to believe, but this multi-million dollar company contacted me, as they were researching who actually made the first Gore-Tex jackets. When I was last in touch, they still didn’t have a categorical answer, but suspected it was Synergy Works.

I suppose at the time no one thinks to note this stuff down. I like how there’s still question marks around some of this stuff. Are there certain bits or brands you choose to ignore when picking bits to put on the site, or do you try and show the full picture?

I am selective. But I’m also contrary. In short, I pick and choose what interests me.

Firstly, I went for catalogues and adverts I’d hung onto. These were from brands that had admired in some way, mostly because they’d broken a mould, gone out on a limb, tried something different. Later I added brands and products I was intrigued by, but whom I needed to gather images and info from via the web. And fellow aficionados have kindly forwarded me materials they have in their collections.

There are lines that I now wish I’d kept material on, like Nike’s All Condition Gear — ACG, for although not very innovative, given the financial clout it had, those early workbooks did signpost the corporate world’s concerted foray into the outdoor market. But alas, in a decluttering frenzy, I once filled a 240 litre recycling bin with outdoor catalogues collected over many years.

Who was responsible for making a lot of those adverts and catalogues? There’s some funny stuff in there.

In the early days it was often the designers themselves. They were speaking directly to their customers, and treated them as peers. Paul Howcroft, co-founder of Rohan, wrote much of the copy, and took many of the photos too. Alas, his images obscured the clothing rather than exhibited it, but his text was gold, completely irreverent and highly opinionated. For example, he once declared “Gore-Tex: the breathing fabric with the suffocating service.” Corporate sensitivities just wouldn’t allow such candid language these days. Everything is so bland.

You’ve got a bit on your website devoted to classic outdoor items. What makes a ‘classic item’? What would you say your all time outdoor clothing classics were?

A tricky one. I tend to regard a classic item, as one that has remained largely unchanged for about 30 years, and is still available for sale.

Rohan’s travel pants — Bags — being a case in point. Patagonia’s Synchilla Snap T and Baggies Shorts being others. Or Fjällräven’s Greenland collection.

Of course, there are classics that you can no longer purchase new, and have to seek them out second-hand. Rohan’s technical sweater, the Olfio; (recently re-imagined), Berghaus’ Trango Extrem jacket; and Latok’s Papillon and Diamond Pullover falling into this category.

I tend to regard a classic item, as one that has remained largely unchanged for about 30 years, and is still available for sale. 

Beyond your site, you’ve been involved in outdoor clothing, and just generally being outdoors for many years. What got you into being outside in the first place?

My mum cooked on a wood burning stove, like the famed Aga, even during a hot Australian summer. In the winter we had a open fire to keep us warm. So it was a constant family ritual to go and collect firewood. My brother and I grew up roaming about in the bush. We lived on the coast and during the summer would ride our bicycles straight from school to the beach. My secondary school had a technical focus, so I made canvas-hulled kayaks and paddled them in the local harbour. I was a regional schoolboy orienteering champ, and also convinced my school to run the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, so I could learn rockclimbing from one of the teachers. I was in the Scout movement from a Cub, until I went off to University, where I spent two years full time studying Outdoor Education. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t itching to be outdoors.

How did you get involved in designing outdoor clothing?

Even though I loved Outdoor Education, it was hard work being face-to-face with students for 16 hours a hours, often for 15 days continuously. I felt my energy levels dropping and thought I needed a change to recharge my batteries. But I wanted to stay connected to industry.

Sick of being cold, wet and uncomfortable during my time outdoors, I figured I could have a stab at making better outdoor gear, and duly enrolled in a course in Clothing Technology. As a mature student, the only male in the class, and with a penchant for the functional over the fashionable, I was quite literally the odd man out. I did sew a sleeve in upside down, during one class — which caused much mirth and laughter — until one of the girls subsequently exhibited her sleeve jutting up from the neck hole. After hours and on weekends I made myself lightweight quick drying apparel for backcountry skiing.

Friends wanted some too, and soon, so did acquaintances of these friends. They’d come into the outdoor store, where I was working at the time, to pick up their garments. The national retail manager of the chain noticed and told head office, who offered me a job as their designer.

What were the main things you’d wear growing up? What were the main brands and things that people wore down in Australia?

I grew up in the 60s and 70’s, so was well acquainted with polyester corduroy flares, and paisley shirts with lapels so big an aircraft carrier would be jealous of their landing area. There are family photos of me attired in the many fashion atrocities of that period.

Back then guys tended to wear Stubbies (obscenely short shorts); Flannies (checked brushed cotton flannelette shirts); Uggs (shin high sheepskin boots) or rubber thongs (AKA flip flops). Though a real man sported a dark blue singlet, (a sleeveless undershirt), because that’s what real workers, like shearers and road gangs, wore. All long before skin cancer and Workplace Health and Safety made their mark.

I recall spending many years clad in trackydaks (tracksuit pants), the aforementioned flannie, and a pair of Adidas Jeans - the shoe. I upgraded the flannelette shirt for a lumberjack style wool check shirt when I went to Uni. An old woollen, school jumper was probably warmer, but most decidedly lacked the cachet of the check shirt.

Over here in England a lot of the outdoor brands have a cult following outside of their original function. Did that happen in Australia too?

Not exactly. Early Australasian outdoor clothing was very — what we call ‘agricultural’ — completely lacking in style, yet reasonably utilitarian. There have been phases. In the 70’s and early 80’s it was de rigueur to wear a black linseed-oil impregnated cotton rain jacket. A Barbour jacket would probably the nearest British equivalent. But these were never comfortable, so when Gore-Tex, and it ilk, arrived, the oilskin was effectively shunned. Though its pastoral cousin, the Driza-bone, does live on.

Old Berghaus, Patagonia and North Face gear is still highly coveted. Why do you think people are still so into this stuff?

Because in its day it was distinctive. It’s look was unique, iconic even. North Face’s black shoulder and elbow overlays, Patagonia’s rich, deep colours, the cobalt, mango, etc, and Berghaus’ colour blocking and contrasting trim. They set themselves apart. And in those days they were often made in the USA or the UK. They hark back to time before globalisation, to an era that thrived on uniqueness, not the sameness we have now. To wear such garments is like a badge of honour.

What is Paddy Pallin? From what I gather you did a lot of work with them, but it’s a brand I’ve never heard of.

Paddy Pallin is Australia’s oldest supplier of outdoor equipment. It was started during the Great Depression, by a British ex-pat, Frank (Paddy) Pallin. He returned home from a canoeing trip to learn he had lost his job, so he set about making an income by home sewing gear for bushwalkers, the Aussie equivalent of hillwalkers. Soon he had a shop and factory. Still family owned, the company will be 90 years old next year. I was their first dedicated designer and product manager. I was lucky enough to have a relatively free hand with my ideas, and we produced the first women’s Gore-Tex jacket in Australasia, the first sleeping bags outside of Europe to use Pertex, the first recycled drink bottle fleece outside of North America, and so on.

When Gore moved to their Guaranteed to Keep You Dry standard, garments had to meet a higher specification. My response was to develop a patented double zip waterproof closure, which was known as Watergate. Paddy Pallin would use this design feature for another decade or more, after I moved on.

The factory doubled in size during my time there, but we were still small enough that I did everything: cut the patterns, prepared the bill of materials, sewed prototypes, send off lab dips for custom colours, trained retail staff, and if staff were sick I’d even hop on the cutting table and push the saw through slabs of fabric. I designed all the clothing and sleeping bags, and looked after many of the imported lines too.

Alas, after I left, the market changed, the factory eventually closed as production moved offshore for a while.

You also worked with Berghaus. What did you design for them?

A friend, Huw Kingston, and I freelanced for Berghaus over a handspan of years. Initially they wanted us to source existing product that could be branded as Berghaus. But we convinced them we could design exclusives to provide market differentiation. It became Outer Limits, a range of hat, gloves and socks. Then we got the gig to revamp the famous Extrem line, which was both exciting and daunting, given the legacy the jackets like the Trango have in the UK and Europe. For a period of time I worked as a freelancer directly in the Berghaus Design Dept, back when they had a full scale factory in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

I also designed a line of Travelwear that was code-named ‘dirt bag,’ but due to various internal factors, didn’t make it to the production floor.

What are the most important things to think about when designing clothes for the outdoors?

Whilst aesthetics have their place, I fall into the camp of designers who are more focused in function. If you are going in the rain then you jacket should keep the rain out, regardless of how snazzy it looks. Rain falls mostly from above, therefore a rain jacket needs a hood that keeps the weather out but does not obscure vision when you turn you head up, down or around.

If you are buying a cycling top it should fit you best when you are leaning forward over the handlebars. A climber wants sleeves that don’t impede reach and mobility, and pants that hide fancy footwork. Design for function first and appearance second. Poorly functioning gear can be dangerous in the mountains. For example, why are headlamps so often black? Make then bright colours, so you can find them quickly in your pack, as dusk sucks light from the day.

Whilst aesthetics have their place, I fall into the camp of designers who are more focused in function.

g onto the tiniest of branches to pull mouth free of the pulsing water to gulp the occasional breath. Not all experiences in the outdoors are fun, at the time, but those experiences are mine. As each challenge is risen to, the resilience builds to manage others. I’ve never thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense. Have you got any good stories about how you’ve benefited from a certain design on an item of clothing out in the field?

The aforementioned Watergate closure was field tested on a jacket I wore on a backcountry ski trip to Arctic Sweden. The daytime temperatures were often approaching -25ºC. Once we discovered a chain of huts we quickly abandoned use of our tents. But it was so frigid, we had to put on everything we carried to go out to the toilets. Being able to weatherproof a shell jacket with two quick zip actions sure beat fussing about with frozen digits and traditional snap fasteners or velcro.

Once I developed a line of travel pants that had patch pockets on the front thighs. The idea being that so much travel was spent sitting down on places and public transport, but often requiring access to passport and tickets, so pockets should be right there in front of you. Flaps hid zip openings positioned towards the centre to deter pickpockets. Secure, easy accessible pockets — brilliant. Or so I thought. Until one of my field testers advised that female train travellers were acting agitated. He deducted they thought they were seeing a man opening his fly zip, rather than smart pockets. I redesigned the pockets.

Not ideal. How important are aesthetics when it comes to outdoor gear?

If the aesthetics are pleasing to the eye and result in positive comments by peers, then people feel good about wearing something, so they stick with it rather than buying something new. I have a Helly Hansen W pile top from the early 80s, that hasn’t aged a day, and folk still say “cool jacket!” I wear a Kavu hat that never fails to elicit comment from complete strangers: “Where’d you get the hat?”

But I love these items more for their pure performance than their looks. Clichés aside, such products are living proof that ‘form can follow function’.

I know you’re not meant to be nostalgic and live in the past (especially a past I’m too young to remember), but as far as outdoor gear is concerned it seemed there was a real heyday back in the 70s and 80s. The original founders of the brands were still in control and a lot of interesting, original thought was going about.

I completely concur. The founding designers had a personal vision that propelled their designs. They had a passion, and a perseverance, that brought unique product to market. Even without seeing a label you could often discern a brand’s product by their inimitable and independent style.

What are your thoughts on modern outdoor clothing?

I find much of it derivative. Now, I know I said earlier that all design is iterative. But that doesn’t mean you should copy your peers, rather you should be inspired to go one better, to improve on what has gone before. Brands use to have relish having a USP or Unique Selling Proposition. These days the goal seems to be copying each other — nearly all shell jackets look like Arc’teryx jackets from the late 90’s.

Berghaus Extrem garments still fetch a pretty penny on eBay, not only because they hark back to a time when clothing was made in the UK, but also because they had, and continue to have a very distinctive appearance — they stand apart, in a sea of lookalikes.

I am heartened by the innovation that does occasionally poke its head up over that sameness parapet: Columbia’s Out-Dry Extreme inside-out shellwear, with the waterproof membrane and the seam taping on the outside of the jacket. Or waterproof made from electrospun polymers, such as Outdoor Research’s AscentShell or The North Face’s upcoming FUTURELIGHT. Now whether these are a significant advance on Gore-Tex is up for grabs, but at least such brands are trying something different. Vollebak has some weird and wacky fabrications, but to their credit, they are largely cutting their own path, not just duplicating others.

Berghaus Extrem garments still fetch a pretty penny on eBay, not only because they hark back to a time when clothing was made in the UK, but also because they had, and continue to have a very distinctive appearance — they stand apart, in a sea of lookalikes.

What brands are you into these days? Who’s making things the right way in 2019?

I’m not buying much new, currently. I have garments I’m repairing to extend their service life. I have my first pile jacket (a Spinnaker from North Cape, a now defunct Scottish brand), that I wear every winter. It has a small burn hole on one sleeve and I’ve replaced the pull on the zip slider, but otherwise it just keeps on going. 38 years and counting. I unpick abraded collars from shirts and flip them around, so the worn section is hidden by the fold. Fly zips replaced in hemp pants. Yak wool jumpers with darned sleeves. Tenacious Tape and Seam Grip keeping Gore-Tex shellwear in action.

Whose making things the right way? Anyone who considers the lifecycle of their product. The sourcing of environmentally responsible materials, designs that have factored in longevity in that their materials and trims are durable, but their appearance will see them still wore 40 years hence. That their production is via ethically sound factories where the workers are treated fairly. Where the pollutants from coloured dyes are considered, as well as their fabrics and finishes (DWR treatments, etc). Where the use and care of the apparel is also considered and there is provision for the reuse, repair and recycling of the product when the original owner no longer requires it.

Your work these days is mainly in the environmental realm. What’s the most important things people, and brands I suppose, can be doing to lessen their impact on the environment?

I spent about 20 years in the environment sphere, but now I’m back working in my first love: outdoor education, connecting young people to the outdoors.

Many outdoor brands have made great strides in learning about the impact of their product and acting. Patagonia being the obvious leading light. With VauDe being their European equivalent. But for the strides these are other companies have achieved, the most important impacts is occurring at an industry-wide level, where competitors have come together in joint projects to do better as a whole sector, not just individual brands. Setting standards for toxic materials, responsible down, fair labour, improved water repellency treatments and so much more. There are global environmental issues that won’t be solved by a few brands, but by the industry as a cohesive whole. But certainly supporting those brands doing the right thing sends a message to others to also get their house in order, so they can have some your business too.

Final question as we’ve covered quite a bit here. After all these years - what keeps you out there in the elements? Do you ever feel like just staying in and watching TV?

Short answer, it feels like home. That’s why I love my time outside. It is familiar. I grew up in an era pre-electronics, we didn’t even have a phone at home, until I went to Uni. I was outside all the time. Climbing trees, running across coastal boulder fields, riding my bike everywhere, exploring. My childhood was completely infused with time in the sun, rain and wind. Maybe, as a grownup, I’m simply on an endless cycle of returning to my roots.

Long answer. I do watch TV, but that’s living vicariously. Someone else’s life or imagination. Being out in the bush and the mountains is living viscerally. It is real, and it is your face. It is your own experience. I like that.

Tent pole breaks in the middle of alpine rainstorm; the stitching holding the hip belt to rucksack pulls apart; the soles of both boots completely peel off, etc. Guiding clients in a snow blizzard, the whiteout so thick can barely see the tips of skis, and the wind so powerful don’t know if skiing up hill or down. Trapped upside down in a single whitewater canoe, within a tunnel of trees, holdin

Beyond the physical and intellectual provocations, being in nature is immensely refreshing, and meditative. The beauty, the sunsets and moonrises, the stunning plants, animals, and landscapes inspire awe. They remind me of our diminutive scale, in a vastly bigger picture.

Have a butchers at Warren's website here.