When it comes to keeping out the cold, winter jackets are amazing. But so is the price tag for them. Come on, a thousand bucks? What the hell is inside them, caviar? Why should it cost so much to stay warm and dry when you’re just taking your dog out for a poop? Alongside Andrea Olsen — an assistant professor at Utah State’s Outdoor Product Design and Development program, who’s designed outerwear for several notable brands, as well as freelancing for a number of other major companies — we’re unzipping this mystery.
Let’s just get to it. Why do nice outdoor jackets cost as much as a smartphone?
Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer, according to Olsen. Here’s the short one: It’s a very complex product. “It takes skill to be able to design it, to manufacture it, to create the fabrics that go into it, to sew it, to laser-cut it, to seam seal it,” Olsen says. “It’s not unskilled labor — it’s craftspeople who really know what they’re doing.”
I kinda figured they were made in sweatshops, like everything else.
Olsen says it takes a lot more know-how and experience to make one of these coats than, say, sewing a T-shirt. Any nice shell or parka will have taped seams, in which a backing is glued under the actual stitched seam to keep the jacket from leaking, since every single stitch is an opportunity for water to get in. This process is more in-depth than you’d think, Olsen explains, adding that it takes crazy concentration to perfectly heat-press the half-inch-wide tape over every quarter-inch seam all over a jacket for eight hours a day, without, y’know, getting distracted or bumping your arm and ruining the jacket.
So seam sealing is super expensive? I had no idea.
No, not exactly. Let’s back up: Yes, there’s the labor, tariffs, duties and shipping costs to bring this jacket across the ocean and onto our continent. But the biggest cost, per Olsen, isn’t any of that — it’s the materials. That’s a huge factor between a $99 rain jacket at the mall and a $450 rain jacket from a big brand. What makes a jacket waterproof yet breathable are the membranes bonded to the back of the shell, plus the finishes that have been applied to the face of the fabric. On a nice jacket, drops of rain will simply ball up and roll off the jacket, rather than soaking in as they do on a cheaper jacket. Good material used in an expensive jacket can cost up to $15 per yard, whereas the shell material for, say, a fast-fashion jacket might cost $1.50 a yard, Olsen estimates.
That material really makes a difference, huh.
Yep — some businesses may be 50 years old, but the company has a whole team of people in materials engineering who are constantly refining those membranes and improving the waterproofness of them. And those people don’t necessarily come cheap! Obviously, there are generic versions of these types of technologies that are available for less, but that doesn’t mean that a jacket with an off-brand membrane is going to be constructed as well as an expensive jacket, with good seam sealing or finishes applied to the outside fabric.
Did you mention laser-cutting earlier?
Yeah, that’s a process that allows a manufacturer to put on a pocket without sewing it (which makes holes, and would necessitate more seam taping). But if you’re going to bond a pocket onto a jacket that sells for hundreds of dollars, you can’t have edges that look all raggedy. A laser-cutter’s computer automatically cuts out a pattern or shape, and the heat of the laser finishes the edge nicely and allows it to be bonded on. The downside is that a laser cutter can’t do a lot of pieces at once. We’re talking one at a time, folks.
What about puffer jackets? Why are those so expensive?
Because they’re made of goose or duck down, and they’re tedious as hell to make! “They have these little rooms at the factories that are just filled with down,” Olsen says. “There’s little down feathers and clusters floating around in the air, and the workers in there have to wear masks so they don’t breathe it in, and goggles so it doesn’t get in their eyes and nose. They have to take a little handful of down, put it on a little scale to measure it, and if it’s the right measurement, they put it in a little receptacle that blows that amount of down into the baffle of the jacket. And that’s one baffle. In one jacket!”
I… I would not want that job.
But these companies are making a lot of money, aren’t they?
Oh yeah, and Olsen stresses that these companies are, of course, in business to make money. The margins can be pretty healthy: Olsen worked for one unnamed company that pushed for a 58 to 62 percent margin on an entire category, but also worked for others with different values, who care more about the design and are happy with a 30-percent margin. She cites an example in which the costs of a technical jacket might be $150, then the wholesale cost would be $300, and it’d retail for $600. That’s essentially how the business works.
“The goal is to make money so you can have employees, invest back in your business and oftentimes pay shareholders,” Olsen says. “Publicly run companies are definitely on a different model than a private company would be.”
Ugh. What other capitalist hellworld BS bumps up the price?
Actually, environmental and social values are getting to be a big deal in the outdoor industry, Olsen says. More companies than ever are paying attention to their sustainability, their environmental impact and treating their workers fairly. In large part because some vendors are developing standards meant to hold the brands accountable.
“Consumers are demanding transparency, and they want to support brands that have values and are living their values,” Olsen says. “Of course, Patagonia already does this, and The North Face is really a leader in this regard, too. But it costs a lot of money to do business the right way. And that has a huge impact [on costs].”
Dang. Okay. But, look, do you really need one? Like, really?
These jackets are designed to keep the toughest, strongest mountain climbers alive as they risk death in earth’s harshest environments. There exist generic, lesser versions of many of the technical materials you’ll find in an expensive jacket, and if all you’re doing is walking in the rain or snow from your car into the nearest building, maybe you can get by with a lesser jacket. But in the world of technical jackets, there’s a pretty solid correlation between price and performance. Which is another way of saying that you tend to get what you pay for.
TL;DR: If you’re a serious hiker or mountain climber, hell yes you need this. If you’re really just taking the dog out to dump on the sidewalk across the street from your place? Not so much.