Several years ago, I went to work for the clothing company Patagonia. It was a relatively brief stint but one that made a lasting impression on me.
Prior to this experience, I'd convinced myself that my knee-length, slightly insulated black coat was fine for Anchorage winter. It was a knockoff of a Guess brand coat, and I'd bought it for $50. I justified keeping this coat because of how much I'd spent on it and all of the effort I put into it, sealing tears with black duct tape (my notion of subtlety). I was an intern at the time. I didn't have loads of money to throw around on silly things like warm clothes of reasonable quality for an Alaska winter.
Looking back, what got me through that particularly cold winter was my own stubbornness. When the temperature got down to minus 20 and the coat wasn't holding up, I summoned my knowledge of layering. I'd take some long-sleeved cotton T-shirts and layer one over the other, wear pajama pants on the bottom under my jeans, throw a scarf on plus several hats, and walk stiff-legged outside for my evening zombie shuffle, aka walk. I was proud when I'd layered such that my teeth weren't rattling.
The parts of my coat that were exposed due to aforementioned (and frequent) tearing had revealed a white, rigid layer of insulation. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that this cheap material was probably doing very little to keep me warm, yet I couldn't get beyond the fact that I'd spent some money on the coat and wanted to get my wear out of it.
Meanwhile, my coworkers and friends would get really excited about their newly purchased outdoor apparel. They'd talk about how to get deals and what their favorite "pieces" were. That's right, one thing I learned is that in the world of apparel an item of clothing isn't just a "thing," it's a "piece." This made me angry. I didn't want to wear a "piece." I wanted to wear a coat. The other thing that made me feel contrary was the fact that most of the people around me brandished logos like Patagonia, Arc'teryx and North Face as though these brands offered some kind of uniform or unspoken code of what it means to be an outdoorsy person. I knew how much those "pieces" cost, because I'd seen them hanging in all the colors of the rainbow at REI. These brands, for me, had become synonymous with "out of my price range." They stood for "going outside is for people who can afford it."
I firmly resolved not to take the Kool-Aid and continued adding patches of duct tape to my coat as it rapidly fell apart.
The change started when Patagonia offered me a job. It was a retail job. I wasn't making bank. I wasn't actually intending on changing my wardrobe at all. I just wanted to work.
Then, during my time there, I discovered a Patagonia "piece" that was so offensive to me that I absolutely had to have it.
It was a garment that weighed 3.6 ounces (that's slightly heavier than a bag of chips). The "piece" was marketed as a jacket, but upon inspection by yours truly -- your local, trusted baloney detector -- I found this was exactly the sort of outdoor product I had come to loathe. The jacket was paper thin, described by the company as "featherweight": of no good to anyone, I thought. It cost $100 and this made it all the more infuriating to me. The message was clear: This is an essential piece of clothing for someone out there, and if you can afford it then go get it. Here is another piece of niche gear that some giant corporation is going to convince you is necessary for the complete outdoors experience. After a little research, I found that other companies offered a similar "piece." I wanted to hate it, wholesale.
But again, I was on the clock with Patagonia for eight or more hours a day, surrounded by it, and my boss said this particular jacket was one of his favorite pieces. Every one of my coworkers owned one, too, and they couldn't say enough good things. It routinely sold out in all sizes but XXL.
And one day there was one available in my size for a song, so I did it. I bought the Patagonia Houdini Jacket in bright pink.
Years later, it is my favorite piece of outdoor apparel. You will know who I am on the trails of Anchorage from now on because I am always wearing it. It turns out this ridiculous seeming, paper-thin, extremely lightweight jacket keeps you the perfect temperature if you're on the trail working hard by keeping the warmth you create in, all while blocking out the mighty gusts of cold air that would penetrate most other porous garments.
It has a hood, it folds into its own pocket, and when I don't need it I don't mind holding it or clipping it onto something I'm wearing.
It is a piece of miracle clothing. Also, if it ever tears or breaks, for instance if a zipper busts, it's backed up by a warranty and the company will fix it for free or cheap. No questions asked.
I will keep this jacket forever, unlike the knock-off jacket, which as you may have guessed has long since bit the dust.
And now I am one of those people with a plethora of outdoor clothing made by exactly the brands, Patagonia included, that used to make me angry. I am an enthusiastic resource for friends who are wondering about what gear to get because I know now that you can find deals. I tell them and you: Outlets and stores are an underutilized resource for finding affordable outdoor clothing -- yes, you can call Lower 48 outlets and other retail stores from Alaska.
Of course, allegiance to a particular brand is less the point than the fact that good-quality outdoor gear that is backed by a reasonable warranty (along with reasonable use of the warranty: that's on us, consumers) can be your best friend when you're outside. Being comfortable and happy in your clothing can be a game changer.
If you like to play hard (or even medium hard -- or, you know what, if you have to walk from your car to the office to the gym), go get yourself a good-quality jacket. You won't be sorry. Even if it is, unfortunately, known as a "piece."
Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.
By ALLI HARVEY