Sympathy for the Devil

Working for an outdoor outfitter isn’t all about finding boots that won’t chafe halfway up Kilimanjaro and a tent to withstand an extended bike tour of New Zealand during the rainy season.

When people are trying on heavy $250 winter parkas, I always ask, “What sort of conditions will you wear it in? Summitting Mt. Washington? Snowboarding the back country?” And, after I see their eyes have glazed over I try, “Standing on a train platform?” That usually hits the nail on the head.

there seems to be more North Face on the subway than on the slopes up north

This sounds unreal, but it’s true: I had never heard of The North Face brand before starting to work there. Never. I guess my ability to avoid brands and labels runs deeper than even I imagined because The North Face is now everywhere I look. That’s because I’m a commuter rail rider now, twice daily.

And suddenly, I’m seized with (cue the Stones) Sympathy for the Devil.

I’ve known for a while that the jackets and fleece sold with that particular logo on it aren’t significantly better than other brands, but I’m always amazed at the way people clamor for them. I had thought it was all about gear creep in the past, but now I get it. As much as I cheer on the kid who came up with the anti-North Face (and is using it to pay his way through college), people buy this stuff because they like the way it performs on train platforms as well as when they’re swinging ice picks (not that that’s ever the same person).

Yet, I gotta say, despite today’s alleged environmental awareness that allegedly has people looking closer at the corporate responsibility behind a brand, I’m amazed at how shallow everyone is, how quickly their standards crumble, in a quest for the Right Label. I mean, everyone is hoodwinked by the “recycled” materials tag and overlooks the fact that the stuff has been shipped to and from China to make a fleece jacket. But I digress.

Ride the Orange Line into Boston on a cold morning. Everyone is huddled behind a North Face 650-fill down jacket or tucked inside a Triclimate parka. It’s not because that particular jacket was handy after an ice climbing trip last weekend, no, it was purchased solely for warmth on a subway platform where the wind whips through, bringing the wind chill down to where one’s eyes water uncontrollably, digits lose mobility, and the brain starts keening for shelter. A winter of commuting into the city has made me quite aware of the harsh conditions one encounters here: deep puddles of slush, unplowed surfaces, mounds of snow at every intersection, ice skittering off the roofs of buildings and crashing around you …


ice is still ice, making the right gear necessary in the city as well

So, when the OutdoorNinja and his pals are skinning up a backcountry slope to prepare for a pre-work morning of powder runs, the rest of us are navigating the ice canyons of downtown Boston — all outfitted in the same ubiquitous label.


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2 Responses to “Sympathy for the Devil”

  1. Steve Santospago Says:

    That’s an awesomely insightlful and whitty view of things. Being a brand builder I appreciate the perspective and view 🙂

  2. Giulietta Nardone Says:

    Hey Alison,

    Hilarious commentary on labelcreep. (As I sit blushing in my NorthFace jacket I bought 3 years ago.)

    You ought to have a monthly life humor column in the globe.

    The sustainability movement doesn’t make sense if we keep buying things that ravage the earth in the name of Buying Green. The idea is to create an economy not based on buying things.

    Great title, too! Giulietta

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