Truly exceptional design often takes such a fundamental foothold in our lives that we lose appreciation for the revolutionary nature of the original product. Edison’s light bulbs, the Boeing 747, Converse sneakers; all now mimicked and genericized to the extent that their impact is diminished.
In the outdoors world, Patagonia is responsible for more than a few truly revolutionary products. The company’s occasional focus on wearability over raw technical capability, combined with their consistent (and much appreciated) flirtation with retro styles has led to an association with preppy kids, Northeastern bluebloods and the nickname Patagucci. But as I’ve previously mentioned, more often than it is looking to the past, Patagonia is right up on the cutting edge when it comes to fabric technology.
In the early ‘80s, Patagonia was instrumental in Malden Mills’ (now known by the famous brand name PolarTec) success in producing the first usable fleece products. Malden Mills’ first attempt in 1981 was unusable due to its problems with pilling after just a couple of uses.). Patagonia’s founder saw the potential in the problematic fabric and worked with Malden Mills to produce, in 1985, a fleece product known as ‘Synchilla’, which they retained an exclusive license to until 1987. For someone born in 1990, as I was, the idea of fleece being ‘invented’ so recently seems crazy – it was so ubiquitous in the years that I was growing up. But the fact that it became commonplace almost overnight speaks to its incredible, revolutionary nature of the fabric – and the iconic, brightly colored Snap-T pullovers that Patagonia created from the Synchilla fabric.
30 years later, those Snap-T Synchilla pullovers are valued primarily for their retro appeal – not because the fleece is any less warm, but because the product has been vastly refined over time. Early in the 1990s, Malden Mills rebranded as PolarTec and began pushing the boundaries of fleece design. Their Power Stretch fabric was just one of the resulting lines of fabric, which Patagonia, at some point in the mid 90’s (pinning down corporate history is hard, guys) incorporated into its lines using the homegrown brand name; ‘Regulator’. Hence, R1 (and subsequently R2 & R3). The first R1 hoody was a cult classic, rather than a smash hit. Although it was beloved by serious climbers and other technically oriented mountain lovers, it did not immediately crack the yearly rotation. Forum posts from the time speak of a black market trade in used R1s. Interestingly, when Patagonia did finally reintroduce the R1 hoody, it was with a slightly different, improved fabric – the very popular Power Dry fabric from PolarTec.
History dispensed with, it remains to explain why exactly the R1, and other hoodys and jackets made with Power Dry fabric are so ubiquitous in the mountains now. I was inspired to buy my own when I saw the performance of Jake’s Baseline jacket (Rab’s take on the genre) on a particularly wet trip through Wales. It’s perfect balance of warmth, breathability, weather resistance, ability to cut the wind just enough to stop the bite, and versatility within a layering system made me hanker for a similar item of clothing. On our recent October Presidential Traverse, both of us made extensive use of our R1 and Baseline jackets respectively. Once above the treeline, I don’t think either of us took them off once even on the most taxing climbs – and only layered up further whilst we briefly hunkered down on the summit of Mount Washington.
You’ll have to wait for Jake to review his Baseline more specifically [Editor’s note – this will happen, guys!] – I can vouch for the R1 as a classic in the genre and a standout piece, but am actually looking at investing in a Rab Baseline myself. It’s nothing against the R1 – but for some reason the Patagonia hooded version, which I’m rather keen on, only comes as a pullover ¾ zip, and I like to be able to completely unzip for maximum venting (have I mentioned I run hot?).