The Great Outdoors


Andy Gathings’ love of the outdoors spawned a great business.

Written by Brett Levine

Photography by Lee Harrelson

Styling by Mindi Shapiro

 

For Andy Gathings, the journey from technical outerwear visionary to director and partner of Salence, a men’s outdoor clothing line, was anything but expected. “I have always loved the outdoors, but I became passionate about it when I began to consider making it both a lifestyle and a profession,” he explains as we sit in his home studio on a mountain overlooking Birmingham, Ala.

“I have a degree in horticulture,” Gathings says, “and I had always expected that somehow my love for adventure sports and my interest in the natural environment might lead me to a profession I thought would be a good fit.”

He landed a job as the assistant groundskeeper at a major golf course in Colorado, but the tourism slump after 9/11 meant that the position simply was not sustainable.  “I came back to Birmingham,” he says, “and I began working at Alabama Outdoors, a camping and outdoor sports store.”

This unexpected turn of events changed Gathings’ life.  “One day I was selling a sleeping bag,” he remarks, “and I began to think about the specific qualities that outdoor sportspeople consider.  Durability is one, but compressibility is another.  People who love spending time in the backwoods are always thinking of ways to have better performance but lighter loads.”

He had an instantaneous revelation.  “I thought about how I could design a jacket that had movable insulation panels,” Gathings explains.  “I sketched the idea out on a piece of receipt paper, and drew it up more formally when I got home.”  The VersaLayer system was born, and the idea resulted in his first patent.

He approached the project with a combination of unfettered enthusiasm and the willingness to take a risk.  “VersaLayer was born with a Sears credit card, a sewing machine, and the supplies I needed to begin,” he smiles.  The idea itself was enticing enough that Gathings quickly obtained an outside investor, and a family member provided the needed funding for a patent attorney.

Great Outdoors 3The VersaLayer system was considered revolutionary.  Gathings traveled 400,000 miles, visited 60 cities and flew to China seven times in his quest to bring his innovation to reality.  “VersaLayer created the opportunity for me to meet some of my heroes, like Yvon Chouinard,” Gathings says. The system was profiled in National Geographic Adventure, and it received the 2007 “Brand New” Award from the International Sports Products Organization.  Unexpectedly, despite enthusiastic reviews and awards, VersaLayer simply did not take off.  “I have a theory that one of the challenges we faced initially was the disparity between understanding and value,” Gathings muses. “Having sold technical outerwear, I understood that marketing a product at a higher price point than what was familiar would be difficult.”  It was, and although Gathings still holds the patent, and companies are still exploring the idea, the VersaLayer system did not initially achieve the results Gathings had expected.

The experience was shattering. “I knew at the time that I had a great idea, but I realized very quickly I didn’t understand the prototyping and manufacturing process.  I had thought the relationship between a designer and a manufacturer was more of a negotiation, with one providing guidance and experience to the other,” he continues, “but I learned that a manufacturer makes what you design, but doesn’t refine it in the process.”

Despite the setback, Gathings continued to explore technical innovations, and in 2009, he received a second patent, this time for a padding system he is currently marketing to a range of manufacturers.  Despite this success, he and his business partner, Whitney Hunter, whom he had met while marketing VersaLayer, decided that they had to take a new, more focused approach.

“We decided that we needed to create a new line of technical outerwear, but it had to have a twist.  We had been considering new, unique fabrics, and Whitney’s factory connections wanted to consider doing more boutique manufacturing.”  What Gathings and Hunter wanted to create was technical outerwear that was also fashion.  “We had always been focused on designing for the sake of making great technical outerwear, but we began considering what was actually available for men who wanted a hybrid of the two.”

This time, Gathings knew that the name, and the brand, was paramount.  “I wanted to move from branding that explained the product itself, which is what VersaLayer does, to something that was more unexpected, more evocative, and more identifiable.”  While looking in the urban dictionary, Gathings began to consider words that he felt reflected the qualities and characteristics of the brand they wanted to market.  In the end, he created a word, salence, which he defined as “a clear sense of wellbeing in the middle of chaos.”

Great OutdoorsWith the brand established, Gathings knew the next step was to partner with someone with extensive technical design experience who could mesh his intuitiveness for fashion with the skills needed to ensure that the outerwear performed as he and Whitney imagined, as well as create manufacturing documents.  They chose Carol Owen, who had a long history of creativity and respect in the world of technical outerwear, having designed extensively for a range of companies.

Then, the creative chaos ensued. “We basically spent three days in the conference room at a Birmingham hotel,” Gathings chuckles.  “At the end of that time we knew we had the foundation for a line that could merge technical concerns and fashion-forward thinking.”  Several of the key creations in the Salence line were born at that meeting, including the signature Baluster jacket.  “We spent a great deal of time simply focusing on trims and fabrics, because we knew that we needed to emphasize the performance qualities of our clothing as much as the fashion.”

After the meeting, Owen presented ten separate designs, which the team reduced to the seven that formed the first collection.  Five rounds of prototypes later, Gathings and the Salence team were ready to present their first line.  They launched in the Fall/Winter 2012 season to resounding success.  The collection includes the Baluster, their interpretation of a classic men’s blazer; the Truss, a quilted jacket with a utilitarian feel; and the Arch, which combines needle-punched wool and modern taffeta into a hybrid of style and performance.

“One element of our marketing program that I felt was significant from the outset was that I wanted us to focus on boutique menswear retailers that understood our hybrid of performance and fashion,” Gathings says. This emphasis resulted in Salence forming partnerships with smaller retailers both nationally and overseas.  Their jackets can be found from Birmingham, Ala., to Nagoya, Japan, with new stores carrying their line every month.

Great Outdoors 4Gathings, Hunter, and Owen understand that the hybrid technical outerwear/fashion market means that they have to constantly refine and define their products.  As they prepare to launch their Fall/Winter 2013 collection, Gathings explains the changes they have made.  “We know that there will be key pieces in the collection that we carry from season to season, but we are also in a continuous evaluation process with every jacket we make.” For 2013, Salence will launch several new jackets and refine several others.  Each will retain their key characteristic of a jacket that, as they explain it, bridges the gap between classic styling and modern performance.

For Gathings, this is an unexpected place to be.  From his beginnings as someone who simply loves the outdoors, through the challenges, victories, and defeats of products, patents, and collections, to a partnership with exceptional individuals who share his vision for men’s clothing that looks as good as it performs, Gathings has retained both his humility and his vision.  “I think one thing I realized very early on was that I could not think of one brand that had started in fashion and moved to outdoors.  I wanted Salence to be rooted in my background, in my beliefs, and in the outdoors.  We all know that it is a challenge to make something beautiful, and to make something that performs. I suppose we just want to set ourselves the everyday challenge of trying to do both.”

Gathings, along with his partners, Whitney Hunter and Carol Owen, continue to pursue this singular path, walking the fine line between working well and looking good, which is the path they try to walk every single day.

2 Responses to “The Great Outdoors”

  1. Conrad Turnipseed says:

    Dear Salence Partners:
    Just read on mister IPad an interesting article pertaining to your unique company.
    Where in the wide wide world are the outerwear garments actually produced?
    Plan to visit the retail location located near hyw. 280 in Birmingham.
    Regards,
    Conrad Turnipseed
    N R E D
    (not retired extremely determined)

  2. Souki says:

    Last time I saw them, they were selling them at the lovelady center on 2nd ave for 15.95

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