Climbing New Heights for the Military


A glance at its rustic storefront offers little suggestion that inside, Wild Things Inc. provides critical design support for the uniform system of the future, one to be worn by the greatest military force in the world.

The site, reflective of a ski-shop and located in the heart of the New England resort village of North Conway, NH, has evolved into a crucial design house for the U.S. armed forces. It is where Wild Things owner Marie-Odile Meunier has transferred a lifetime of devotion to designing functional lightweight gear for mountain climbing and other adventurous endeavors into a wartime calling.

In accordance with the Berry Amendment, which requires U.S. production of military apparel, Wild Things - a "Made-in-the-USA" supplier of durable, lightweight apparel such as windshirts, jackets and backpacks for rugged outdoor expeditions - was chosen recently by the U.S. Army to design and manufacture the outer parka and trousers for its new Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS Gen III).

The seven-layer 12-component system is designed with versatility in mind, with each piece fitting and functioning either alone or together as a system to provide the most options for soldiers.

The insulated parka and trouser layer for the Gen III system (also dubbed the "Happy Suit" by the Marines who use it), are produced by Wild Things at its nearby St. Johnsbury, Vermont factory.

Other garments in the ECWCS are produced by other U.S. garment manufacturers using Polartec and GORE-TEX fabrics.

The Virginia-based government and military contractor ADS Inc. is the designated prime vendor overseeing the project.

State-of-the-art technologies and materials long relied upon by Wild Things in the manufacturing of its adventure apparel have likewise spurred innovation in the makeup of Gen III.

The durable, lightweight soft-shell parkas and trousers, which are highly waterresistant, windproof and offer low absorption rates, are made with the EPIC (Encapsulation Protection Inside Clothing) brand of silicone encapsulated fabric from Nextec, based in Greenwich, CT.

The system's outermost "Level 7" layer protective garments, designed for use during static operations in extreme cold, are constructed with the EPIC shell fabric and PrimaLoft high-loft insulation, which is manufactured by New York-based Albany International Corp., a producer of insulation solutions for products such as outerwear, sleeping bags and gloves.

Enlisted into service
As with the physically demanding mountains she has scaled, Meunier's admirable life-long journey has admittedly offered its share of unexpected twists and steep business challenges that she has conquered over the years.

"I never envisioned 26 years ago that we'd be manufacturing for the American army," laughed Meunier, during an on-site interview with Apparel.

Inspired by the mountainous region of Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France, where she grew up, Meunier made her first mountain climb at the age of 14, in 1964, and dedicated much of the 1970s to ascending the Alps.

She met her ex-husband, John Bouchard, in Peru in 1977, and together they made the first ascent of the south face of the 20,000-foot-high Chacraraju Oeste. Meunier has made several other precedentsetting female climbs up many of the world's tallest mountains.

Meunier and Bouchard opened Wild Things in 1981, a collaboration launched when a rare snow-free New Hampshire winter tempered mountain climbing. The business was named after the popular adventure-themed children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," a deliberately openended and free-spirited moniker.

Carving out its niche as an outdoor apparel and gear provider for adventure enthusiasts, Wild Things, now managed solely by Meunier, achieved mail-order and retail success over the years that earned it New Hampshire's "Exporter of the Year" award for 2001.

But as the overall U.S. manufacturing base has been impacted by the effects of globalization and commoditization, so too has Wild Things. As a specialty provider with higher price points, it felt the bite.

Assessing her brick-and-mortar retail sales, Meunier says: "There's a huge shopping center right here with factory outlets around us, and everyone's looking for $10 jackets. ... We probably don't have anything for less than $100."

Still, Wild Things, a long-time outfitter for the military, has demonstrated resilience in segueing into a deeper business relationship with the Army, an opportunity presented in the aftermath of 9/11.

"When we first went to war, most military gear was clearly outdated and depleted pretty quickly," says Tim Cashell, whose independently owned company, North Yarmouth, ME-based TCPOC Inc., is a military-focused sales agent for both the EPIC and PrimaLoft technologies.

"[The armed forces] have been aggressively seeking better gear from the outdoor industry ever since," says Cashell, adding that, as the U.S. manufacturing base continues to shrink, the Army recognizes Wild Things as one of the few companies able to work with it, and appreciates Meunier for her ability to keep her finger on the pulse of the "next best thing."

Meunier says she frequently and enthusiastically returns to the mountainous areas of Europe - and also networks with government military officials in Washington, D.C. - to obtain feedback on ways to continuously improve the quality of her apparel and gear.

Years of research and development since 9/11 by Nextec, Wild Things and the Army contributed to the $220 million contract awarded to ADS in January to manage and procure the Gen III cold weather system. The first delivery to soldiers is scheduled for this winter.

ADS says the system's goal is to enhance soldier survivability in particularly challenging cold-weather conditions encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nextec, EPIC and PrimaLoft-insulated garments were the only products field tested for Gen III's levels 5 and 7 by the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan and were the foundation on which levels 5 and 7 were built. The products were credited by the mountain division for helping soldiers outlast and defeat the enemy on foreign terrain in bitterly cold conditions.

ADS says the ECWCS is 33 percent more compressible and 25 percent lighter than the previous uniform system and is adapt-able to environmental conditions ranging from between -40 degrees to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

An 'EPIC' adventure
The EPIC technology from Nextec was introduced in 1994, the development of a polymer scientist and hot-air balloonist who was disappointed at having to replace costly balloon fabric because of the delamination caused by the heat that inflated the balloon.

Since then, Nextec says, it has invested more than $70 million in research and development into EPIC.

EPIC fabric features silicone-encapsulated fibers that make it water resistant, windproof, breathable and washable. According to Nextec, the technology differs from Durable Water Resistant (DWR) treatments, laminates or coatings in that the technology is incorporated inside the fabric, enabling it to retain water-resistant properties for the life of the garment.

How does that work? Through Nextec's patented and proprietary process, an ultrathin polymer layer is placed around the fiber and between fiber bundles, creating a breathable barrier inside the fabric.

Nextec's process is designed for a wide range of fabrics and intended to maximize several performance attributes including water resistance, low absorption, quick drying and durability. Nextec says it is able to impart these attributes without impacting the look or feel of the fabric.

As for PrimaLoft, it is marketed as a synthetic alternative to down that offers similar physical and thermal properties without the absorption. PrimaLoft reports that its microfiber "down-like" insulation is created from a blend of fine, multi-diameter, water-resistant staple fibers to create a dynamic insulating loft structure.

Prior to the Army's selection of PrimaLoft for Gen III, the U.S. Special Forces, including the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Forces and the Air Force, were using PrimaLoft as an insulating layer for protective combat uniforms and sleeping bags.

Meunier says serving the military as a key apparel supplier has been a rewarding but sometimes bittersweet vocation, full of highs and lows. Because of a bad snowstorm, she once found herself driving gear to Fort Drum, NY, facing the sobering reality of the end-use of her products as she watched young men and women picking up her clothing before heading off to war.

"Sometimes it can be tough," she says, "but then again I feel good knowing in our own way we're providing some sort of comfort to these kids who have already made that decision." <<

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