Kokatat Emerges as a Big Fish in Paddle Sportswear

Remember what it was like when you were a kid, and you had to get up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom, and you were wearing your one-piece footie pajamas? That's a bit akin to the experience of an avid kayaking enthusiast who wears a onepiece dry suit to stay comfortable and un-soaked during a kayaking expedition. Full-body dry suits have traditionally been one piece, because when you try to stay dry using separate tops and bottoms, it's nearly impossible, says Jeff Turner, sales manager. "Water finds its way in."

Kokatat would know. The company, which got its start in 1971 as a backpacking and bicycling shop in Arcata, Calif., and moved into wholesaling outdoor apparel and gear to companies such as REI, eventually decided to focus exclusively on paddle sports apparel after a lawsuit brought against the company — then called Blue Puma — by sportswear company Puma forced it to make a decision about its direction. "It was the best thing that ever happened to us," says Steve O'Meara, president and co-founder. The company decided to be a big fish in the small pond of kayaking products instead of a small fish in the big pond of outerwear apparel, a move that honed its focus on perfecting apparel for its niche.

Since that time, the company has been improving upon paddle sportswear, experimenting with different materials and sealing methods, and thanks to Kokatat, today the in-and-out challenges of the one-piece dry suit are history. With its newly launched GORE-TEX Idol dry suit, Kokatat has kept the crucial goal — staying dry — of the onepiece intact, while solving the problems that come with having to fully remove the suit.

How did it do that? Rather than incorporating a zipper than runs vertically from top to bottom on the torso or the back, the Idol incorporates a fully separating, waterproof, SwitchZip system that circles the waist, eliminating the torso zipper and allowing for maximum freedom of movement, says Matt Porter, who can be seen explaining the finer points of the company's kayaking apparel in a series of videos on the company's web site. "The zipper placement sits between the back band and the seat, and below the skirt so as not to interfere with boat outfitting," he notes.

Additionally, the top can be worn separately as a dry top, with the zipper flap folding over the chain of the zipper to protect it when it's in use in this manner. "The SwitchZip acts as the entry zipper and release zipper in one, allowing men and women to have front and rear relief," he adds. An Idol will run you about $1,000, which is quite a bargain, given its 2-in-1 feature. As Turner
explains, a drysuit and a dry top together will typically run you about $1,500, but because the Idol can also be worn as a dry top,
there's no need to have both. Each Idol, like all of its drysuits, is tested for leaks and guaranteed to remain completely dry for the
lifetime of the suit. The Idol also features 3-layer Evolution GORETEX® Pro Shell fabric, used in combination with 330 Cordura® GORE-TEX® Pro Shell in areas of high abrasion.

When problems do arise, Kokatat has a repair and service facility in California (and recently opened one in the UK for its European
customers) offering services ranging from gasket replacement and water testing to leak repair and retrofitting.

The ISO-9001 company is a stand-out in the industry, with about 60 percent of Kokatat's revenues coming from recreational apparel and the other 40 percent from apparel and gear manufactured for the military, a venture that got its start after GORE-TEX saw the advances Kokatat was making in its products and sought it out as a partner for a project with the Navy Seals. Kokatat products also are almost entirely Made-in-the-USA at the company's Arcata factory, which employs 150. (Some environmentally friendly Gaia® PVC-free flotation foam that it uses in its life vests comes from Asia.) Keeping production close at hand allows the company to control quality while also focusing on continued research and development, says Turner.

The Idol has already received accolades from "Gear Junkie," being recognized as "Best of Show" at the 2014 Summer Outdoor Retailer. "It is a game changer!" he concludes.

Editor's Note: Did you miss the rest of our 2015 Top Innovators? Catch up now, and nominate a worthy apparel company for 2016.
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