The Future is Nau
A progressive apparel company takes sustainability to the next level
By Carissa Wodehouse
A computer rendering of Nau’s planned “Webfront” stores, slated to open in 2007.
In late 2004, Eric Reynolds, a co-founder of California-based outdoor gear company Marmot, started recruiting talent for a new sustainable clothing company he was planning to build from the ground up, and he invited industry veterans who shared his vision to join him. Excitement spread quickly, and soon a group of designers and financial execs—many in lead positions at outdoor clothing giants like Patagonia and Nike—were weighing the opportunity to be pioneers in the green clothing industry against the risks of taking major pay cuts and uprooting their families. The first to take the plunge was Chris Van Dyke, who had recently retired from Patagonia. “At companies like Nike, retrofitting for sustainability is like changing the wheelon a moving train,” he says. “This new company was an opportunity to build the train, then run it.”
Van Dyke and the other mavericks that joined him envisioned a company that would create high-performance, beautiful clothes while also setting new environmental standards for design, manufacturing, and distribution. Two years later, their dream has come to fruition in the form of Nau (pronounced “now”), named for the Maori word “welcome.” An apt title, because hearing about the company’s innovative methods feels like getting a glimpse into the future of apparel—both how it’s made and how it’s sold.
To start, Nau designers didn’t just settle for the standard green fabrics like hemp and organic cotton. They worked with clothing manufacturers Malden Mills and Deer Creek to create earth-friendly textiles, dyes, and finishes. One of the more innovative textiles Nau uses is a durable, fleece-like material made out of the polylactic acid (PLA) derived from corn. (Although many companies have experimented with using PLA in consumer products, Nau is among a handful of companies using it to manufacture clothing.) Once the fabrics were ready, Mark Galbraith, vice president of design, created a style that harked back to “couture design and the timeless aesthetic that carries through.” The resulting clothing breaks the usual boundaries of high-performance apparel, fulfilling outdoor demands with a decidedly indoor fashion sense.
In the women’s spring line, several knee-length skirts and dresses, made from recycled polyester, feature asymmetrical hems and accent stitching normally reserved for more delicate duds. Envisioned for summer, the men’s Bermuda shorts and women’s capris are made from 96 percent organic cotton with a touch of spandex for stretch. To complement the designs, the palette is what Galbraith calls “investment colors”: greens, blues, and grays that are familiar to a clientele comfortable in both the urban jungle and the natural world.
Nau will launch its first line in January; it will be available only through the website (nau.com) or through unique retail stores called Webfronts. These boutiques, slated to open in Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Chicago, and Seattle in early 2007, aim to reduce resources used in distribution by keeping inventory low and offering customers a 10 percent discount and free shipping as incentives if they have clothes mailed to them from a warehouse. (Customers also have the option to take clothes home on the spot.)
Shoppers will discover another innovative practice at checkout: They’re given a choice of 12 non-profit companies to which Nau will donate five percent of the sale. Jil Zilligen, vice president of sustainable business practices, explains that Nau gives customers the choice with the hope that “they will be prompted to think what they as customers ask of companies and what they might ultimately demand of them.”