Fashion & Footwear October 5th, 2017

Why Nau Is The Future Of Sustainable Fashion

Mark Galbraith is one of the original members of Nau’s founding team.

He has led design at the iconic Portland brand for over ten years, and is an industry leader and advocate for the sustainability movement in the outdoor industry. We sat down with him to learn about his role at Nau, what makes for good design, and why sustainability is a non-negotiable for the brand.

Tell us what you do at Nau.
Right now, I’m acting as the general manager, but that’s not really an accurate title. More than anything, I sit over in the creative side of things looking at product and brand and sustainability. Where art and sustainability and product come together, that’s what I’m interested in.

How did you get into design?
One, from my academic background, which was all anthropology, archeology and Middle Eastern studies. I was always fascinated in what people made, how they lived, what their art and architecture was about — and what their social structures were about — and how they survived in a given area.

And then I think the other thing was really growing up along the Wasatch front in Utah. I grew up with this amazing playground that had pretty much every activity you wanted to do, from mountains to desert to big desert rivers and something as weird as the Great Salt Lake. So it was a pretty interesting geography that really spurred tons of activity.

Where those two things met was fooling around with my own sewing and messing around making gear. When I grew up, you didn’t call a plumber, you didn’t call an architect, you just fixed stuff, made stuff. We had welding and shop equipment around so I could fool around with hard goods. I was in a make, invent, figure stuff out sort of mode.

From there I just fell into making a pretty wild leap. At the peak of me making stuff for friends, this old-school Utah sporting goods chain was bought out, and they had a little sewing factory. I was buying some industrial sewing machines and leftover fabrics, and one day I walked in and they were like, ‘we want to unload this whole thing. Instead of buying piecemeal machines, if you just want to buy the whole thing and assume one more year of the lease of this old building, you could.' And I was like, Jesus, that’s crazy.

I ended up going from just fooling around in my garage to essentially owning a super small little factory in one kinda stupid leap. Cutting table, pneumatic snap setter, down blower, a seam sealing machine, you name it. Like, overnight you have Santa’s workshop! So that’s how I kind of jumped into things.

How would you describe your own personal style?
I would say it’s pretty minimal, functional, sort of industrial. I think taking classic heritage stuff and giving it a little bit of a cleaner, timeless modern style is what I like. So whether it’s classic selvedge denim or an old classic Land Rover Defender, I like the simple, kind of industrial sensibility with clean lines and functionality that still looks relevant and interesting now. Hitting that sweet spot is what I like aesthetically.

Does that play into the apparel design philosophy that you’ve brought to Nau?
I think so. But more important was the really collaborative studio environment. The collective is much smarter than the individual. I think Nau has never been a brand about a person or the personality of one person. It was more about an idea and a creative studio that could bring those things to life.

Where do you find inspiration?
Just observing, everywhere. Being connected, and taking the time to observe, enjoy, talk, go have a margarita for lunch. Your inspiration comes from living life fully and paying attention. I think the downside of the modern hyper-saturation we’re under is you’re expected to consume six billion megabytes of stuff, and I think ultimately it’s an overload. I think actually being able to unplug a bit and pay attention to urban life and outdoor life and music and art — it’s more of an attitude and an approach that inspires me.

Does good design come from inspiration, or is it something else?
To me, the interpretation of it is paying attention and understanding what’s happening. The discipline of it is having core principles. For us, the single biggest inspiring reason Nau started, and what ultimately guides everything we do, is the whole ‘unf*ck the world’ original idea. Not just using design to make something beautiful, or something functional, or something that makes someone look great or perform well — I think that’s a given, you have to do that. For us, doing it in a way that can create positive lasting change, that can show how to do it with sustainability and social good and low impact, that’s ultimately the inspiration that everything has to be filtered through.

It sounds sustainability was the driving force during the brand creation stage. Why is it so important?
It was the driver. The average American disposes of — in the trash — an average of 82 pounds of textiles a year. The industry itself is the second highest polluter in the world. Sustainability is a red thread of our business and each of our employees considers it every day, from the product’s actual design to the development process, to our 2 percent to Partners for Change. And it’s an element of our business model that piques the interest of customers, drawing them in to look at what we do.

What’s your favorite Nau piece?
I probably don’t have a singular favorite Nau piece. Some of my favorites are our simple wool layering pieces like the Boiled Wool Jacket; every time I go somewhere, it’s always in my kit. I think I’ve always got one of our stretch three-layer waterproof pieces. And all the down sweaters and shirts we’ve made. I really like the Utility Down Shirt Jacket detail where we don’t have a stiff zipper, we’ve got snaps, so you can do one or two or really vent or roll up a cuff. All those pieces are always super useful, and they don’t look like standard outdoor uniforms.

Nau does a lot of business in the women’s category. What do you attest to the brand’s success with the ladies?
Women appreciate the versatility of design that our apparel pieces provide: jackets, sweaters, dresses. Layering pieces that also carry fashion interest do really well in women’s, like our Wool Down Stole or the Boiled Wool Shirt Jacket. We also are successful in putting out a reliable and diverse outerwear line that transitions from outdoor adventuring to keeping her warm for a bike or public transit commute like the Quintessentshell Jacket, or in more extreme weather cases, the Dual Down Jacket.

So, it’s been 10 years at Nau?
Yeah, it’s been a flash. I was here just two years before we sold our first product. A single season normally has an 18-month development calendar, and it was like — here are 24 months to go from zero to everything. To go from no concept, no name, no product line, no visual language, nothing, just an idea of functionality and sustainability and go for it. That was one of the most fun, creative projects ever to work on. It was a blast.

What do you have planned for the brand for the next 10?
We want to do the same. We are a business that is on a path of continuous refinement. We strive to design the best in versatile apparel and giving back while pushing the sustainable business forward. We are working to continue driving toward innovations that create high-tech textiles from natural fibers. To evolve the supply chain process to be as efficient of a process as possible. To keep creating well-considered, high-designed pieces that last a long time so you can keep your wardrobe lean. And to continue to support organizations who can make a true difference in the world.

Do you still think design can change the world?
It has to. Design has put us where we are. So if bad design had a negative impact, then flipping that around to good design could engineer us out of many of the problems. Energy issues, pollution, waste: they’re all design problems. So I believe good design can solve anything. In that sense, I’m pretty optimistic.

Sustained Style