Voormi is an American-made outdoor brand, making clothing primarily in wool. Launched by former Microsoft employee Dan English, it is an experiment in materials innovation with natural fibres.
Timm Smith, chief technology officer at Colorado-based Voormi, says, “We like to look at everything from a technology perspective. In some ways, we’re like a Tesla, innovative, but in performance apparel and fabrics.
Wool, an ancestral material, has its limits despite its great resistance to harsh climates. Smith and his colleagues want to see how they can adapt natural materials like wool to the modern needs of the outdoor industry and those whose jobs require them to be out in nature in all weathers. “It’s really only recently that we’ve entered the world of synthetic fibers when it comes to mountaineering clothing,” Smith says. “Yet to date, it is almost impossible to imitate the unique natural properties of wool in an extruded synthetic fiber.”
In 2010, English launched SWNR, a technology-focused company that Smith says “isn’t that public.” Voormi, instead, is the public arm of it, putting performance textile research and design to work in products that consumers can buy.
Smith, who previously worked at GoreTex, known for popularizing waterproof fabrics, was enthused by the English passion for innovation.
“When Dan realized that the outdoor industry had been selling more or less the same products for a long time, and that many of them used synthetic materials, he was a little surprised. Coming from Microsoft in the 90s and early 2000s, where it was all about innovation, he wanted to see if he could help bring that tech mindset to clothing, so he decided to go for it,” he explains. “And Voormi’s vision was to show what we think the future of clothing could be.”
For three years, the company contented itself with developing materials and designs. Not a single product was sold. In 2014, they launched their first collection. Although they don’t do sales, discounts, or aggressive marketing, they have found a niche market of customers who are looking for a high-end product that will stand up to daily wear and tear.
“There is no more versatile fiber than wool. When you’re on long expeditions or outdoors all the time, you need to put everything in one bag, and wool is great for that because it helps maintain your body temperature,” Smith repeats.
Voormi’s wool comes from sources in the United States and as local as the Rambouillet sheep in the Rockies near their offices. Clothes are also made nearby in Colorado in smaller factories than seen overseas. In fact, during the pandemic, their staff was able to go to work, when other large cut-and-sew facilities had to close, Smith says. “They just shifted the schedules.” As the company grew, they expanded their manufacturing operations to Montana. But all products are still made in America, a rarity in the outdoor industry.
This, he argues, helped them in their innovation. “Because we can have our team in our backyard, we can change designs, modify stitches, and go test products in days rather than months. This gives us an advantage, we feel it. And so, our growth is facilitated by innovation, rather than just marketing.
The pandemic has slowed down the deadlines. “It took us about 9 months to have wool on our doorstep. We also work with the agricultural industry, so it’s a bit more complicated than just adding more plastic pellets to a machine,” he says, referring to the manufacture of polyester.
Although they use synthetic fibers, mixed with wool, Smith says a significant percentage of this garment is still biodegradable, meaning it will break down, and is designed to last a long time, with concern of durability. Plus, its more local manufacturing means less gas and oil has been spent on trucking materials around the world.
Now the focus, he says, is to make sure the company is making products that actually meet the needs of a population — with a focus on the technical details, that is. “More small businesses are dying of indigestion than of hunger for good ideas.”
This streamlined approach has kept them away from some of the major events in the outdoor industry. Instead, they think broader: wearable technology, automotive. “There are so many directions we can go with this because it’s based on material innovation.”
Smith’s version of sustainability is limited to innovation, which he believes will lead them (and the industry) to better and more environmentally friendly materials and, ultimately, to sustainability. For example, when it comes to DWR, a coating commonly used to repel water, Smith says, “We work on a wide range of options/chemistries with durability as a key balancing factor.” Basically, if it’s not sustainable, people are going to spray it with household cleaners that don’t have environmental controls for application, he says, so it’s a fine line to draw. of what works and what is the most “sustainable” option.
Still, given Voormi’s efforts to manufacture locally, in smaller quantities and with less waste, using mostly natural fiber, he argues it’s a model to emulate.