HIP Spotlight: The History Of Patagonia

Patagonia is a global icon with a humble origin story as a small Californian climbing tools company formed out of pure love for the outdoors. 50 years on from being officially formed in 1973, the brand has carved out a place on a pedestal in the outdoors industry, admired and loved globally for its unwavering commitment to protecting the planet, attractive and long-lasting clothing, and version of a healthy active lifestyle. Patagonia’s eco-friendly outlook is more than just a conscience, it informs everything the brand does. Using its business, investments, voice and imagination, the brand has made tangible differences to the world we live in.

How did Patagonia begin and who formed it?

Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s future founder, began his lifelong love of climbing in 1953 aged just 14 when he joined the Southern California Falconry Club. After meeting other young climbers that shared his passion, Chouinard and friends would explore California’s idyllic mountain ranges and eventually teach themselves to climb the imposing walls of Yosemite. To assist their adventures, Yvon learned how to blacksmith in order to create vital tools, starting with pitons – spikes mounted into a rock to support a climber. Word quickly spread in the close-knit Californian climbing community, and before long, Yvon had a small shop in his parents’ backyard. He would also load up his car with tools and travel the Californian coast, from Big Sur to San Diego, surfing and finding other local climbers he could do business with.

Patagonia's founder with a fellow climber at Yosemite Valley.
Rock climber John Salathé with Yvon Chouinard at Camp 4, Yosemite Valley, California, October 1964. Source: Patagonia

Back in Yosemite, Chouinard and his friends once had to hide out from the rangers in the boulders above Camp 4 after they overstayed the two-week camping limit. They took pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic significance – ‘that they were rebels’.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard climbing the North America Wall at Yosemite in 1964.
Yvon Chouinard and friends at the summit of El Capitan on 30 October 1964, following a 10 day ascent of the North America Wall, Yosemite National Park, California. Source: Patagonia

In 1965, Yvon went into partnership with Tom Frost and started Chouinard Equipment. During the nine years that the pair worked together, they improved virtually all climbing tools in every possible aspect. Interestingly, the foundation of their design protocol was inspired by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French aviator: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.” By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States.

The early days of Chouinard Equipment Company, before Patagonia was formed.
Chouinard Equipment Company, Ventura, California, 1969. Source: Patagonia

On a winter climbing trip in Scotland in 1970, Yvon spotted the appeal of the rugby shirt for climbing; its sturdy collar protected the neck, and upon his return to the States other climbers were asking where they could get one. Clothing was seen as a way to support the brand – by ’72 Patagonia was selling cagoules, beanies and gloves, sourcing fabrics from around the world.

At the time, the mountaineering community relied on traditional materials like cotton and wool, however Patagonia looked elsewhere for inspiration. The brand decided that a staple of North Atlantic fishermen, the synthetic pile sweater, would make an ideal mountain layer, because it insulate well without absorbing moisture. Eventually finding a mill in Los Angeles that could produce this type of fiber, and after rigorous field-testing and experimentation, the brand came up with a fabric that fit its requirements.

Patagonia’s Famous Logo

In 1975, Yvon created Patagonia’s iconic emblem after climbing Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia, California. The idyllic image of mountains against a sunset skyline directly inspired the stylistic artwork, an enduring silhouette that represents everything Patagonia has come to represent.

Patagonia Logo. Source: Boardsport Source

Patagonia’s Iconic Vintage Catalogues

In the ’70s Patagonia also started disseminating its now legendary catalogues, which have become true grails for fans of the brand. The catalogues fostered a sense of community and adoration for the label – a visual illustration of the Patagonia lifestyle. Featuring incredible imagery by famous outdoor photographers and captions inspired by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, the catalogues captured the intrinsic sense of adventure and natural world beauty which the brand was ultimately born out of. Even using photographs from its audience, Chouinard told the New Yorker “We were the first to use real people, and captions saying who and where they were”.

Vintage Patagonia catalogue.
Image from Patagonia catalogue Spring 1987. Source: Collateral Magazine

Vintage Patagonia catalogue.
Image from Patagonia catalogue Fall-Winter 1992. Source: Collateral Magazine

The catalogues introduced the notion of layering to the outdoor community: an inner layer against the skin for moisture transport, middle layer of pile for insulation, outer shell layer for wind and rain protection. As a result of years of work to advance its fabric range, Patagonia released its now signature Synchilla in 1985 – an even softer, double-faced fabric that did not pill at all and is still used for fleeces in each collection today. From that point forward, the brand began to make significant investments in fabric research and design. Another seismic shift in the ’80s outdoors market associated with Patagonia was its inclusion of vivid colour, contrasting the bleak tones used by other brands. At this time, the brand was growing rapidly, developing a cult following which led to inclusion in Inc. Magazine’s list of the fastest-growing privately held companies.

Vintage Patagonia catalogue.
Image from Patagonia catalogue. Source: OutdoorInov8 

Vintage Patagonia catalogue.
Image from Patagonia catalogue. Source: OutdoorInov8 

Patagonia’s Values

Although when growth halted in 1991, the brand was forced to lay 20% of its staff off. This forced Chouinard to reflect on what type of business he wanted Patagonia to be. Despite the upheaval, Patagonia preserved its DNA. At the brand’s office in Ventura, California – where it is still headquartered today – staff wore what they wanted, often ran or surfed at lunch and played volleyball out back. Patagonia emphasised its staff’s well-being, putting on healthy food in the canteen and sponsoring skiing and climbing trips. Another sign of altruism was an on-site childcare centre, opened at the insistance of Malinda, Yvon’s wife. The presence of children playing in the yard or having lunch with their parents in the cafeteria kept the company atmosphere more familial than corporate; in 2015 Patagonia were recognised by President Obama for its commitment to working families.

Patagonia HQ in California.
Free bikes available at Patagonia Headquarters, Ventura, California. Source: Patagonia

Patagonia’s Mission To Help Save The Planet

Patagonia was still in its infancy when it started devoting time and money to the increasingly stark environmental crisis. Reading about global warming, the cutting and burning of tropical forests, the rapid loss of groundwater and topsoil, acid rain, the ruin of rivers and creeks, reinforced what the brand saw with its eyes and smelled with its noses during its travels. Early on, Patagonia began initial steps to reduce its own role as a corporate polluter across every aspect of the business, not just using organic dyes and sustainable fabrics, looking at reducing its carbon footprint within every minute detail of the operation.

A Patagonia sign about saving the planet.
A sign in the Patagonia exhibit at the Outdoor Retailer & Snow Show in the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, 2019. Source: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The brand began to make regular donations to smaller groups working to save or restore habitat rather than give the money to non-governmental organisations  with corporate roots. In 1986, Patagonia committed to donating 10% of profits each year to these groups; this was later upped to 1% of sales, profit or no profit. That commitment has not been altered – remaining the same every year since.

By 2012, Patagonia’s extensive environmental work meant it became the first Californian company to become a benefit corporation—a legal framework that enables mission-driven businesses to stay that way as they grow and change. The brand is also a Certified B Corporation – highlighting its explicit social or environmental mission.

The brand’s list of commitments and acts of service to help saving our planet is endless. Including the launch of Worn Wear— its used clothing and repair program. The scheme began as a blog for fans of the brand to share stories about their favourite Patagonia products and the ‘badges of honour’ rips, tears and stains— that signified treasured memories in the great outdoors. The sentimental stories inspired the brand to turn a small repair service into the largest garment repair facility in North America, constructing a mobile repair truck out of reclaimed materials so a small team could travel the country and repair people’s clothing free of charge.

An issue the brand encountered in its mission, was the lack of control over factories it did not own. This meant Patagonia did not full jurisdiction over how much workers were paid, and how they were treated. Through partnering with Fair Trade, Patagonia could ensure that some of the money spent on a product goes directly to its producers and stays in their community, ensuring fair working wages.

Patagonia’s philosophy encompasses the small, often under-appreciated grassroots groups that work tirelessly in their neighbourhoods – the communities that business connected with at the start of its journey. In 2018, the launch of Patagonia Action Works connected customers with these action groups, fostering the deeper sense of togetherness needed to spark change.

In 2020, Patagonia sued former President Donald Trump over plans to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah. Source: Insider

September 14, 2022, the Earth became Patagonia’s only shareholder. Nearly 50 years after Yvon started his experiment in responsible business, ownership of Patagonia was transferred to two new entities: Patagonia Purpose Trust and the nonprofit Holdfast Collective. Every dollar that is not reinvested into Patagonia was now distributed as dividends to protect the planet. “Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth, we are using the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source,” said Chouinard. “I am dead serious about saving this planet.”

Our Patagonia collection is online now and available in our Leeds store.