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Back in the day, we frequented ‘mountain shops’ as opposed to sporting goods storesbomo. We liked the freedom vibe and all the cool new backpacking equipment and clothing. We would wander about, touching the sleeping bags, flipping through Rebuffat books and dreaming. I was lucky enough to get hired as a clerk for one of the hybrid shops popping up; businesses that were both shoe cobblers and mountain shops at the same time.  One job led to another, as it so often does, and I ended up working in a couple classic mountain shops while I was a student at The University of Colorado. (Don’t laugh, I’m a botanist.)

What followed was a long tour of duty in emerging outdoor specialty retail. I happily clerked, bought product and managed for multiple shops in both Colorado and Washington while leading the basic mountain athlete lifestyle in the Rockies and Cascades.

I moved over to product when I was fortunate enough to meet Rick Lipke in Bellingham, Washington. It was in his skunk works that I started to learn the ropes regarding small scale manufacturing and discovered my true work love, dinking around with product design.

Teaming with Charly Oliver we replicated the idea of local, small batch manufacturing in Boulder with our brand Oliver Gray, a critical success and financial disaster. I’d like to think that we put up a good fight.

The die was cast when Frank Shorter Sports picked me up for a position that I was barely qualified for, product manager. Being an Odyssey company with a Gore license meant our production was all China based, and I quickly went through hard-knock-university in modern outerwear manufacturing.

Joining Lowe alpine meant coming back to the core outdoor industry and allowed me to serve an apprenticeship in technical design as only the Brits can teach it. The technical capacity and vision of that company was amazing.

Eventually, I moved on to just freelance design, at first doing what I knew best, organizing and designing worldwide mountaineering apparel collections.  Clothing as equipment, so to speak. A knack for practical design translated into workwear design, military work, general outerwear, etc. I had found a niche doing both technical and rugged lifestyle design.

Somewhere along the way I began to write trend and trade show articles, and eventually started writing a regular column for Textile Insight magazine. It is a humbling process, communication, and I am often reminded that content is what one hears, not what one says. My kids remind me of this almost every day.

One of the advantages of having done design work with so many brands through the years is that I’ve seen many, many different processes and results. They say good judgment is the product of experience, and experience, of course, is the result of poor judgment. In that case my job is to bring my customers apparel options based on that experience, and keep them from making mistakes I’ve seen in the past. That means bringing creative options, production options, merchandising options, whatever the situation requires.

So the summary is –  I would rather be in the mountains than at the beach, I would rather design race cars than station wagons, and I usually get along great with the folks in the lab. I very much enjoy bringing functional, high quality technical apparel to market. I am a lucky guy.

-k gray

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