Interview with John Gage, Appalachian Gear Company

Slide introducing an interview with John Gage, Appalachian Gear Co

Can you tell us a little bit about your background that has led you to this point? 

Appalachian Gear Company was founded by Mike Hawkins and I. We each have over 25 years of experience in the Textile Manufacturing and Textile Chemical industries, both with Fortune 500 companies as well as partners in various textile-related entrepreneurial endeavors. We witnessed firsthand the massive loss of U.S. jobs during the wave of offshoring that happened as a result of various trade agreements enacted between the mid-90s and early 2000s. I’ve been an outdoor enthusiast my entire life and had the idea to create a unique product for the Outdoor Lifestyle market that would focus on natural fibers rather than synthetics while bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. Our intense research and development over a number of years led us to the development of lightweight performance garments utilizing 100% Alpaca Fiber – a product class that had never been produced before.

Tell us about your product/brand and the inspiration behind it? 

Our flagship products are lightweight 100% Alpaca Tee Shirts and lightweight 100% Alpaca Fleece Hoodies. We also produce 100% Alpaca Beanies, Ski Buffs and Neck Gaiters. Our inspiration was to accomplish something no one else had ever done successfully, and to provide outdoor enthusiasts like backpackers, climbers, paddlers, skiers and bikers a high-performance alternative to synthetic fibers and merino wool. 

We were keenly aware that the outdoor lifestyle market had not seen true innovation in non-rainwear garments since lightweight merino wool and moisture-wicking synthetics. Alpaca Fiber was our focus, and we found there was very little research on how to use it to manufacture lightweight garments. Due to the awesome physical properties of Alpaca Fiber and the fact that if successful, such a product would be unique and groundbreaking, we set out to design our own machinery and process to achieve our goals. 

Alpaca has traditionally been used for fashion items and craft items that aren’t designed for performance; yet, it has wonderful performance properties. It is very light and strong, highly effective at personal temperature regulation in all types of weather, highly insulating for its weight, comfortable to wear, hypoallergenic, bacteria and odor resistant, and able to insulate when wet. Most importantly, our Alpaca fiber garments do not require environmentally hazardous chemical processing like some other fibers, and our garments do not require the addition of synthetic fibers in order to achieve the type of performance we require in the outdoor industry.

Image of fluffy alpacas in the sunshine

How does sustainability play a role in your brand/product development? How important has this been to consumers?

Sustainability was key in our original strategy. Over the last 25 years, there has been less focus on natural fibers for performance garments and more focus on cheap and plentiful synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers such as polyester are derivatives of the oil & gas industry. Synthetic fibers also require further chemical treatments in order to achieve a level of “moisture wicking” for comfort and anti-bacterial treatments for odor control. The problem with chemical treatments is that they wear off! When that happens, the synthetic fibers lose their effectiveness and in effect become plastic bags. 

The most important issue to be aware of with synthetic garments is a growing understanding and awareness of microplastics and their impact. Microplastics are entering the environment in massive quantities due to the breakdown of synthetic garments as they wear out and are laundered and becoming part of the food chain. Further, it has been suggested through recent research that humans are also possibly inhaling microplastics.  

Alpacas have a very low environmental impact and our 100% Alpaca Fiber garments are not only environmentally-friendly to produce, but Alpaca Fiber is part of the natural environment and is biodegradable.

As another important company value, we do not use any plastic in our packaging. We use craft paper and cardboard boxes for packing and shipping, so that it can be recycled over and over with no problem. That way we’re not contributing to the “macro-plastic” problem we are seeing in our oceans.

We have talked to thousands of consumers and have read hundreds of articles regarding the environmental impact of plastics and synthetic fibers in our environment. We have found, without a shadow of a doubt, that outdoor lifestyle consumers are not only educated on the issues of environmental plastics but are taking action and leading the fight to improve our environment, along with the leadership of the outdoor lifestyle media. Further, we have found that consumers are well aware that they have not been offered sufficient environmentally friendly alternatives by the industry, and they are actively looking for companies that rise to the challenge of providing them.

What are your thoughts on the future role sustainability plays both professionally in business and in our everyday lifestyle choices, in regard to the future health of our planet?

Our belief is that industry-leading development and responsiveness to emerging issues most often takes root as a result of entrepreneurial and small business innovation. Small businesses are not constrained by the oppressive march toward profit at any cost – and are more concerned with innovation. Small businesses connect more closely with consumers on a personal level and are more in touch with the fast-paced evolution of consumer ideas and needs. 

Sustainability is the core focus of the outdoor market and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. When designed into products and processes, sustainability can actually create stronger companies and better products. Only when sustainability becomes a guiding principle of product design can companies continue to improve efficiency, create jobs and, most importantly, make high-performing and cost-effective products for consumers. Innovation happens over time, just as we’ve seen with computers becoming significantly higher performing and significantly cheaper over time. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight.

Two images of people using AppGearCo gear in the wild

How does technology and innovation play a role in your business?

Technology and Innovation ARE the definition of our business. We had to start from scratch.

One of our core principles is to continually improve our processes and our products – and we do that through extensive testing and close contact with our market.

What does wilderness mean to you?

Time and again, it has been shown that personal experience, activity and building skills in wilderness areas have beneficial social and health impacts on people. Our wilderness areas are national treasures. We challenge people who have never been to the top of a remote mountain to do it just one time to feel the awe of the experience. As more and more people choose to have those experiences, we are also seeing a higher level of mistreatment in the form of trash, erosion, invasive plant species, etc. 

The answer to all of this is education and awareness. We should all have access, but we all share a significant responsibility to take care of our wilderness areas and national parks so the next generation of visitors will have the same awe. It is also significant to point out that wilderness areas have a way of melting away the social divides we feel in high-stress congested cities. When you meet people in wilderness areas you instantly have a connection with them – and it is always an open door to a new friendship.

Group of friends wearing AppGearCo in front of a snowy mountain

Do you have a favorite item- it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind- that has great meaning to you?

I have numerous items that have family history and significance, but in general, I am not a materialistic person. The things that have the most meaning to me are family and friends that I know will stand behind me when I am down, and that I can stand behind when they are down.  As an entrepreneur, there is rarely a nice sidewalk stroll – it’s usually a hard slog up a hill or an out-of-control slide down a hill.

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you apart from the obvious survival gear?

It would be somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, deep in a holler with a brook and a field. If I couldn’t have family and friends around, I would surely have my Martin Guitar, and maybe an extra string or two.

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind?

The re-emergence of a healthy, self-sustaining, tightly knit cottage gear industry with educational support from community colleges, so that young folks could make their own way and create opportunity out of thin air without having to spend $150K on a useless degree. I feel that what we have done can show people that you can accomplish things even when others say you can’t, and that you can reinvent yourself over and over again if you have the desire to do it.  As with anything, it takes hard work. But there is a persistent myth that entrepreneurs have to have unlimited confidence in themselves and their ideas. Entrepreneurs often struggle with self-doubt, but the real key is to keep choppin’ wood as I like to say. You might feel like quitting, but you have to dig deep sometimes and go farther than you think you have the ability to go.

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regard to sustainability and innovation?

I would say that one of the best things is to write down your values and principles when you are starting a business – sustainability hopefully being one of them. Build those principles into your product or service. Never waver from them. You might change your product type or product attributes along the way. Your experience might change certain opinions you have, but you have to stay true to your core values. Consumers build trust in a brand when they use the product and understand what the company stands for. Ask yourself - if you are not true to your business and personal values, how can a customer be true to you. You might have quality issues or delivery issues temporarily, but customers are people just like you and if they know you are in their corner they will also be in your corner.

Various individuals wearing AppGearCo clothing made of alpaca wool

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it?

These are very well worn, but very descriptive for me personally:

Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

John Muir: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

I can’t tell you how many times as a young salesman or entrepreneur, I would be traveling through the mountains, supposed to be working, and somehow, I would always wind up on a trail, even if it was 100 yards down a trail wearing a suit.

What brands do you admire? 

Big Agnes - for their innovation

Backpacker Magazine – (which is not a product brand) for their long and steady trustworthiness

Melanzana – for their business model, innovation and persistence

Vibram – because it’s always incredible when a product (their rubber soles) remains the definition of quality and performance consistently for such a long period of time

Martin Guitars - No one has ever designed a better guitar than the venerable D-18. How can a design be so old and so perfect?

FloydFest – FloydFest is a festival, but also a brand, and if anyone wants to see how to truly lead the sustainability effort by example and not by preaching, go to this festival. From top to bottom, they walk the walk and talk the talk and help educate you along the way in a very non-judgmental fashion. I’ve been to countless festivals – no one does it better.

Guy ice climbing wearing AppGearCo alpaca wool clothing for warmth

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers?

It’s not only important – it IS the essence of the brand, though it may come in different degrees.

Can you tell us something about your product/brand/personal journey that might surprise us to know? 

Knitting machines generally run continuously, except for the occasional changing of yarn or preventive maintenance. AppGearCo’s very first production run was 1 minute before we had massive yarn breakage. Undaunted, we stayed with it. When we achieved 4 minutes of run time, we looked at each other like we had hit a home run and said, “we can do this.” Looking back on that moment, I now realize we must have been insane to think 4 minutes of run time was a success. We eventually got over the insanity – and can now run the machines continuously!

Another interesting aspect of our development was that the majority of our “breakthroughs” did not come as a result of collaboration during work hours or guidance from research papers (there were none), but rather as a result of massive failure in which we would go for weeks with no answers at all until one of us would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, or come in on a Sunday to try something new. 

Finally, and an example of how low-tech is sometimes useful: we actually used skateboard wheels, skateboard trucks, pool balls, epoxy and 2x4s to build some pieces of equipment we needed but couldn’t find! Yes, we did. And we stole the skateboard parts from our kids…

Multiple images of the process of making alpaca wool clothing

What is your favorite animal and why? 

A dog, of course. A dog’s friendship is unconditional and unwavering.

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind?

That’s a hard question because environmentally damaging products are so ubiquitous. The changes we all have to make are incremental and the key is for EVERYONE to be involved because hundreds of millions of small steps are better than hundreds of thousands of large steps. 

As a company, we have given up the use of plastics for material packaging. Using plastic mailers would save us approximately $1.00 per garment, and when you do the math, that really adds up. We have to be competitive in the market, so we cannot charge more because we use cardboard boxes. We built it into our cost structure and it costs us a little extra, but if we bring All-Paca to a growing consumer base – it’s all good! And when people buy our products, they can also feel good that our garments are natural fiber and our packaging is also sustainable, and that is the type of small step consumers can make; choose products that are taking STEPS – because that adds up.