Interview with Richard Elder of Beyond Clothing
Richard Elder in known in the industry for being the project officer for the team that developed the PCU, the protective combat uniform. A breakthrough technological improvement that has become the foundation of modern high performance and expeditionary clothing systems.
Now at Beyond Clothing since its acquisition by 5.11. Richard Elder formerly served as the executive director of Smith Optics Elite Division, where he led the development of the ballistic eye-wear program. Prior to Smith Optics, Elder spent 10 years as a US Federal Program Manager, developing equipment in support of the United States Special Operation Command. Prior to, he attained the rank of Sergeant and later, Captain, completing his tour in 2001 within the 75th Ranger Regiment, United States Special Operations Command. Elder also served in the United States Army for seven years as both an enlisted soldier and commissioned officer.
We had the unique opportunity to interview Rick and spend time with his team while visiting the Beyond headquarters in Seattle, WA.
- Manufacturing Capabilities
- Tier 1 Customers Requirements
- Combat Clothing vs. Expeditionary Clothing
- Tactical Companies vs Outdoor Companies
- Supporting SOF
- A diverse customer base
- Developing for the next challenge
- Integration between clothing and gear
- Next stage for mission clothing
- System vs. Garments
- Lutra Fabric
Q: With Beyond Clothing, are you trying to create the next iteration of research and development from your previous career?
A: When I was part of the development assets for the Special Operation Community, my dream was to build a company that I wanted to work with. Being on the other side of the table, I valued specific characteristics of a company.
I wanted to build a company that innovated regularly, that was flexible and that was open to remodel. My intention, from the beginning, was to provide a dialogue with the end user and therefore be transparent on cost and manufacturing capabilities; not just: “here is a product and here is how it costs”, but rather “here is why it costs this much and here is how the process works”.
We intended Beyond Clothing to be a very open model, the Axios collection is in my eyes as an extension of what a PCU system (Protective Combat Uniform) would be if I had all assets that the United States had to bear from a technology side.
Now, with our Kyros line, we are seeking manufacturing technologies around the world with the goal of identifying and bringing advanced expertise to the United States and invigorate the local capabilities.
This journey, which started more than fifteen years ago, will continue with the search for improved technology that can enable us to manufacture clothing systems that are lighter, more durable and overall more efficient, while still maintaining an open mind and looking for leap ahead technology. All of this, I feel, is harder to achieve in a big commoditized outdoor company.
Q: What is available now in terms of materials, manufacturing processes and resources that was not available then? In addition, what do you think are the current technological and skill manufacturing capabilities of this industry here in the US?
A: For our Axios line, our US portfolio, we developed our fabrics in conjunction with the manufacturers here in the United States. At first, I was amazed to see that nobody else was developing and I thought the reason was that fabrics manufacturing companies were not willing to develop. In reality the industry was very lazy and very status quo, in fact, fabrics manufacturers were actually relieved when someone asked to develop.
There are a few companies here in the US that produce technical clothing, a very small group. You can count them on one hand, and today we are the largest of the US portfolio, which is ridiculous because at Beyond we are a small company.
This goes to show you how impacted the US domestic manufacturing base is for this segment of the industry; which is why now we have started searching around the globe so that we can have two portfolios. The key point is that the two portfolios, the US manufacturing for the Axios line and the TAA compliant for the Kyros line, are tied by the development, which is done for both here in Seattle in house.
Q: How do you feel the mission/expeditionary clothing needs have changed in top tier units from the beginning of GWOT to nowadays?
A: There are multiple ways in which things have been forced to evolve.
One is always equipment integration, the ancillary equipment around what I call the human platform changes: new goggles, new helmet systems, new armor, you name it…
In addition, you have to consider that mobility platforms have changed: birds and vehicles as an extension to the human platform.
Since I did my first clothing system in Q1 of 2002, in 16 years the way we operate and develop equipment in the military has evolved dramatically.
The next step we have gone through during these 16 years is that before, you would build a system to meet a specification, which always had a threshold requirement. If you did not meet the threshold, you could not develop for it.
What we are experiencing now is that you still have that threshold requirement to be met, but what I see are teams optimizing inside said requirement for a more specific sub-requirement.
For example, if we have to provide an end user with a system that enables him to operate at -50°F, -60°F, -70°F we do have clothing systems that can do so, but they are composed of sub-systems. Ultimately, the end user is most likely to work in temperatures around 0°F to 40°F; so we want to develop sub-systems, inside of the overarching clothing system, that are optimized for those windows of utility and overall more flexible.
Because you are going to be working in that window much more frequently, our objective is to focus on that range and design systems that are lighter, more integrated and more durable (in some cases) in order to optimize your performance. With operational platforms that are harsh on clothing, like non-skid decks, we have the necessity of providing garments that are more durable.
We wanted to be able to address very specific requirements and our team here at Beyond develops specifically for those niches. When you look at the very best of the best operationally across the world they want to optimize the sub-profile and not just the overarching profile.
Unlike a conventional unit that is issued a piece of equipment, and has to make it work for the next few years, top tier units are able to get issued all sort of things and they can pick and choose within an intelligent profile to really optimize what they are going to do for the next two days.
Q: We feel that Beyond provides a consistent liaison between combat clothing and expeditionary clothing. Was this strategy influenced by your work in the development of the PCU?
On the market we often see companies producing combat clothing, in which it seems that the variable of climate is almost not even considered. On top of this very tactical and fully featured garments users have to wear bulky and inefficient garments for actual protection from the elements, therefore losing most of the tactical features of the combat clothes.
A: It was easy for me because Beyond is not a tactical company, we do not even think of it in that way. We service mission customers but our focus is as an outfitter, not as a clothier. So we build tools we do not build clothing.
That is where the fusion came together. Overrunning many clothing programs for many very special units over the years, I learned that I could focus on the environmental and movement/static windows within a profile and it did not require me to understand the mission-profile. It helps if you do, and I think we do that part well, but we allow our experts to be experts.
When it comes to the tactics and the procedures of a unit, we do not try to be smart in that, I do not try to outsmart or outshine a customer when they come here, they are the “rock star”.
We are expert in the clothing technology, my job is to get these people home from these rad adventures, whether it is a mission set, science mission, adventure or whatever (there is more that connects these different types of users than what separates them).
I believe that the failing of so many tactical clothing companies is that they do not step back and go to the foundation of what we are trying to build, which is universal. What we are manufacturing is a tool that can be worn for an arctic expedition as well as a combat arctic expedition.
Q: Because of the “badass operator” cult, many companies would love to have their new jacket shown in the catalog worn by an assaulter sitting on a MH-6 Little Bird while his is shouldering his rifle. Why are you very far from this concept in you marketing and communication? (Even though you are much more involved with that type of customer than these companies)
A: Because it is so played out.
There are multiple sides of it: after years and years of development for these teams I have realized that my hypothesis for Beyond is that high-end tactical units don’t buy clothing systems from tactical companies. In my previous job, I often brought the attention to outdoor brands like Patagonia, North Face, Mountain Hardware, and Marmot; repeatedly I developed products for these companies while, in some cases, tactical facing companies were even never evaluated.
What I realized was that when you build a “tactical” company, you would probably fill it with tactical people; and when customers come in from a very top-level unit, anywhere in the world, they do not want to be relatable.
They are the ones doing that job, and even if you did that exact same job years ago, it is a different job today. Often times, within a tactical company, you would end up with this challenge, which sometimes leads the customers to being engaged with questions that are not appreciated, “what are you using today” and “what do you use for secondary” and “I heard you guys did a hit somewhere”. This leads to uncomfortable and unwanted attentions because: “A” they are not allowed to talk about it and “B” people from the outside do not always understand that these users prefer to leave these matters at work.
On the other hand, in an outdoor and expeditionary company, we focus on the environment you will be in, getting you to Mt. Everest or exposed to extreme climate for an extended period (we define expedition as 5-7 days unsupported). This is what we build our clothing systems to do.
This team, here at Beyond, focuses on the elements to which you will be exposed and on the duration of time. An expedition also happens to be something people do that is also fun, true high end tactical operations are not always fun, its lethality. The truth is that hurting people is not supposed to be fun, it is necessary; we have to have it in this world, there are bad people that do bad things that we need to stop.
We want you to be able to lay your uniform down during the weekend and recharge, we want to provide you with a positive energy story. You do not have to have a constant reminder of your past mission when you are glancing at a garment; it is supposed to remind you of the outdoors, of an expedition and not a negative memory of something that went wrong last year. We try to apply this concept to the whole image of the company and to the products that we manufacture.
Our goal is to protect you so that you can play with your kids at Christmas; we want you to come back from whatever adventure you are on. We want our products to work when someone else’s won’t, and allow you to be effective whether you are in a professional or recreational setting.
Q: Sometimes, an outside public prospective of special operations is that high-level assets are less influenced by environmental factors. Even though an operator resistance threshold may be extremely high, there is still a need for him to focus almost the entirety of his attention to the mission and not think about how to survive from the elements. The truth is that those who have been there understand the important of expeditionary clothing. How can you effectively tailor clothing systems for these customers?
A: Our job is to interpret and advise, it is very helpful to have a frame of reference when you do so. I consider myself a support asset in any team I was ever on. Yes, I had the opportunity to do interesting things and meet interesting people, but it is our job to be disciplined and to remember that when it comes to mission project we do not know. The moment we think we know it is actually, when it starts to break down: you start making assumptions for your customers and those assumptions do not work.
What can be done, through experience and frame of reference, is to ask questions and listen; which is the opposite of the definition of arrogance. What really sets the difference is the ability to tease out non-mission critical information to be able to better develop solutions that are specifically tailored for them.
Beyond Clothing does not sell to special operations team, Beyond supports special operations team. The action of selling implies the creation of a solution in which we are merely transferring the product to the customer. Supporting, on the other hand, requires a collaboration and a joint development effort that leads to a product that was influenced by the expertise and knowledge of each party in their own field. We allow them to help us develop; many of the choices they make are their choices and we do not shove knowledge onto these people, because again, they know better. They are doing it, and even if people in our team may have done it, things have changed.
Also, Beyond Clothing is not cool because some very high end user group uses our stuff; we get to feel cool because they decided that our tools were good enough for them to use.
Here at Beyond we are growing as a true expeditionary brand, and there aren’t many of those right now. Most of them have grown up and have become fashion brands (someday we’ll be big and bumb and I will probably be fired).
As a expeditionary brands we create solutions for different types of customers that actually have one necessity in common: to be protected from the elements; whether you are doing reconnaissance for an SMU, a scientist at the north pole, a National Geographic photographer on the Himalayas or a doctor without borders in Darfur.
Q: In your catalog, it is actually very clear that your intent is to relate with all of these users without compromising the relationship with any of them. The main aspect that connects these user groups is the protection from the outdoor and from the elements, which is something that all of these users groups have in common. Is this the reason why there is an iconic use of camouflage?
A: True military professionals wear these products and have to be uniformed in camouflage, I do not need to show them what that looks like. If you do not know that a camouflage top and bottom go together to make a camouflage ensemble you are not even in the types of customers that we are shooting for.
Having said that, I also like the idea of wearing camouflage as a fashion hit; I love Woodland, I think Tiger Stripe is amazing and I think Multicam pants with a pair of rad boots and a rad jacket would be cool for walking in NYC.
In my previous career I ran the unclassified version of AOR 1 and 2 for NSW, I am the person who wrote the protocol around the project. I was able to run part of the product, given me from a wonderful gentleman, C. P., who had the classified side of it.
To me this entire journey has just been amazing. You are going to see an expansion of our core product line and an expansion of our merchandise. I consider the brand to be edgy-outdoor, even though we may be a little greedy we are still going to be at Outdoor Retailer, our core is still in expeditionary clothing.
Q: The speech in Tampa, FL a few years ago has been truly eye-opening. To have someone like you, with a figure like yours in this industry, address a very politicized topic with the utmost scientific and pragmatic approach has meant a lot for many people.
A: We were sponsored by Pentax to go to Iceland; we went there with a movie team and we supplied clothing. The movie crew had been there two years prior and we were returning to the same amazing location for some shots. We drove up to this spot and as I was walking on the trail I saw the guys from the film crew just standing on the edge of cliff. They looked wrong, they looked shaken, as if they had seen something that really concerned them; I walked up to them. They were looking out standing on a cliff that went 200 ft. straight down and opened up in this ravine, a valley that was two and a half miles wide. I asked them what was going on and looked over at me as they said: “Rick you don’t understand, this was all ice two years ago, this entire valley”.
What does it take in the time span of two years to melt that much of a glacier? That has never been done in the history that we know, and we need to acknowledge the change and at least think about it. Obviously, I can’t control the global scale of how people look at the world nor do I intend to. What I am able to do, though, is to talk to the people that are going to tell the story and we can act as a support asset to outfit the soldiers that are going to be on the front-line of that battle.
I believe we are one of the only company in the outdoor space that has the expertise to give that brief. I have to take into account, when I am talking to the Norwegian military, the challenges they are going to face using down in an environment like this.
With that opportunity I didn’t wanted to do a sales pitch, my intent was to show the problem set and I want to show how we could address it. I was not handing out catalogs, my goal was and is to be part of the conversation.
Q: If we want to analyze your situation to a deeper level I think that you have a unique opportunity: you have an already initiated dialog with two types of customers. Two types of individuals who are almost at the opposite end of the political spectrum: the SOF community on a more tactical level and the outdoorsmen and alpinists on an expeditionary level. With the Beyond Clothing brand you are engaging both of them and you actually were able to create a liaison utilizing the most important factor that both have in common: It doesn’t matter what is the purpose of the activity, the exposure to certain environments requires the same technology because, ultimately, the vulnerabilities are exactly the same.
A: If you are going to spend a month in the Arctic Circle or if you are going to spend a month up in the mountains of Afghanistan, you are pretty much wired in the same way. You might be there for two different professional reasons but the core biological necessities are the same.
It has been special but it is not an easy brand proposition. It has been hard to fall into it and it has been hard to build a team that understands it.
Q: Do you think there will be, sooner or later, a better integration between clothing and load bearing equipment?
A: I think there will always be a push for integration. I believe it happens in places like our shop where we focus on that integration, mostly because we focus on the development with the customer.
When there will be a standardization, like the TALOS, Future Force Warrior or Project Scorpion programs, the biggest problem usually is core competency.
Here in the Beyond shop, for example, we don’t have heavy needle, we don’t produce load carrying equipment. We have been asked to and at some point there may be some equipment projects. The truth is that the art of manufacturing a garment is so complex that you tend to have different functional areas to focus at. It requires different machinery and different types of sowers, you have to design and think differently.
There are just very few shops that do both really well. A few of our competitors out there will dabble in both but they really make their money in one or the other ultimately. For us again we are a commercial expeditionary company, which is where we are going to focus.
In my previous career, I ran the Special Operations load carriage program for all JSOC. I have to admit that my passion is not what the next M4 mag pouch is, for me they are just tools; what I do love is clothing and pack systems. Therefore, from Beyond, you will see us expanding out, but with our core to clothing.
Q: Do you believe the latest advancements in clothing and textile technology will help reach an operational un-impediment when it comes to clothing systems? (Pause the op – take kit off – add/subtract layer – put kit back on – resume the op).
A: The technology is there; the only way to do that is to have active systems, more precisely powered systems. Everything we do works with internal micro-climates that all deal with heat and pressure. You can either generate the needed heat and pressure, but if it is not sufficient, you then have to add much more insulation to protect your system.
An active system can monitor that, can pulse heat when it needs to and can even drive cooling concepts when necessary. That is the only way for extreme weather systems to make it work and the technology is getting there. The batteries are getting there, the fiber technology is getting there, it is still very expensive and very niche but within the next 20 years, absolutely.
Q: With your background with the PCU system, I assume that the vision that you share with the rest of the team at Beyond Clothing is to see the future applied to the system as a whole and not to single garment. Why do you think that other companies focus development efforts on single garments instead?
A: Because it is how they sell. People do not know how to talk about systems. To talk about a system you have to think like an outfitter, traditional sales models have retail square footage in a store the manufacturer has to fill with product and has performance metrics to satisfy. Year over year you have new styles and new colors, but the attention is always focused on a single piece.
We do have many nice single pieces but the key difference is that what makes one of our pieces great is the way it works within the system that you can actually build on it.
80% of consumers will never need that, but this is the segment to which we focus and we are not trying to be bigger than the biggest companies are, we want to be hardcore niche.
Q: The perception when we look at Beyond Clothing is that the Axios line focuses a lot more on Softshell (Level 5) than any other brand.
Do you believe enhanced breathability and mobility during high performance activities compensate the lack of waterproofing?
A: All day, I do not care about you getting wet; I care about getting you dry.
Which is very different from “keeping you dry”. Water will eventually get through, and the truth is that it does not even have to get through because if you are exerting yourself it is already in the clothing system.
You are expelling water actively into your clothing system, how do I then manage that moisture into and out of your system so that you then can be survivable? Due to the inherent properties of the softshell fabrics the A5 of Axios or the K5 of Kyros are the baseline workhorse for that.
Now there are scenarios in which you need an A6 or K6 hardshell, especially if you are in wet areas (or even in Seattle); but it only makes sense for more sedentary and static models and not if you have a higher output.
Q: I understand that every piece of clothing is designed for a specific climate but for someone that wants to try products from the Axios and Kyros lines of Beyond Clothing what do you think are the garments that better reflect the vision of the brand? If you had to choose two (perhaps to use as a small system).
A: I would focus on our A5-K5 Softshell line as a starting point (Stretch Alpha, Rig and Rig Lite) and perhaps combining it with one of our A6-K6 Hardshells.
These are pieces which, since can be worn in your everyday line, allow you to gain more experience with the product and with the Beyond brand.
Q: Do you believe in less water-resistant but quick drying over more water-resistant but less breathable?
A: All day.
Q: Will there be an integration of the two systems (Kyros and Axios)?
A: Kyros and Axios systems will be parallel ecosystems, with the intent of allowing you to choose different pieces according to your needs while being fully interchangeable.
Q: How did you come to develop the new waterproof shell fabric for Kyros Line?
A: We baselined our requirements on what we were using while looking at what we wanted to add. My goal was to obtain a lighter fabric with a higher resistance to mechanical stress. We worked with CORDURA developing our own fabric choice with a PTFE film.
The result was Lutra, a highly breathable waterproof fabric with increased mechanical strength and rip and tear resistance.
The Lutra fabric is the main technology behind the Kyros K6 Hardshell layer.
Q: During wintertime, people commute every day in cold and wet climates, being exposed to the elements while walking, riding or taking public transport.At the office is usually required a business casual look. While a waterproof or warm jacket may do the trick when it comes to pants there are not many options available.
Are we going to see in the Kyros line a more minimalist softshell pants designed for this type of application, perhaps with an office friendly design?
A: You will see pieces in Kyros that will be closer to a tech fashion approach. We are looking at very cool fabrics that perform really well in these environments but look and feel like luxury fabrics, which paired with a minimal design, could provide a very discreet and elegant look. I do see this in the pipeline.
For now, if you are in a type of a job in which you are not forced to wear a suit, our Kyros K5 or Axios A5 Softshell pants in solid and discrete colorways are perfect for that.
Our Softshell pants are intended to be able to go to dinner as well as get on the trail. The design does not focus only on outdoor use, we want minimalistic and simple style lines that can be adaptable to multiple environments.
Q: As focused on urban environments as we are, we truly appreciate all of the attention on low-vis high-performance equipment.
How do you think Kyros will satisfy the need of grey man EDC for civilian customers as and asymmetrical warfare/hummint needs for government customers? Are you trying to address both of these markets, with the Kyros line?
A: We are, our branding is very minimalist and our style lines are very simple, which tends to translate to not drawing excessive attention. The colorways are very basic; we are not chasing color trends with this line.
I believe for the grey-man customers and urban adventurers we meet all those requirements. Those interested in all these features and will be pleasantly surprised with the Kyros line.