Doors Closing Nau: Iconic Eco-Business Winds Up

Today is a very sad day. For Nau announced they are winding up. The Portland, Oregon based outdoor lifestyle apparel company has been unable to secure the necessary venture capital to continue operations as a start-up business.

Having got off the phone today with Ian Yolles, one of the original founders, I doubt very much there has been a dry eye in the Nau house. Obviously as the capital investment market lost its courage in the face of current uncertain financial times in the US, things became, as Ian put it "tenser and tenser." But he had nothing but praise for the staff of Nau who have shown, "an amazing commitment and spirit right up to the end. There has been this strong sense of hopefulness...." He pauses, then continues, the emotion palpable even down the phone, "... that something good would happen."But alas that has not been the case. The only long shot now, is if someone out there, as yet unknown to Nau, but with deep pockets, and a passion for doing "business unusual" may step forward and breath fresh financial life into the company. We sure hope a knight in shining armour will appear.

The Business
For there was nothing wrong with their operations. In their first year of trading they actually exceeded sales expectations. They engendered incredible customer loyalty. And it's easy to see why. Their product was exceptional value. Mostly because the quality of materials and construction detailing was quite incredible (I speak from experience, having spent a decade on the factory floors of outdoor companies.) Plus their designs were functional, sharp and enduring.

In other aspects of the business they also achieved more than was planned for.Like how, at end of a purchase transaction customers were asked to select from a array of Non Profit enterprises, to who 5% of their purchase price would be forwarded. Nau were initially concerned that customers might find this extra step a burden, so put in an easy option: 'Let Nau decide.' But only 7% did. 93% of their customers were, in Ian's words, "... interested enough to engage, to pause for a moment, to participate in civil responsibility." And in less than a year Nau were able to donate $223,000 through this customer-directed giving program, they tagged Partners for Change.

One of the other greatest unknowns was the whole 'ship-to-you' model, (whereby goods were sent direct from a warehouse to the purchaser, rather than taking them home from the retail store). According to Ian, "everyone said it was a crazy idea. We projected that about 20% of customers might go for it, but the figures show that 45% opted for 'ship-to-you'."

The Rough End of the Pineapple
So, no it wasn't that the business model itself was flawed, rather that it 'lived in interesting times.' As Ian saw it they fell victim to the three consecutive blows:
"1. evaporation of the venture capital market
2. retail businesses going through big challenges at the moment, very skittish
3. for all our successes, we were still an 'early start-up. A risk.' "

The Dreams
And things were sure moving forward. They'd only opened their Los Angeles store 10 days ago. Another four stores were planned for this year in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and another one in Portland. They were due to relaunch their revamped website on Tuesday next week. A television program about Nau is scheduled to air soon on Sundance Channel. Media pre-release viewings of their Fall 08 collection were all set for this coming Monday. And this was to have included a line of bags and travel accessories.


Some of the garments you won't nau see.
The People
A lot of the folk at Nau, moved to Portland from various parts of country to work for the company, because the believed in what it stood for. A new model for doing business, that also did good. Ian doesn't know what he will do next. He has been living and breathing Nau for the past three years. And it sounds like most of the staff were similarly in shock. "It's like being at your own funeral", said Ian.

And I had a distinct sense of that. I felt the same awkwardness one experiences meeting with someone who has just lost something or someone close to them. I struggled for the words to convey my concern for how Ian and the Nau crew might be feeling. Failing, I asked instead what he thought the legacy might be of this bold experiment.

Here again the emotion enveloped Ian's reply, but not with a sense of defeat. It sounded much more like a vigorous, robust hope. "We've all learnt a deeper sense of purpose. A purpose that will not end with Nau." He continued, "We've gotten to know so many kindred spirits. The larger idea will continue. With a deep sense of urgency of what the planet needs."

The Homage
I've long been a champion of Nau, because they've embodied all that has been important in my own working life. I was previously an outdoors instructor, then an outdoor apparel and gear designer, a lecturer in green textiles and in sustainable interior design, a manager with various not-for-profit environmental organisations and so on. Here was one company that had its finger in all those pies. It was trying to do it all. At the same time. And from scratch.

It was a big ask. (see below)

Once, as a rockclimbing instructor, I had students who began to surpass the grades I could comfortably climb. But they were improving beyond me for the very reason that they refused to settle for 'comfortable'. They took risks, they put themselves on the line, and in doing so achieve higher standards that I would. Their phrase of the day was: "you're not trying till you're flying." Shorthand for: you have to test yourself, push past your comfort zone before you'll improve. And in the process you'll probably fall off.

Nau sure tried. With great verve and passion. Maybe they reached a grade above what was possible for a eco start-up business. They've now fallen off. But boy, did they show what can be achieved if enterprises are prepared to give that bit more. They raised the bar, set new standards, and broke the mould. Clichés all. But nonetheless each true.

In short: they inspired.

It is with great sadness that we bid them farewell, and wish all that sailed on the good ship Nau safe passage to their next adventure.

And a personal 'thank you' to Ian Yolles for taking time out on a very difficult day to speak with us.
__________

NB: You may still be able to buy their quality product at 50% off from their online store and help them support their external business partners as they wind down.

The Ask:
• Apparel that adhered to the credo of 'Beauty, Performance and Sustainability'
• Multipurpose apparel equally suited to weekend in the hills or a night on the town
• No external logos or branding on apparel
• Impressive tailored designs and construction detailing
• No paper catalogues
• LEED Gold standard offices and retail shops
• Purchase of Forest Stewardship Council certified timber for fittings
• Third Party verification of workers rights and conditions through Verite
• Restricted Substance List of materials not to be used in products
• Over 30 custom designed fabrics, using only recycled polyester, certified organic cotton, PLA corn, lambswool or merino wool
• Purchase of equivalent yield conventional corn to offset any GMO corn that might be in their PLA
• Use of high grade componentry like RiRi zips and Prym fasteners
• 5% of purchase price donated to customer-directed not-for-profit organisations
• Webfront retail stores promoting direct-from-warehouse-to-customer shipping
• Recycled content flat pack shipping bags, instead of space wasting boxes
• Carbon offsets for shipping and corporate travel
• Renewable energy certificates (wind and solar) for office and shops
• Acting as an agent for change through their blog
• Sponorship of environmentally and socially oriented online videos.
• Customer prizes and Flickr postings for photos of the clothing in action.

See our past coverage of Nau here:
The first inkling.
The In-depth Interview Part 1
The In-depth Interview Part 2
The first glimpse of the range
The online store opens
The conundrums
Product review - the Asylum jacket
Product review - Spring 08 line
The No Logo concept

Tags: Clothing | Consumerism | Oregon

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