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It’s a rarity, even these days, to find a brand who can nail the sweet spot of form + function + sustainability. Typically, we see two of these being well-executed, while the third (whatever it is) tends to fall by the wayside. Apple has pushed the importance of form to the point that most brands (even non-design-focused brands) are taking it into consideration, although there are still some who aren’t quite able to crack the code. And, we also see a rise in brands aiming for sustainable goods but tend to miss the mark in terms of form. I think this is why I appreciate what Nau is doing so much: they’ve been able to hit all three of these important design notes without falling flat. I spoke to co-founder Mark Galbraith to find out more about Nau’s brand philosophy and try and gain insight as to how they’re able to hit this design trifecta when so many other brands fall short.

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Founded in 2005 in Portland, Oregon, Nau released its first collection in Spring/Summer of 2007. If you survey the outdoor clothing market, you won’t see anything like Nau. Somehow they’ve managed to corner a specific market, but also create a product that reaches far beyond that market and into the mainstream. By quickly taking a look at their women’s and men’s clothing and accessories, you can immediately tell what this brand stands for: performance, comfort, modern design, and sustainability. Now, try to find a powerful modern poncho that will stand up against ones made by competitors in a serious rainstorm while on a hike in the mountains, that you can still wear stylishly out to dinner in the city on Saturday night when it’s just misting outside. And now try and find one made of recycled fibers. Yeah, there aren’t a lot of options…

The interesting thing about Nau, Mark explained, is its place in business. “The way we do business is a way of redefining what business can mean and the effect it can have. We believe that business can be a force for good, an engine for positive and profound change.” These are Nau’s core philosophy and mission statements. Mark explains: “Our business model is a bit different. We wanted a performance product that was for a broader range of consumer: not just a ‘skier’ or ‘climber’. We wanted to take a real different view of the aesthetics, merging it with philanthropy, positive business change with a sport and active focus. Hitting a balance between sustainability, form and function isn’t particularly easy and we’re one of the only brands out there who are able to do so.”

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We position sustainability as our baseline. If we don’t hit that first, we don’t move forward. We set high standards for ourselves, and are constantly challenging those and looking at new technology and solutions. –Mark Galbraith, Nau

The starting point for Nau, and every piece of clothing designed, is sustainability. Instead of designing a couch and then looking for a material that might work, Nau starts with the materials—from recycled woven fibers to organic cotton—everything is born from environmental consideration. “Whatever fiber or polymer we use has to be renewable, recyclable or certified organic cotton; we have a list of approved fabrics and restricted substances. Those are absolute and then we move on to discuss technical performance,” Mark explains.

Cranky Jacket

Cranky Jacket

Building on the fabrics, the design philosophy that is woven into every Nau product is modern and minimal. “Our philosophy for style is clean, modern, minimal, multi-use, slightly classic to some degree. We want it to feel modern and current, but a sense of cleanliness and style that lasts a long time.” Mark said. There are no fancy ornamentations added to their designs, although they take into consideration how you’ll be using the product and where to ensure durability. For example, their Cranky Jacket is a recycled polyester, fully waterproof jacket with hidden bike features like a reflective back panel that drops down. It also has a slanted front chest pocket for easy access. Where the sleek design doesn’t focus on embellishments, it certainly makes up for in performance and function.

Clockwise from top left: organic cotton, down, recycled poly outerwear, merino wool

Clockwise from top left: organic cotton, down, recycled poly outerwear, merino wool

“There are lots of outdoor brands who do performance outerwear very well and fashion brands making high-quality sportswear, but there are people who don’t want big, bright logos everywhere or can’t spend the money on something and feel uncomfortable throwing it in the wash—something that feels too precious.” He talked quite a bit about ease and flexibility. Nau’s focus on the customer’s lifestyle is key in their design: their clothing tends to cover all its bases in terms of design: “It’s easy to wear, works really well, looks good, has aesthetic range, isn’t super sporty, travels well—it’s got a lot of range and flexibility.”

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Nau doesn’t let their success get to their heads, either: the brand partners with a variety of other manufacturers to sell and recommend products that they think are complementary to their clothing line. For example, you can get Shwood and Pendleton Wool products, and Nudie Jeans on Nau’s website. In a world full of copycats and me-too design, it’s refreshing to see a brand supporting other brands.

We can only hope that more brands—in any industry—will follow Nau’s lead.

Learn more about Nau here.

Jaime Derringer, Founder + Executive Editor of Design Milk, is a Jersey girl living in SoCal. She dreams about funky, artistic jewelry + having enough free time to enjoy some of her favorite things—running, reading, making music, and drawing.