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Designing for an outdoor lifestyle

Senior designer Aubrey Vaughn works on new products at Marmot.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 10:48 a.m.

When you're out on the slopes this winter, you may notice a few ski jackets and pants with contrasting colors so bold and clear they can be seen from miles away.

Chances are, that ski apparel was made by Marmot of Rohnert Park, an outdoor-clothing company that has pioneered protection from the elements since 1975.

“The colors are bright, saturated and exciting because the sport is active and vibrant,” said 50-year-old Aubrey Vaughn of Sebastopol, a senior designer at Marmot. “There is also a safety factor to it. You can be seen better.”

Marrying cutting-edge style with function has been a goal of Vaughn's since he started working for Marmot 21 years ago.

A soccer and track athlete at Berkeley High School, Vaughn went to UC Santa Barbara on a track scholarship, then worked with his father, theater and lighting designer Aubrey Wilson, in Los Angeles' entertainment industry.

But the DNA he inherited from his mother, veteran costume designer Barbara Graham, eventually won out. After attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he freelanced as a pattern-maker.

The athlete-turned-designer found a perfect fit at Marmot, where he started his career in 1992 as head pattern-maker for ski gear, sleeping bags and backpacks.

After 15 years, he transitioned into design and now specializes in outerwear, snow sports and urbanwear, a more refined version of the company's outdoor apparel.

“Fashion is all about theater,” he said. “In a way, you can see that in our brand as well. We're telling a story visually, through our products.”

The snow sports line in particular reflects the company's Alpinist heritage, featuring durable, high-performance products like Gore-Tex and insulating goose down.

Take the Marmot Freerider Jacket and Pants that Vaughn helped design. Released in fall 2011, the outfit features waterproof zippers that are exposed, so you don't have to struggle with a flap. And they can be joined at the waist.

“The jacket and pants attach with a gasket. ... It prevents the snow from getting in,” Vaughn said. “There are lots of pockets, but not too many, and each pocket was designed for a specific function.”

The interior of the jacket includes pockets for goggles and sunglasses. Leg pockets offer easy access to a phone or food. Above the left-hand wrist, there's a small pocket for a barcode pass.

“It's innovation with performance in mind,” he said.

It all began in 1974 when two students in Santa Cruz started Marmot as a club for serious climbers of glaciated peaks. (Marmots are large ground squirrels who tend to live in high-altitude, mountainous regions.)

That same year, the company started making sleeping bags and down jackets in Grand Junction, Colo. In 1975, Marmot jackets were worn by Clint Eastwood and others starring in the mountain-climbing film, “The Eiger Sanction.”

In 1990, the company moved to Sonoma County. Over the years, the brand has evolved and expanded its distribution into 55 countries worldwide. A flagship store opened just off Union Square in San Francisco in 2010.

As part of the Marmot team of designers, Vaughn draws inspiration from a wide range of sources.

“We look at trend services and high fashion, but we also look at cars, homes and architecture,” Vaughn said. “Our inspiration can come from anywhere.”

Vaughn likes to sketch his initial designs in pencil. Then, when he feels like he's getting close, he switches to a 2-D Adobe Illustrator program.

Each Marmot designer works on 25 to 50 pieces at a time, and deadlines come with the territory.

“We're working three seasons at a time,” Vaughn said. “Right now, I'm in the middle of Spring 2014 production, doing trend analysis for Fall 2014, and finalizing the Fall 2013 line.”

Marmot has its own team of Freeride skiers to test its equipment and apparel, along with rock and alpine climbing teams. The Marmot athletes do photo shoots and documentary films that help reinforce the brand's lifestyle elements.

Vaughn also tests his designs on the slopes and has even learned to snowboard with his son, Jeremy, a student at Sonoma State University.

“I'm not a highly skilled skier. ... But I can get a sense of how it feels,” he said. “Comfort and fit are so important to us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@ pressdemocrat.com.

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