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When Raquel Vélez, the founder of Alpine Parrot, first started getting into the outdoors through skiing, she encountered a problem: she couldn't find the gear she needed. The available options didn't fit correctly, and didn't allow her to participate in outdoor activities safely and comfortably—the number one thing gear is supposed to do.
"I didn't look for a problem, the problem found me. As an engineer, I have a tendency to fix the problems that are in front of me," Vélez explains. "And this one seemed like a particularly interesting one."
A former Silicon Valley resident with two decades of experience in mechanical, robotics, and software engineering, Vélez decided the solution was to make her own clothes. She began her jump into the apparel world with a sewing class (it was a first; she'd chosen woodshop over home ec back in middle school). After learning how to make a pillow, she made the fast track transition to clothing, but pre-made patterns found at Jo-Ann Fabrics or Michaels are, like most things in the apparel world, designed with an idealized body type in mind.
So Vélez dove deeper. First, she found a pattern-making school that she could attend a few days a week after work, then ended up going to a design boot camp to learn how apparel factories work, and even spent a few weeks working in one herself.
"I didn't do the pattern-making course with the intention of starting a company, I just did it so that I could make clothes for myself. But then I realized that there was an opportunity beyond just me, especially once I realized how big of a market there was," says Vélez. "And then by the end of it, I realized, 'Okay, I guess I'm going to go start a brand and make clothes.'"
"This is not a question of equality, this is a discussion about equity, and making sure that we're creating opportunities for people who didn't have any in the first place."
And so Alpine Parrot was born. Starting with one initial product, the Ponderosa Pant, the company is doing things a bit differently: its size range begins at 14 and runs up to 24, and it's available in two waist styles—the Mountain and the River—to accommodate diverse body types.
The path to the final version of the technical hiking pant wasn't a simple one, however. Typically, when designing a garment, the maker will use a fit model, usually around a size six, to design the initial pattern. The measurements are then proportionally increased and decreased to create the other sizes in a process called grading. But by the time Vélez went full-time with Alpine Parrot, the pandemic hit. She found herself unable to leave the house, which meant the traditional path for creating clothes was out the window (although, she wasn't planning on following it anyway).
So Vélez became her own fit model, sewing the first pair of pants based on her own measurements. Then she created the other sizes algorithmically. After finding a crew of fit testers, she sent the pants off to be worn on real bodies, looking for data on what worked and what needed to change.
"That whole process actually gave me an opportunity to make an even better pant," Vélez says. "And, it's what taught me that I actually needed two fit styles." Creating the Ponderosa in two styles allows the pants to fit people with varying waist and hip shapes—the Mountain fits a wider hip and a narrower waist, while the River is designed for people with smaller hips and a larger waist.
There's been some pushback about the company's sizing and what being size inclusive means. By only going to size 24, Vélez acknowledges that Alpine Parrot is neglecting anybody above that size. "I'm not size-inclusive," she says. "Let's not use the wrong word to describe what we're doing: we're size exclusive. We're sizes 14 and up, and right now we are limited to 24. But I want to get to size 30 as soon as possible."
As for those under size 14, Vélez is less concerned. "This is not a question of equality, this is a discussion about equity, and making sure that we're creating opportunities for people who didn't have any opportunities in the first place."
For Vélez, there are three pillars—social, economic, and environmental—behind her company. The social pillar is simple: there are people of all shapes, sizes, and colors who want clothes that fit them and allow them to be outside. Economically, the laws of supply and demand come into play. Vélez claims that 68% of American women are a size 14 and up but less than 10% of clothing options are for that size range. ("You're literally leaving two-thirds of the money on the table," she says. "If you're not going to take it, I will.")
And environmentally, the company is playing the long game. By making clothes for an underrepresented demographic, it's creating opportunities for people to get outside and build a relationship with the environment. "They're going to be our next level of activists that will then push for saving the environment," Vélez explains. "And then on top of that, because we're focused very specifically on people of size and people of color, we're also going to be changing the way that we look at the outdoors and the people who recreate in it."
Creating a company from scratch is not easy work, even for a seasoned engineer. "As far as I'm aware, I am the first, and only, plus-size, Latina woman starting an outdoor apparel company that's trying to compete at the same level as companies like Columbia, Patagonia, or The North Face," Vélez says. "So what's really special about Alpine Parrot is that there's no one who's doing it the way we're doing it."
The American outdoor industry's inclusion problem is not a new issue, and it's far larger than just apparel. Recreational spaces, like parks, have been systemically designed by and for white people, and historical racial discrimination has, for decades, prevented people of color from enjoying the same outdoor experiences as their white counterparts. And our culture's weight stigma, which equates body size with overall health and physical ability, shuns those who don't fit the standard. All of this paved the way for a prevalent and damaging social narrative: that people of color and people of size don't camp, rock climb, hike, ski, etc. That's why companies like Alpine Parrot need to exist.
There are other gear makers that are making a dent in this gear-adorned wall of stigma—Vélez points out Outdoor Research's efforts to serve the plus-size community by introducing the industry's first technical layering system in inclusive sizes. OR also launched extended sizing, meaning from XXS to XXXL, this fall, with 1X-3X sizes coming in the spring. Gregory also recently launched a line of plus-size backpacking packs.
"We are showing, very specifically, that people of size and people of color love to be outside."
But changing the status quo is complicated, and there are advantages and disadvantages on both sides. Large companies have the resources, money, and humanpower to create diverse products but can also be limited by their size and responsibilities to shareholders. As a smaller company, Alpine Parrot has more financial constraints, but fewer creative ones. "We can come in and do whatever we want because there's no history telling us what to do. And we don't have to fight with anybody about how we're going to do it," Vélez says.
While established outdoor brands may be intimidating competition, they're also sources of inspiration. Alpine Parrot's latest endeavor is following the footsteps of apparel giants Patagonia and Cotopaxi by becoming a public benefit corporation (PBC). Instead of being obligated first to shareholders' financial interests, PBCs can legally balance financial and non-financial factors, like community and environmental interests.
For Alpine Parrot, this designation is essential to the company's ethos. Because its founding is based on filling a community need, Vélez wanted to ensure that community would stay at the forefront of the brand's priorities. "When I was first starting this company and doing user research, I found that there were a lot of companies who would walk into communities and say, 'Congratulations, we have made things for you. Enjoy,'" Vélez says. "There was never a question of, what do you want? How can we serve you?"
Listening to the community has proved successful for Alpine Parrot, and Vélez has more than a few things lined up for the future. Increased sizing for the Ponderosa Pant is on the way, and she also hinted at two new developments: a pair of shorts and a flannel shirt. But even though the brand is an apparel company, it's never been about how much it could produce or profit. It's about progress.
"Just existing means that we are changing the face of the outdoor industry. We are showing, very specifically, that people of size and people of color love to be outside. We love it so much that we are willing to pay money for clothes that allow us to do this comfortably and safely," Vélez says. And though she'll be the first to admit that the process has been one giant learning curve, it's also a testament to the fact that when one person runs into a problem, an entire community can benefit from her solving it.