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Updated on December 9, 2013
But that’s not where the story really begins. Those now-famous trousers were the creation of one woman named Liz Robbins. As the brains behind many Royal Robbins classics, she set out to design a practical hiking short in the 1950s.
Robbins joined us via telephone this week to brief us on the history behind those fantastically functional trousers.
Liz Robbins: You run a blog about tactical pants? And are there lots besides the 5.11?
LR: Uh-huh, uh-huh. Hmmm. Well, that’s very interesting. It just never occurred to me that there would be something simply devoted to the tactical pants category.
TPB: How did the 5.11 pant come about?
LR: The predecessor to the 5.11 pant was the Blue Water. Based on the Billy Goat shorts, the Blue Water was made from heavy canvas. Its purpose was to be more rugged and more multi-functional. We were interested in something that would also apply to sailing because climbers we knew were also interested in sailing. That’s where some of the features in the 5.11 came from. I don’t even know if 5.11 tactical pants still have the strap across the back as it did originally—does it?
TPB: Yes, it does. I believe it’s called a buddy or rear strap…
LR: When I originally put that on the Blue Water, it was a winch handle strap for sailing. And I liked the idea of it, because it was a place where you could easily put your winch in your pocket. It would hold the handle. Another aspect of design I enjoyed was the ability to put forth my very practical side, which was interested in function, together with my esthetic sense.
So, that strap had functional reasons as did the pockets, the depth of the pockets, the fabric the pockets were made of, the reinforcements and so forth. Everything was very purposeful. Carpenters loved that pant. The 5.11 was first really picked up by builders, in terms of a genre who wanted the pant, even before we started selling to the military and to the police departments. Builders just loved it. You can secure whatever—a winch handle or a hammer—on that very useful little strap.
TPB: What is your relationship with Susie Tompkins? Did she help design the pants?
LR: I can understand where you might have gotten something like that. But no, she did not help in the design of the tactical pant whatsoever. Susie and I were friends when we were both starting out as clothing designers. She was creating little dresses and things for the younger generation. We were just good friends.
Susie and I did work together, which was way before the 5.11 pants. The Billy Goat Short was the first thing I ever made that required a pattern maker. A pant is a tricky thing to create. I had no idea how to design the fit on a short. I used to go over and work with Susie and her pattern maker to get the pant/short fit correct for the Billy Goat.
TPB: The pants were originally developed for hikers?
LR: Well, the shorts were. Actually, yes, the short and the pants were for hikers. They were not really climbing pants. People kind of got confused about that because Royal was a climber, and the company was kind of climbing oriented. It was mainly a rugged, outdoor, multi-functional pant that could be used for a lot of things.
There was basically no outdoor industry at the time when we started as such. The first trade show we attended had a small annex in the back dedicated to the outdoor apparel and such. That area quickly grew and became what is now the outdoor industry.
TPB: You said that you paid a lot of attention to the pockets, the location, the depth, the material—is there anything in particular that you remember?
LR: Anything that was reinforced, whether it was a pocket or a knee, was done with great deliberation. The placement of the fabric, the type of material… For example, the first prototype I ever had made in Hong Kong, which was probably at one of Susie’s factories, they put a false piece of fabric in the knee that looked like a reinforcement, but it really wasn’t a reinforcement. Factories that were sewing pieces just for fashion wouldn’t have used two heavy layers of fabric because of the expense.
When the prototype came back, I said, “Oh my gosh, it just never occurred to me that would even be done.” When my garments were produced, every detail needed to be clearly outlined because it was for function and not fashion. From the bar-tacking, the double stitching, the weight of the thread, the weight of the fabrics that were used for reinforcement, all of those things had to be made very clear on our production notes. Factories were not accustomed to doing anything that way. Nowadays factories are very familiar with it. It was a learning experience for all of us at the time.
TPB: And you weren’t working with any military standards …
LR: No, not at all. Our pants simply got picked up by that community, which was a really wonderful thing. We had a really good, healthy business before we sold and produced it in black. But, of course, the 5.11 wasn’t designed in black. It was designed in khaki.
TPB: Who were the first wear testers?
LR: It wasn’t tested by the military or anything like that because it wasn’t its purpose at the time. We didn’t have the technical people out there testing and sending feedback initially. It just happened—whether it was all of our friends or Royal. We would be modifying and getting this feedback. It was just a natural thing because the company was so intimate. At that time, we had a very close relationship with anybody who sold our brand.
TPB: Since you guys were so entrenched in that community, did you even have to market the pants? Was it more of a word-of-mouth thing?
LR: Yes and no. Sure, there was word-of-mouth, but by that time we also had our own catalogs and our own sales force. I can’t really pin down when our national or international people began to sell our products relative to where the 5.11 began. It was not too long after we were in business that we found ourselves really in business unexpectedly, so to speak. So, it was our own sales people and promotional materials that promoted the 5.11s.
TPB: How did you stumble upon Dan Costa, and what was it like working with him?
LR: I think you’ve got to get the date exactly from him. I can’t remember the date. It’s been five or six years, and I can’t comment on what it was like to work with Dan.
TPB: How do you feel about the direction that Mr. Costa took Royal Robbins?
LR: He didn’t really take Royal Robbins in any particular direction. He simply spun off the product that he saw a future for and ran with it. And that’s the 5.11 Tactical.
TPB: And this was something that you hadn’t envisioned at the time when you were making the Billy Goat Shorts in the 1950s—that it would become this big industry of tactical gear.
LR: It was neither our focus nor our purpose. We really enjoyed working with the people who bought the 5.11 that weren’t part of our industry. However, we were focusing on the outdoor community. It was very, very different than the focus now on specifically the 5.11. I mean, he named the company 5.11. It’s certainly an interesting concept that I had never imagined.
TPB: I mean, it’s kind of crazy that one company can be based off of one pair of pants.
LR: It is. It’s particularly crazy to me.
TPB: Now tactical pants are worn not only by SWAT teams and FBI agents, but computer geeks and gamers. What do you think about the tactical pants of today?
LR: I think fads are fascinating. You just never know when something is going to be a fad. I think that cargo pants, which are probably the general category, are something that will come and go. And, in terms of tactical, I honestly do not know. I don’t keep up with the “tactical” world. It’s a pretty foreign world to me, aside from the FBI with whom we initially worked. We loved their feedback, and we worked very happily with them.
In fact, our customer service rep who handled just the FBI accounts at the time ended up marrying the 5.11 purchaser for the FBI. We had great people, and they made relationships as we did business. That one was just very sweet.
TPB: A lot of females complain about having trouble finding a good fitting tactical pant. What advice can you give them?
LR: Laughs. Good luck! No, you know that will always be, because women wear pants according to fads. Fortunately when we were designing outdoor clothing, women in that industry were not so fashion-oriented. Nowadays it’s a little bit harder to separate who it is buying an outdoor pant strictly with the function in mind and who’s buying it because it’s fashionable.
It’s just a really interesting thing when you go into the clothing business, especially if you start with pure function like we did. So, no, I don’t know what to say. I think that it’s always going to be a tricky thing for women to find pants. Our hips are different; our waists are different. The rise always changes from something around your waist to something that is practically half-way down your hips. I’m really glad I am not making those decisions now!
TPB: Because you asked about the 5.11 rear strap, I’m going to guess that you don’t own a pair of tactical pants today.
LR: I wear the Royal Robbins’ 5.11 that I’ve had for years. They don’t wear out, and I still wear the same size. But no, I don’t have a pair of tactical pants. I don’t even think of them as tactical pants. I have to rethink that. I think of them as 5.11. But I have no reason to change from the 5.11 I wore 15 or 20 years ago. It still serves the same purpose.
TPB: What keeps you busy nowadays?
LR: Royal is writing, and he has books that need to be printed, published and promoted. We are very busy with his writings along with the other things that I do daily just to keep up with our life at home.
TPB: He’s going to have seven installments of his book?
LR: Well, I don’t know. That was something that got thrown out loosely at the very beginning. Now he’s actually completed two, and he’s on the third. The only thing I’m going to say is that we know there’s going to be three and presumably four.
TPB: Outdoor apparel as a whole is a booming industry. Did you ever imagine it to be so huge?
LR: No. Nope. Certainly didn’t. Didn’t imagine it. But that’s the way of the world. Things just change. Things that were considered pretty far out there at one time take a whole different turn. It’s the same with climbing, basically.
I just hope that a lot of the other pants that are tactically directed are doing well. This tactical world is completely new and foreign to me. I have to tell you because it really is. Even though the company is still in Modesto, we have no connection with it. Sure, a few people we’ve known work there, but I had no idea that the tactical pant had become a category in itself. I had absolutely no idea. I’m enlightened.