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Updated on June 20, 2011
In his everyday wear, one would never guess Dan Bergeron was an accomplished designer of military and tactical gear. Flip flops, shorts and a T-shirt are his usual warm-weather attire. The only tip-off? His Suunto watch.
Bergeron has spent the past decade working with some of the biggest names in tactical and outdoor apparel including BAE Systems, Eagle Industries, Propper and Arc’teryx. His accomplishments includes setting up Arc’teryx’s Law Enforcement & Armed Services (LEAF) department and putting a new spin on tactical pants.
Recently we chatted with Bergeron via email about his past, present and the future of tactical gear.
How did you get into designing tactical clothing?
I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I always had an interest in how gear and clothing was made, but a curiosity more than anything else. In 2002 I was working for Arc’teryx Equipment in Vancouver. The company caters to the outdoor sporting goods market and had almost no experience with the military and tactical markets. That is, until we were invited to submit one of our packs for a Marine Corps effort to replace the failing MOLLE system. I was tasked with the project as I had availability and some military background. We ended up, after a lengthy process, winning the bid with our design. Interest in our products from the military community grew exponentially, and we had to fill their needs with specific products.
Although we had a huge design talent pool in the company, all of the resources were allocated to other projects at the time. I gleaned what I could from other designers, managed to squeeze a bit of help out of them to get me started, and then got to training myself with patterning and sewing. Initially, I had more interest in and was more proficient with backpacks and other gear, but eventually both interest and skill level shifted to apparel. From the military market, we expanded into the tactical and law enforcement markets. After Arc’teryx, I continued honing my skills as a consultant for BAE Systems, Eagle Industries and Propper, among others. I co-founded 782 Gear with Brian Abrams (formerly of Adventure Tech) and Dave Ruiz (of TNF), but the economy was tough for start-ups, and I left to take the lead designer position at Propper.
Where do you look for inspiration?
It really depends on the product. Sometimes it comes gradually as I work through the technical requirements and constraints of the product, working through a process of elimination as I try a variety of solutions. I end up with a few possibilities that make sense technically, and I work with that to make it look as good as it can.
Other times, I just get a vision of the product and how I want it to look and to perform, often with an amazing clarity of details. The challenge then is figuring out how to build that product from a patterning and engineering point of view. I must say I do spend a lot of time just thinking about products. I guess to an outside observer it must look as if I’m not doing much, but it’s hard to confine the creative process to a 9-to-5 job. Sometimes the best ideas come during weekends or evenings, away from the distractions of emails and phone calls and endless meetings.
What is the process you go through when designing a garment?
The very first step is ensuring that you’re designing and building the product to answer a defined set of requirements. If you don’t know why you’re designing something, it will not have a defined purpose. The designer can define the requirements based on his or her own experience or ideas, or the requirements can come from the consumer side. Either way, by far, the most important part of the process is defining the concept for the product. That part is the hardest to describe. Like I said earlier, it can be a flash of inspiration, or it can be a very mechanical process of elimination of possibilities.
Once the concept has been fleshed out, you choose the materials, and in some cases, design the materials to suit your design. It’s important that the materials you’re going to use are selected early on as the supply chain has its own lead time to deal with, and you don’t want the product ready to go at the factory waiting on the mill to ship fabric. In most cases, you also have to pick the factory you’re going to work with to build the production lot. You then decide what assembly method you’re going to use, i.e. the type of seams and sewing equipment. Not all factories operate the same equipment, and if you plan to use any specialized assembly method, you need to ensure there’s a factory ready and able to do it.
Only then do you build the structure of the product itself — how it fits, the amount of ease built in, the main seam lines, etc. Some of that dictates the feature set, and some is dictated by the feature set. It’s an iterative process and usually takes three or four tries to get it about right. The pockets, waistbands, cuffs, collars … that all comes last. I usually wait until the product is perfect in the base size to do the grading to all the other sizes in the range. Grading is just as important as the design of the base size itself — the majority of the products sold will not be in the base size. At that point production engineering takes over and runs the interface with the factory to get the item produced in large quantities.
What do you find most challenging about designing military clothing?
It actually has nothing to do with the product itself. The most challenging part is committing the necessary resources to product development efforts in general, which may or may not lead to a successful bid for military contracts. It’s a risk that a lot of managers are unwilling to take because it’s hard to quantify the return on investment. It makes justifying my job difficult sometimes, but it’s a key part of a winning strategy. Companies need to have a part of the business simply bid on made-to-specification products, and they need a part that takes more risk and develops innovative products that sets them apart.
So if you have dedicated resources for product development, and you can start designing well ahead of the actual solicitation for products, the most challenging part for me is to keep the costs under control. My background and experience is very technical, with high-end fabrics and construction techniques. If I didn’t have to think about cost, I could do so much more to the product’s performance, but the reality of a large customer like the military is that cost does matter significantly. It’s not that I can’t design for a lower cost of production, but I constantly have to remind myself about it.
Name a designer who continues to inspire you?
I don’t think there’s one designer in particular, but I’d have to say I have tremendous respect and admiration for the field of architecture. Good architects are master designers dealing with far more complex ‘products’ then we do in the textile business. The ability to visualize something in 3D and then transform that vision into a reality is both inspiring and humbling. Sometimes I think my job is a bit difficult when faced with a particularly complex backpack frame system or intricate seam work on a waterproof shell. Then I put it in perspective and compare it to the design of entire buildings, and I really have nothing to complain about!
What is the most difficult material to work with and why?
I’m not that great with knits — I’m getting better the more I work with them, but I still prefer wovens. Knits stretch and shrink, sometimes inconsistently, and so finding the right fit with a knit is more challenging. Knits are also generally not as durable, and they’re harder to handle in a manufacturing setting. In the tactical market, it’s not such a big deal though because most of the fabrics are wovens.
In your opinion, what is the best product you’ve designed?
It’s hard to rank your own work, but I do have my favorites … When I was at Arc’teryx Equipment setting up their LEAF department, I designed a backpack that was jump capable with a chute attachment built right into the frame of the bag itself. It was made to carry a heavy load comfortably, which none of the other jump-packs could do. Even though its sales volume wasn’t very high, it was a perfect answer to a very specific and difficult problem. We executed it very well, and I really enjoyed the challenge that the product presented.
As far as clothing goes, I’d say it’s the jacket I did about a year ago in response to the Marine Corps’ call-out for APECS parkas with integrated liners. I don’t think the project was fully funded — the Corps was simply looking at potential suppliers to evaluate feasibility — but I designed a waterproof/breathable parka and liner that was pretty much state-of-the-art. Unfortunately it’s never been commercialized because we were waiting on the Corps’ RFP, which never came. The design is Propper’s IP, and I don’t know what they plan to do with it, if anything. It would be a shame if it just sat on a shelf and never made it to the market.
What innovation has you most excited?
Social media and the Internet in general, or more to the point, the ever-growing availability and accessibility of information. I know it’s not exactly new, but it’s expanding at an incredible pace, and it makes keeping track of trends and other innovation that much easier. Knowing what’s going on in the market is a key part of the job. It’s essential to product lifecycle management — when to introduce a new product or technology, knowing when it’s obsolete, making sure you stay ahead of your competition. It’s all made easier because of the way we communicate today.
It also means that things are moving much faster than they used to, and in a way, it’s challenging and exciting. Markets are fragmenting and blending, and products are available from sources worldwide. One has to design with this new global economy in mind. And at the end of the day, it’s the consumer who stands to gain from this because the product offering is consequently a lot better and gets refreshed more often.
I know you were probably looking for something to do with garment technology like a new textiles, new constructions or something along those lines, but frankly there just isn’t that much that’s stimulating out there. There are some material suppliers with new textiles or widgets, but it’s nothing outside the box or trendsetting.
What do you think is the next big trend in tactical clothing?
In the military, the current push for better value in fire protection, and the ongoing saga with camouflage and signature management will both continue for years to come. I think the development we’re going to see emerge is for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection at the soldier level. There’s more and more effort with broad scope R&D, and it’s finding its way from the labs to the field. In fact, recent efforts from the military acquisition branches have specified requirements for chem-bio protection in organizational gear such as water management and purification. Eventually — soon — it’ll affect what the soldier wears.
In the tactical arena, I think the move to consolidate into larger players will continue and accelerate as the supply chain moves away from Asia back to this hemisphere. Costs are going up with materials and labor, and it’s making it impossible for the smaller companies to compete. We’ve seen some important consolidations recently with manufacturers, and I think we’ll see some more with the service providers for the market. Product-wise, I think the diversification and fragmentation of the product offering will intensify as everyone keeps looking for their own, unique style. To position yourself for this new reality, you have to be able to turn product faster than ever and in smaller runs. Companies that have the capital to support a manufacturing component able to meet this demand should find a larger market share, and we should see some brands go out of business.
What are some of your favorite products on the market right now?
This list could be pretty long, but I’ll limit it to a few:
What direction are you taking with your own set of designs? Is there a trend or recurring theme?
I’m trying to focus on creating unity within collections or groupings of products. It’s very important in most consumer goods markets, but for some reason its importance gets downplayed in the tactical market. I think that design features can and should be used as the signature of a brand, and exploiting this goes a long way towards cross selling products. For example, a base layer line can have the same color blocking as the utility uniform or outerwear layers. If it’s distinctive enough, people will recognize and associate a product to its collection, and by extension to its brand. Another example might be to use a specific style of pocket shape on a military uniform and carry it across to the ballistic vest or the load bearing pack.
Another style I like to work with these days is the use of angles on garments. It gives garments an interesting visual element that I try to exploit technically as well. But you know, most designers go through periods using certain design elements and then move on to another style. I’ve used a lot of curves at one time. Right now it’s angles. Who knows what it’ll be tomorrow. Certainly one theme that’s been consistent is that I keep my designs to a minimum. I don’t overdo the features, and I try to keep it subdued and simple. I’m more Apple than PC, more Porsche than Hummer.
Do you dress tactical on a day-to-day basis?
Not at all. You’ll usually find me in flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt, weather permitting. Otherwise I’m in jeans or cords and my beat up Salomon runners. For me it’s about comfort. I don’t evolve in a tactical environment every day, and I don’t need to dress with tactical clothing. For those days when I do need more utilitarian or sturdy clothes, I like to wear my Genuine Gear tactical pants and a light softshell or a zip-neck sweater.
What are you working on currently?
I just left my position as Design Director at Propper International, and honestly I don’t really know what’s in store for me next. Most likely I will go back to doing some contract design work for while — I’m already in touch with a few potential clients. Eventually though I would like to align myself with a company that takes the creative aspect of product development seriously and where I can put my talents to good use. I have a lot of ideas on how to make tactical gear better and certainly more interesting. I’d like to find a company to work with that’s going to allow me to do that.