Freelance Gear Designer Dan Bergeron

December 30, 2011

Dan Bergeron, 37 of Quebec, Canada, had just started working for Arc’Teryx outdoor company of Vancouver in 2002 when the Marine Corps, looking for a replacement to the MOLLE system, approached the company for a design submission. Bergeron, though a fledgling to design, was the only one on staff with a military career (a short one at that), so they put him on the job. Using Propper as its US manufacturer, Arc’Teryx submitted the Bora pack and ended up winning the contract. One of Bergeron’s first design projects was the company’s LEAF line of apparel. Now he’s a freelance designer and has just finished his favorite piece of gear to date.


BTW: How is designing gear for the military different than designing gear for the civilian outdoor market?

Bergeron: It’s a balancing act and there’s a bunch of trade offs, but at the end of the day it’s about money. When you design something for the military, you have to be budget conscious. Unfortunately, that limits your options for materials and construction. Sometimes you have to make things constructable at the cost of product performance or at the cost of additional weight, or both. And you also have to factor in durability. It has to be durable.

How does product development by the military differ from that of outdoor companies?

In terms of product development and signature management, those have to be driven by a big machine like the military—mostly because of the cost. There’s a lot of testing, which is expensive. But in terms of design and construction, it’s probably fair to say that the most reputable companies in the outdoor business are a step ahead of the military. The military just can’t afford products of the same quality on a large scale. But it can for Special Ops. And that’s been the niche market for those outdoor companies.

Have companies like 5.11 Tactical also taken advantage of that niche?

They have. 5.11 carved out a market for themselves, and a lot of people followed.  The Special Ops have a higher budget per capita, and their needs are more specialized. So they look outside the military, usually going after higher performing gear and apparel. In the tactical market, the parameters are different because the money is handled differently, and the margins are higher. Something mass-produced for the military will be cheaper than in the commercial market.

Is there more innovation in the commercial market?

A lot of products in the commercial and tactical markets have very short lifespans. Which is a good thing because there’s a lot of different ideas out there, and the ones that survive are the best. But what’s really been happening is that companies are just copying each other. You see a lot of rehashes of different styles, different lines, and different configurations taken from one style to another. But that doesn’t really fire innovation. You could lay out several pairs of tactical pants next to each other and most people wouldn’t know the difference.

How do you see yourself fitting into these markets?

I’m more interested in something that will be innovative as far its performance and its textiles. I’m not looking to do a product, like tactical pants, that will compete with 15 other products. The market is flooded with tactical pants. There’s been a lot done with the cut of these garments, but a lot of the pants still look like dress pants. They don’t have freedom of movement with articulated knees. And you can’t perform as a tactical law enforcement officer if you’re wearing dress pants. I think also think there’s a void in warm-weather garments. I think we could make something that wicks better, performs better, and is more comfortable to wear.

So where have you seen innovation?

As far as materials, most of the effort has been focused on hard goods, like electronics, weapon systems, that sort of stuff. But there has been a change in the cut of garments—the way a garment fits—and there’s been some advances in FR [flame-resistant] garments, too. Compared to what was available ten years ago, the FR fabrics are far superior. And mostly the change has been in comfort. There are a lot of garments now that you’d swear were polyester. They wick moisture and they’re comfortable, but they’re also fully FR. So we’ve seen a lot of progress there. In terms of changing the designs of garments, we haven’t seen much activity.

What effects has ten years of combat had on a soldier’s gear?

We kept hearing ten years ago that the military was going to lighten the load, and we’re still hearing that today. But there’s a lot of different uniforms out there, and there’s been a multiplication of garment layers. They end up carrying more than they used to. The stuff probably performs better, but soldiers still end up carrying too much. And the body armor situation has changed. Ten years ago, packs were designed to be worn around body armor only some of the time. The packs were able to carry heavy loads comfortably until you started layering body armor. At the time there was also a big push for internal-frame packs. But now they’re using external-frame packs that work much better over body armor.

What’s one of your favorite products out there now?

I really like NeoShell [a soft shell material developed by Polartec]. It’s breathable and fairly waterproof. But waterproof is relative. It can be waterproof to certain pressure but a firehose would still go through it. NeoShell is impressive, though.

What about chem/bio gear? Have they developed anything that doesn’t look like a big plastic-bag suit?

In terms of chem/bio, that’s still rpetty much the case. And there’s a lot of room for innovation there. But one of the problems is the cost. You have to get the military to fund the development; it’s just too expensive for small companies. You need really deep pockets because it’s a really big gamble. It takes a lot of money and a lot of effort from a lot of people, but most importantly it takes a lot of testing.

What’s your favorite product that you’ve designed?

My favorite is going to come out soon; it’s the one I’m working on now. And I can’t really tell you about it. I will tell you that it’s apparel and that there’s nothing else like it out there. It’ll probably be out in a year.

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