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Columbia Sportswear: One tough company

Founded by the Lamfrom family, who escaped the Nazis in the 1930s, Columbia Sportswear has survived and thrived to become the sportswear powerhouse it is today.

Columbia Sportswear logo

Columbia Sportswear was founded by Paul and Marie Lamfrom in 1938. The couple had recently arrived in the US, after fleeing Nazi Germany, along with their 13-year-old daughter Gert. The family settled in Portland, Oregon where they started the Columbia Hat Company. It was named for the nearby Columbia River.

After Paul Lamfrom passed away in 1964, Gert’s husband Neal Boyle became president of the company. But just 6 years later, Neal died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Gert, and her son Tim, in charge of a struggling company. Instead of selling as they were advised, the pair went on to turn Columbia Sportswear into a globally successful sportswear brand.

From hats to sportswear

In the 60s, the company began to diversity into apparel. It was Gert who made the company’s first fishing vest. She told that she’d always loved sewing. The company had been making mittens, and to keep the machines busy in the off-season, Gert came up with the idea for a fisherman’s vest.

The 70s saw a move towards more casual wear, so in the mid-70s, Gert and Tim reinvented Columbia into an outdoor clothing company. The company was the first to introduce Gore-Tex parkas; jackets made of the waterproof, breathable fabric. And in 1986, the company released the Bugaboo jacket, a ski-jacket with a removable zip-out fleece lining. The 80s also saw the start of the ‘Tough Mother’ ads, starring Gert Boyle, and selling the idea that Columbia’s products were as tough as the lady in charge.

An innovative future

In the past decade, the company has invested heavily in R&D, releasing many new products with innovative features. Up until 2007, Columbia had only filed one patent since 1938. Now, it has more than 200.

We constantly invest in our future and the ultimate goal is really to allow people to enjoy the outdoors for longer.
– Franco Fogliato

“Last year we were the first company to release the OutDry extreme technology, which was an external lamination – the first time it’s been done on a garment,” says Franco Fogliato, Senior VP & GM, EMEA. “This year, the new OutDry Extreme Eco Shell jacket is hitting the market. They’re completely built out of recycled bottles. These are the kinds of innovations that we constantly flow into the market.”

The Columbia team is constantly working to come up with ideas for new products, as well as how to improve existing products. For example, the Eco OutDry jacket will be insulated with sustainable down. And the company has just launched Columbia Montrail, a line dedicated to trail running. Columbia acquired Montrail in 2006, but until now the company had mostly operated as a separate entity. Previously just a shoe company, this move allows Montrail to expand into head-to-toe trail running performance gear.

“We constantly invest in our future and the ultimate goal is really to allow people to enjoy the outdoors for longer,” explains Franco.

Columbia Sportswear key facts

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