Decoding Design

Alite Designs founder Tae Kim makes gear for 'urbaneers'

Alite Designs founder Tae Kim makes gear for 'urbaneers'

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Alite Designs is rethinking camping gear to make the activity more enticing and accessible. Behind it all? The former design director of The North Face.

Alite Designs is a San Francisco-based maker of tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and other outdoor gear for for people who, ironically enough, don't like camping. Or, perhaps more accurately, for people who don't like camping yet. The two-year-old start-up is the brainchild of Tae Kim, a former design director at The North Face.

Alite's signature products, such as the cheekily named Sexy Hotness Sleeping Bag (designed for woodsy intimacy) and the lightweight, innovative Monarch Camp Chair, are made for newbies rather than the extreme athletes most outdoor gear makers sell to. The company is targeting city-dwellers in their 20s and early 30s who are looking for ways to get outside and meet new people. These consumers tend to have grown up in the suburbs, with little to no early exposure to camping. They also tend to like bikes and are devoted to local, organically-grown food. It's a set that Kim likes to call "urbaneers."

It's also a demographic with which Tae Kim actually has very little in common. He grew up in a poor family in Anchorage, Alaska, and spent his youth camping. Because of his economic status, he could only dream of owning high-end outdoor gear, but that's actually what propelled his career.

"I always wanted, you know, a North Face jacket and things like that," he says. "When I was in junior high school, I really raised a fuss one time over a jacket I wanted and my mom said, 'Well, why don’t you make it?' "

With her help, he did just that. "I never had the things that the cool kids did, but that spark made me realize that I could always just make the things I wanted," he says. "I made my own skateboard and the other kids loved the fact that I could do that, or I would jury-rig things together and it would come out better than what the kids would buy."

Early Days
A placement exam in high school suggested Kim should become a car designer and after studying automotive design at Purdue University he took a job in the clay modelling department at Ford Motor Company. But the work became stifling. When his manager told him he would be promoted to work on the Mustang being produced in Japan, Kim was stoked for the new opportunity. When his boss then asked him to help with English-to-Japanese translation, Kim quit. He's Korean -- but no one had bothered to ask.

He landed in Stanford's graduate design program, where his thesis project involved creating shoes for tall women that could be converted from flats to heels and back again.

"As they’re growing up and becoming tall, these women tend to develop problems with their posture because because they’re always crouching down. I designed shoes that were social commentaries on that problem," he says. "I learned how to pattern make, how to sew really well and how to make things with my hands. I also interviewed the entire Stanford women's basketball team and I got really good at figuring out what people want."

After graduating, Kim shopped his portfolio around and quickly attracted multiple job offers, including one from The North Face -- the very brand he had coveted as a child. This was in 2001, when VF Corporation purchased the company, which was nearing bankruptcy. It was fertile ground for Kim.

"So many great people taught me how to do tent, backpack and sleeping bag design and I became design director of The North Face for hard goods. The work was about stopping the [financial] bleeding and then going back and readdressing what The North Face was."

In some important ways, though, he started Alite Designs as a reaction against the messaging that The North Face and similar brands used. "If you look at a outdoor gear catalog, you'd think you have to summit Everest in order to use their products," he says.

For newbies, this can be a real turn-off. So with Alite, Kim focuses on accessible, easy to use products that don't scream "extreme" but are more in line with the increasingly popular heritage trend, which echoes the styling of early camping equipment.

Design Philosophy
"This younger customer group is pushing me to become a better designer," says Kim about his work at Alite. "I started [Alite] because I wanted to do more innovative design but I've learned a lot about my customers. You can't be putting out 'me-too' products."

At The North Face, the brand preceded the products, but the process is reversed at Alite, where signature pieces, like the sleeping bag and Monarch chair, are forming the brand's foundation. They may be simple and accessible, but that comes through innovation. The Monarch chair, for example, keeps the user off the ground but relies on his or her feet to act at the third leg of the stool, so to speak. It's comfortable, easy to use and handy for car camping. But because it's so small and light, it works for bike camping or just hanging out at the park. Music festival fans love it, too. So it's camping gear that's not just for camping.

"I design off of problems. I rarely say 'oh, I just want this thing.' I could interview you for an hour and figure out what problems you’re having with your present gear and then design something for you that’s better. I try to apply that user-centric design process to our customers. I like to say that I am designing products for people who hate going camping," says Kim. "It’s an amazing challenge."

The Whole Package
Alite Designs is positioning itself as a source for inspiration and content, as well as a gear provider. It's doing this through a range of programs, including a Camping 101 series, a lending library that provides weekend rentals of free kits of camping gear for novices, and even outdoor-oriented mixer events for singles.

Kim compares the gear Alite sells to the ingredients in a recipe, and wants to teach urbaneers how to cook up a fun, relaxing experience outside the city. "The content we provide is really curated, and we're doing things like making a Top 10 Campsites list," he says. "When someone uses the lending library, I make them prove that they know how to set up the tent, and if they don't know how, we show them."

Food plays a really important role in the experiences that urbaneers are looking for, says Kim, which is one reason Alite has been leading camping excursions to organic farms in the Bay Area and why it is planning to produce cookbooks for camping.

The next challenge, he says, will be scaling up and growing beyond the Bay Area. In 2010, Alite partnered with Eastern Mountain Sports and cycling-focused clothier Outlier to run a pop-up store in Manhattan, and Kim hopes to do more pop-ups around the country. He also wants to create more Alite products focused on food and cooking, and to expand the lending library.

For urbaneers, he says, "bikes, organic food and the outdoor industry is really starting to all merge together." But for Alite, that's by design.

Photos: Tae Kim in the Alite Designs showroom (Mary Catherine O'Connor); Alite Design products, in order shown: Sexy Hotness Sleeping Bags, Monarch Chair, Cloverware camp utensils (courtesy Alite Designs).

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure