A few hours before Curtains found himself in the rain room, he, Crawford, and a handful of other Gore employees were touring a different suburban office building where the company conducts most of its shoe-related research. “This is typically the amount of sweat a human foot gives off over the course of a day,” says Jonathan Swegle, a footwear engineer at Gore, shaking a small vial of clear liquid. “It’s a lot of moisture.”
Gore-Tex is designed to transfer sweat into water vapor, which allows it to pass through the thin lining material, reducing a shoe’s swamp-foot effect. Meanwhile, Gore-Tex’s pores are small enough—9 billion per square inch—that water droplets can’t get into the shoe from the outside. If Gore-Tex works, it should keep the foot warm and dry on a cold, rainy day, but cool on a hot day.
Bob Gore first developed the material in the late 1960s when he abruptly yanked a heated rod of polytetrafluoroethylene, a polymer best known for its use in Teflon cookware, just to see what happened. When stretched quickly, solid PTFE expands by more than 800 percent, creating a thin, micro-porous material that is comprised of more than 70 percent air. Gore learned that he could tweak this bio-inert plastic to make it suit all kinds of applications, including medical implants and electrical cables. Its most mainstream use, though, came from fashioning the stuff into a paper-thin membrane that could be woven into clothes or used as lining to create breathable, water-resistant fabrics.
To make sure the materials used in Converse’s jacket and shoes are truly waterproof, Gore has set up an extensive testing process inside its labyrinthine office park. The main lab is a brightly lit and filled with machines that stretch, rub, and poke at Gore’s material. “We have 650 different tests we can perform,” says Lynn Owens, a testing manager at Gore. Not every material undergoes every test, she explains. Rather, each material is methodically abused based on how it’s going to be used out in the world.
Consumer products like Converse don’t need as rigorous of an approval process as military material. Testing typically involves an abrasion test of rubbing the material between two weights to see how long it takes to wear out. Most materials spend dozens if not hundreds of hours in one of Gore’s 200 Kenmore washers that have been modified to never stop churning. “This is the roughest environment they’ll ever see,” Crawford says of the wash test. Most consumer products take a pass through the biophysics lab’s rain chamber and another room where rows of bright overhead bulbs simulate blazing sunlight and fans can create temperatures that dip and soar from 58 below to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
It might seem like overkill, but Converse and Gore have a lot to gain from a successful entrance into the new market middle ground of outdoor gear-meets-city clothes. Part of that success depends on performance; part of depends on cool-factor, which is why Converse worked with popular streetwear store Slam Jam and the Kanye West-approved artist Cali Dewitt to design a few of the line’s pieces. (The new collection will be available at Slam Jam starting today.)
Urban Utility marks Converse’s first attempt to capture a piece of the growing, frenzied streetwear trend. Gore has already dipped into that stream. The company recently joined a high-profile collaboration between The North Face and Supreme to produce a line of water-slicking gear. Pieces from that collection are now going for upwards of $1,100 on eBay.
Back at Gore’s shoe headquarters, Curtains explains that Converse is known for being accessible, both financially and culturally. Urban Utility, however, is meant to edge into a slightly elevated realm. Converse is hoping the association with Gore-Tex will compel its young customers to drop $400 on an Urban Utility jacket, and north of $150 on boots.
Those higher prices aren’t shocking to anyone who buys apparel from brands like Supreme, which uses exclusivity and high pricing as a marketing tool. But that’s hardly been Converse’s game until now. Can the company compete in the rarefied streetwear world? Curtains briefly ponders the question, then answers with confidence. “Absolutely,” he says. “Think about the coolest outfit in history of time—a black leather jacket, a white t-shirt, blue Levis, and Converse.”