“We want to create better products that people wear for longer and need less of.”
Hill City, the San Francisco-based brand that is the latest addition to the Gap Inc group, has just celebrated its first year since launching as a DTC (direct-to-consumer) brand last October. Featuring sleek-looking yet functional athletic performance menswear, the brand attracts discerning customers, who want that modern lifestyle, without sacrificing either comfort or style.
From their incredibly popular Everyday Pant to their advanced iterations of wardrobe classics such as T-shirts, shorts and even underwear, Hill City has a devoted following of loyal fans who appreciate thought and detail that goes into each piece.
We talk to Noah Palmer the head of Hill City, to find out how data-driven customer feedback is used to build the brand and the advocation for customers to buy less and not more.
ESQUIRE: Can you tell me more about the brand?
NOAH PALMER: We launched Hill City on the 15th of October last year. We basically built a brand for ourselves [laughs] after hedging our bets that we weren’t the only people in the world with some of these problems. There are menswear offerings that use performance fabrics and but we felt that it’s really narrow in terms of what it is and how it can be used. It’s not very versatile. They also tend to be really bright and heavily logo-ed, which immediately pegs you as a guy going to or from the gym.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot of stuff from an aesthetic standpoint that looks good but it doesn’t have the same standard of performance, fit and comfort. Our wish was to bring the two together and that’s what we’ve done with Hill City, where everything is built for the extreme [but also] designed for everyday wear. Essentially we want stuff that works really well, looks good and is something that you can wear for a lot of different things or occasions.
ESQ: What's the design process for your apparel? Does tech play a big part in the design process?
PALMER: So much of it is taking a product that we already really like and asking ourselves, ‘How can it be better’? Our Everyday Pants are probably the best example. Two years ago we were all wearing the same or similar types of commute pants, like a Carhartt or Dickies, and we really liked the density of the fabric and the durability of the pants and its aesthetic.
But what if it had all these other properties? What if it was more comfortable or easier to break in? What if it had a secure pocket that you couldn’t see from the outside?
A lot of our design process is centred around that challenging question of what is something that we like and how can we make it better? How can we improve the quality or increase its timelessness and versatility? [Some] of our clothes are intended to be evergreen, year-round product offerings and styles. A significant number of our new items are ones that we’ve been working on for a long time and are finally ready, or things that are coming up from a bit more of a trend standpoint, or something we were working on to solve a problem that we maybe didn’t know existed earlier. The design process is highly connected from the beginning to the end and it’s highly iterative-based.
ESQ: WSJ did a piece recently about what they coined ‘travel pants’ and they ranged from USD98 (the price of the Everyday Pant from Hill City) to USD995. How do you keep prices reasonable given their high-performance aspect?
PALMER: The pricing thing is tricky. It's surprising how many people we meet with, that [can't believe our prices] are as low as they are. Price was one of those things that were really important to us in terms of brand accessibility. We've an advantage through our supply chain and the Gap Inc leverage, where we are able to maintain prices that are both fair and more accessible, compared to other brands that are two or three times more expensive.
ESQ: Tell me more about your successful Wear Tester program, where you have a community of guys that test out new products and give feedback on each piece.
PALMER: The genesis of the Wear Tester program was when we got back prototype samples around a year and a half ago and we gave them out to friends and family. They started coming back with feedback and we realised that this was actually powerful as a design feedback loop. It also really challenged us. For example, one of the feedback that came back from the Everyday Pants test was the suggestion of having a hidden pocket. That was hard for us as it was complicated to compromise a form for a function, which we didn’t want. But we ended up hiding it on the left-hand side pocket, which you can’t see or you don’t know about it unless you’re the person wearing it.
We realised the power in seeing a pattern of feedback and realised no one was doing it in a mass way. We really like the idea of a feedback loop and it's cool that it has evolved really quickly. We had 30,000 applicants and from those, we invited 500 to participate in the program. Initially, we were on an external chatbot that was powered through Facebook and Twitter as the platform because we liked it as a one-to-one interaction. But we switched to a Facebook group because operationally, it was easier to manage. Then something interesting started happening.
Essentially, we've created an army of brand advocates, guys who wear the clothes, spread the word of Hill City and post about it organically. It was a behaviour that we weren't expecting. What’s great is that we have hosted a bunch of these cohort groups on Facebook and we’re seeing them interact among one another. They're saying, “Hey I’m Yung from Minneapolis and I’m gonna be in San Francisco for the week. Can anybody recommend a good hike or a great place to eat?” We’ve built, accidentally, this really powerful brand community where we’re getting all the product feedback and also have this boots-on-the-ground marketing team that’s not technically part of a brand, but they are important to us.
Today we have close to 800 activewear testers. The plan is to essentially triple down on the program by the end of next year.
ESQ: You’ve added close to 150 new testers within 30 days. How will you scale this program? This is a community that comprises both the brand and the product and I can see how having international chapters would work when you start selling globally.
PALMER: It’s definitely on our plate when we think about our longer-term plans. Currently, we aren’t selling internationally, with a few exceptions of wholesale or pop-up shops; we did one in Tokyo recently. Currently, our plan is to increase cohort size, the number of products and the frequency in which we are testing them.
We are working on testing that happens further upstream, such as pre-design, pre-product development. A lot of what we are doing is a way to work on the second version of a product. But what we want to do is hone in on how we can work on the first version of a product. I really like the idea that if we were to launch in an international market, the wear tester program would have to be part-and-parcel of it, and then we would take a similar approach as to what we have done in the US if we were to go into another market.
ESQ: As a DTC, there's a limited physical presence. This can be an issue when you have apparel that's focused on fit and performance fabrics. How do you connect with new potential customers, who have that hesitancy to purchase online?
PALMER: Honestly, it’s one of our greatest challenges. Launching a DTC brand and selling premium men’s performance products, where anything that's special about the label is tied to the fabric and construction of the garments… that’s hard to showcase from behind a screen. We made improvements to how we are messaging it digitally but it also explains a lot of the second phase of our brand in a way in how we are marketing the label.
We're expanding to wholesale; we're in a handful of Atheleta stores; we've a pop-up in San Francisco that's on a one-year lease. We also have a Performance Lifetime Guarantee in trying out Hill City, where we will happily exchange or refund your product at any time if you aren’t satisfied with it. That has given potential customers the confidence about purchasing from the brand.
Hill City also has an 18-foot truck that's fully kitted out and it goes from event to event. The idea behind the truck was, how can we take the brand to the people whom we want to reach? Wholesale is the same—it’s not about adding points for sale but so much about what we want is to put our brand and our product on the path of somebody whom we think should be a Hill City customer. That's the idea behind all the physical activations that we have. They are all first and foremost a way to reach new customers.
ESQ: Have these physical interactions with customers led to any surprising discoveries in terms of how you plan to grow Hill City?
PALMER: Totally. Even with the truck that's only been on the road for a couple of weeks, we are quickly learning what kinds of products we need to carry to various events, where are the best places to be, what are the best operating practices, etcetera.
It's about marketing but it’s a good way to give people more immersive experience with Hill City the brand. Which, for most DTC brands, is a really hard thing to do through an iPhone.
ESQ: How does Hill City actually address the issue of sizing and fit.
PALMER: When you're talking about a men's premium performance brand, it is hard to do. Not all ‘medium’ or ‘large’ sizes are the same. Even proportionally, guys' bodies are different. A lot of the feedback we got from the Wear Tester program is around fit, feel and small details; much of the tweaks and updates is to make a product better is around the fit of it. We’ve addressed this by standing behind our product with our aforementioned Lifetime Performance Guarantee.
It’s also why physical presence is important for the brand. Not just being able to touch and see but also to try on and be confident in your purchased sizing. Every point of return rate improvement that we make means a better customer experience, and it’s also a sustainability aspect in play as well.
ESQ: Is there anything that surprised you since launching the brand a year ago?
PALMER: I’m surprised by the number of things we have gotten right (laughs). It’s so variable that you don’t know how things are going to go because there is no baseline to attach to. The most important thing that we’ve learned, and that has been a surprise to some and not a surprise to others, is that there’s no circumventing the hard work that comes with being a start-up.
No amount of resources or financial backing can buy credibility or a terrific customer experience. You can’t avoid the grassroots effort needed as a start-up brand. You still require to have your boots-on-the-ground and have these face-to-face conversations. You'll value every single transaction, every single customer, and every experience. There is no shortcut to that.
ESQ: It’s difficult to sustain that kind of customer relationship as the brand grows. But creating a close-knit community must help?
PALMER: It makes them feel like they are really a part of the Hill City brand in a meaningful way and not just as a customer.
ESQ: I’ve noticed that content is important to the brand because your website and social platforms are essentially how you communicate with your customers. How do you plan out the content and will it be pivoted in a certain way to address the needs of your customers more specifically?
PALMER: Good question. We hired a photographer and a videographer early on because we wanted to have to make stuff really quickly so it was all done in-house.
It's hard to put a value on how important creative content is. We’re seeing the power of video. Photography is also obviously important, the majority of the assets are photographs. We see that we can use these mediums differently, for example, we can use our product knowledge to create an ethos around the brand, or a mood or a feeling.
A lot of people want to see what goes on behind a brand and we’ve made a conscious effort to do this. We want to show people what's going on behind the scenes; show them that there are real people behind the product. We are a small team of less than 20 and we’re figuring a lot of stuff out as we go. I think people respond really well to that.
ESQ: The fact that it isn’t perfect, makes it feels real; that speaks to brand's authenticity as well. Look at the ambassadors that Hill City has picked to work with, how they’ve overcome personal challenges to get to where they are.
PALMER: With our ambassador program, I think the power is the aggregation of these guys, once you see a bunch of the videos you'll realise that although these are guys are all different from one another, they are all really representative or emblematic of Hill City.
But there's power in the numbers. Each guy we add to the roster, you'll see another dot that can be connected to what we are trying to do. These are real people. We’re not paying them to do this. They are friends or friends of a friend and most people have a deeper story than what we know about them. Our ambassadors have been a really important part of our brand. They have been huge ambassadors of what we are doing and we of them.
ESQ: The brand has recently opened its first physical pop-up space in the Hayes Valley area of San Francisco. It’s a year sublet. I know it’s early but I’m curious how this physical presence been important for Hill City.
PALMER: [The pop-up] gives customers an immersive experience with the brand and acquires new customers and a way to re-engage with customers who want to touch and feel the product.
It’s a sort of living experiment. It’s quick and easy that we can test the hypothesis that there are already things that we are learning.
ESQ: What are some of your unconventional approaches to Hill City?
PALMER: What we realise is that we can we don't have to spend a lot of money to make a store look beautiful. We are testing the operational model of not having to carry all of our products at the same time or have everything out on the storefront all the time. It’s more of a showroom approach and having a really clean sort of experience. We’re testing a really small square-footage space; only 500 square feet.
When we started, people look at us like, ‘Are you crazy?’ but it depends on the kind of experience that you are trying to deliver or what you are trying to do with that space. We see a difference in the categories that were selling in the space versus online so a lot of it is about fine-tuning what kind of categories that we carry into the physical space.
ESQ: One of the things that the brand also focuses on is sustainability. Hill City is a certified B Corporation and around 40% of your fabrics are from sustainable sources. How will you further the sustainability agenda as a new, up-and-coming brand?
PALMER: It’s an important question and something we spend a lot of time talking about and working on. For us, there are these three parts of sustainability.
The first is where we spend the majority of our focus—and it is not something that the broader industry is talking about enough, with a few exceptions—and that is we want to make fewer, higher-quality things which are more versatile and last longer. If you think about reduce, reuse and recycle, this is the ‘reduce’ element.
ESQ: Which goes against the whole business aspect of an apparel brand, because, generally speaking, you want your customers to buy more of what you produce.
PALMER: It’s a place where we can have the greatest impact. I want guys to have fewer things in their closet. It should be easier to have fewer things that work for more occasions, that are more versatile, That inherently is why the performance matters so much.
The second is through materials, meaning base fabrics, trims, finishes, etcetera. We want our materials to be as sustainable as much as possible. That's a place that we can be better but we are pretty heavily reliant on the supply chain as well. It’s not challenging to find suppliers that can give you sustainable fabrics, because there is a demand for that right now. The challenge is to find suppliers that can give you fabrics that are sustainable but are also high-performing and also in line with the aesthetic that we are looking for.
Finally, the sustainability aspect is the operational practices and the idea of the supply chain and packaging. The industry talks a lot about plastics and I think it’s important. It’s one of the things that's hard to control and to impact quickly. So, [our focus is on] where we think we can have the greatest impact and the thing that we have the most control over down the line.
These things are important to us as a group and reflect [the concerns of] our customer base and we see the broader market caring about it too. Because we represent who we are serving. You could say that we kinda hired our customers (laughs).
There's a lot of room for us to grow and improve. What’s unique about the way that we work is that we want to make fewer but better things. We want fewer things that will last longer, that's built with quality, that will stand the test of time—not just from a quality standpoint, but also from a timeless design aspect. That’s our effort to be a sustainable brand.
ESQ: You are the living embodiment of the ideal Hill City customer but to relax, how do you yourself escape from tech?
PALMER: I don’t have any time off. I have two daughters; one five and the other three, and another son on the way. I wake up a few hours earlier than everyone else to do some work and then spend a bit of the morning with my family before I go to work. I try to shut it down whenever I’m home and until the kids go to bed, then I usually start working again. But if I really wanted to escape then the best thing is for me to go surfing. Because I have no access to a phone, then all I can think about is work and I can’t really do anything about it.