In 1938, a little outfit called Recreational Equipment Inc. was first organized in Seattle by Lloyd and Mary Anderson. According to REI corporate folklore, Lloyd Anderson was a climber who wanted to buy an ice ax at a reasonable price. When he eventually found one for $3.50 in an Austrian mountaineering catalog, the word got out to Lloyd and Mary’s climbing buddies.
The demand for decent alpine gear inspired the Andersons to network with 21 other incline-inclined friends to create their own outdoor cooperative. Somehow, they managed to do all this connecting and cooperating with like-minded gearheads with absolutely no help whatsoever from social media, which didn’t yet exist.
They weren’t the first “outfitters” in town by a long stretch. Filson had been supplying Klondike pioneers and outdoor enthusiasts in Seattle since the 1890s. Eddie Bauer opened a downtown store in the 1920s, and went on to outfit many epic adventurers, including supplying the iconic red parka Jim Whittaker wore when he became the first American to summit Mount Everest 50 years ago. That feat made Seattle-based Whittaker a national hero, the most famous mountaineer in American history and an ambassador for the outdoorsy ideal. He was also one of REI’s first full-time employees and later served as CEO during the 1960s.
What REI did (or maybe what it stumbled onto) was make mountaineering and ski-wear a viable fashion option for people who never even set foot in the woods or on the slopes. Down jackets, hiking boots and backpacks sporting water bottles attached with carabiners began showing up in boardrooms and the opera hall. REI’s success breaking into the general retail destination category paved the way for similar crossovers by local companies such as Outdoor Research in 1980s and Utilikilts in 2000.
Sure, there’s a weather imperative that drives our passion for Gore-Tex, fleece and boots—but it’s the mountains, viewed from buses and cars, through office windows and from apartment balconies—that are an open invitation to be ready, and thanks to REI and the plethora of Seattle-based outdoor gear, we are.