Zips: fashion before function?

Just over a year ago, Alan Rayner wrote a post on his Cypher smock, which leaked in heavy, driven rain. The Cypher is a great bit of gear, but, in common with a lot of “waterproofs”, it uses a water resistant zip rather than having a protective outer flap. You can read his post here. I followed up with a short survey of Mountain Equipment, Rab and Montane, looking at their ranges and whether jackets have externally exposed zips or used protective flaps (read here).

Most (if not all) of these jackets use the YKK Aquaguard Coil zip, which is water resistant NOT waterproof. PHD use a more expensive YKK Aquaseal zip, which is claimed by PHD to be fully waterproof (although the manufacturer still state “water resistant”, perhaps to cover themselves). In a prototype jacket, Brenig use RiRi waterproof zips (see Alan Rayner’s review).

I thought I’d do a quick update of my survey, to see if manufacturers had changed their ranges. Unfortunately, the situation is now even worse. Montane (men’s range) has no jackets with a covered zip (the Spektr has no zips at all). Rab has eleven jackets in their men’s range, three have covered zips (four out of thirteen, last time). Mountain Equipment have nineteen jackets in their men’s range, of which eight have covered zips (last time, thirteen jackets, nine with covered zips).

On this small sample, designers appear to be moving further away from waterproofs with truly waterproof zip systems. It seems that fashion is taking over from function. If you want a waterproof with a waterproof zip system, not only is your choice limited, you invariably have to choose a heavier jacket, usually designed for climbing rather than walking. Most seem to be over specified for hiking with loads of pockets and heavy weight material.

I’ve not surveyed whether jackets with zip protection have pockets which are vulnerable to water ingress. If they are using water resistant zips with mesh pocket bags, then these are vulnerable to leakage as well (possibly even worse). The more I look at products in the outdoor sector, the more depressed I become. Mission critical products like many waterproofs and tents are simply not fit for purpose.

Do designers actually use their products in the real world? Do they go out in a howling gale, when it’s tipping down with rain in their waterproofs or pitch their tent? I’m all for aesthetically pleasing products, but if they don’t fulfil their primary function, they are about as useful as a chocolate fire-guard.

I wonder if manufacturers actually read real world reviews of their products by bloggers who use them in foul conditions? If any manufacturers read this, please give us proper lightweight waterproof jackets with zips that don’t leak. You ought to have one “proper” lightweight waterproof in your range that is not fashion driven. You may not have had thousands of complaints, but that’s probably because most people can’t be bothered to kick up a fuss, not because your jackets are perfect! Over to you.

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32 thoughts on “Zips: fashion before function?”

  1. Good points here. Have an old OMM jacket that, although lovely, leaks like a tap bang at the bottom of the zip – have other jackets where the zip is the weak point – sometimes wonder at why people laugh at good, simple, capes.

  2. Good post discussing an important point. Or actually points: the situation with zippers and more generally fashion driving the development of clothing that should be functional in the first place. In addition to fashion, I assume that the flaples designs with water resistant zippers are more simple (and thus cheaper) to make. And guess that the nice colourful zips sell well also…

    I don’t know if clothing manufacturers will get this problem covered (mayeb if fashion changes) but I hope the zipper manufacturers will. For example the new YKK Vislon Aquaguard looks promising…

    “Do designers actually use their products in the real world? Do they go out in a howling gale, when it’s tipping down with rain in their waterproofs or pitch their tent?”

    I’m afraid the answer might well be “no”. And often the pro users participating in product development are climbers, trail runners and the like who have different needs than backpackers…

  3. I always found the rain gutter on my Demand top pointless, as where will it run to once past the zip? On me is correct.

    A good point Robin and the zips used by PHD do seem to work, but they did have a external storm flap on the last model. Shame as looking at Gordon Greens smock by them I was impressed. Best single bit of kit I saw on the TGOC. Ask Gordon he raves about it.

    But sooner or later a hard shell wets out and you get damp – or soaked in them. So who cares as hard shells simply don’t work! Manage being wet is what matters.

  4. Hi Robin,
    Zips! My bugbear. Trouble is with a lot of these zips like the YKK aquaguard and others you will get them leaking if you bend the zip when packing the jacket in your rucksack. Care needs to be on your mind continuously because once you have bent it it’s more or less buggered. YKK seem to be quite difficult Co. to deal with and also european manufacturers would really like a european zip ie Riri. The Riri is a better zip without doubt.
    The PHD aquaseal zip is better than the aquaguard and the PHD smock is a good piece of kit with it. But they are specified resistant which says it all. They use zips on divers drysuits so waterproof zips without a cover can be done. The Zip on my Brenig smock has been perfect without a cover so far but how long it will last i will have to wait and see. The nice thing is i know when the zip does go it can be replaced at point of manufacture.
    Also i’m glad my post got you thinking about trends. Thanks

  5. A good post, Robin, and a good follow up to Alan’s Cypher experience.

    As Martin says, the original PHD Alpamayo smock had a storm flap, as well as RiRi zips. I much prefer this sure-fire protection to having the Aquaseal zips. This, to me, was one design change that didn’t enhance an otherwise great piece of gear. And, it pushed the price up.

    When I was looking for a new waterproof I was totally unimpressed by two features: one – the zips and lack of good protection; and two – the length.

    The easy way to reduce weight on a top – a fetish with some manufacturers (and purchasers?) – is to miss off any good storm-flap zip protection and shorten the top.

    The smock design limits the exposure on zips, but why not have a storm-flap? The PHD Alpamayo smock (original) was the only top I looked at and thought: this is it. It was a good length for me – at 6’2″ – and, although 435 grms, was a proper year round jacket. ((End of Rave :-))

    After a couple of years, it is still my favourite waterproof – ever.

    It would be interesting for manufacturers to state their market: fashion or function? If they dare.

  6. Thanks for everyone’s comments. It seems madness to me to use expensive water resistant zips rather than cheaper ones with a proper protecting flap. TBH I’m not sure I’d fully trust any exposed zip given the likelihood of flexing or dirt compromising the seal.

  7. The Rab jacket I use (eVent Bergen) has a covered main zip, although the pocket zips are exposed. That said the pocket zips are weird – they kind of zip up in a smooth plastic sheen. I’ve had it out in two days of rain and it’s been water-proof, though the outer material seems to hold onto water longer than it should.

    It seems the industry always goes through phases of fashion – just like rucksacks for instance, where the current trend is to have internal side pockets rather than external ones!

    1. The Bergen is an example of what I’m talking about. Great jacket, but heavy at 535g. My Cypher smock is 240g. For a minuscule amount of extra weight a zip flap could be added making it totally waterproof.

  8. I agree with Martin. I’ve tried out a fair few waterproof jackets in the past couple of years, many of which are prototypes. In fact I have one from Rab in now. You will wet out eventually and he’s bang on to say it’s about “managing” the wet etc.

    Even so, in truth I can honestly say that there’s not a great many jackets where the zips with or without flaps have failed to the point that it pisses me off. Just my opinion of course! 🙂

    However, I do have some gripes which mirror yours and others Robin but in other ways.

    For example, pockets. Some garments don’t use mesh inside the pockets. So when rain does inevitably get in, it stays there. Or the pocket zips are positioned where the rain is more likely to penetrate than the main zip of the garment itself!

    My other gripe would be the shoulders. ie, toughen them up. Because after a few days out with a pack on your back, I find the shoulders to be the first area of any waterproof jacket that ‘wets out’. It annoys the hell out of me. Some reinforcement on the shoulders would be nice but you only tend to find these on the heavy weight designs.

    I have to add….sorry!…that the best lightweight zip I encountered on any waterproof jacket was on a lightweight Neoshell from Westcomb!

    The zip was located on the inside of an exterior flap itself! I thought this was a true mark of a manufacturer actually using the kit in crap weather.

    In effect, the zip wasn’t just overlapped by a flap. The zip was within the flap and not once did any water ingress. I’m pleased I got to keep the garment!! Again it was a prototype I gave feedback on and it’s been my go to lightweight (well fairly lightweight) waterproof jacket ever since 🙂

  9. Well done for highlighting this. I’m amazed both by the infrequency this issue is mentioned in the outdoors media/blog gear reviews etc and also by how hard it is to find a jacket that does have a covered zip these days.

    I’d be really interested in a manufacturer perspective on this…what advantage do these zips offer over more the storm flap combination (besides looking cooler and highlighting a brand’s use of new technologies etc)?

    Having tried both I am also pretty sure the water resistant ones are not a patch on zips covered by storm flaps. Although in bad weather the latter will leak eventually….

  10. best jacket I still have is the Montane Atomic (1st version). Its lightweight, peaked hood, velcro wrists and…..duh duh duuuuuuuh a covered zip

    I think its true re fashion over function. Maybe the manufacturers feal that uber lightweight shells are for “summer” or occasional use…????

      1. zips on the atomic pockets also covered

        great design and still used even in winter

  11. Totally agree with Martin too. Gore, Event, and the rest whatever the versions are just the Emperor’s new clothes. If it’s raining all day you are going to end up wet, or at least damp. Terry’s pint about reinforcement is a good one. 10-15 years ago lots of jackets had tougher shoulders and elbows.

  12. After reading all your comments, mostly in favour of covered zips, I seem to have a different point of view.

    I used to hate velcro flaps, which had to be pressed down carefully to make sure they were closed properly, and then ripped apart to open them. The other alternative on heavier/pricier jackets was a double storm flap with fiddly press studs. I find water resistant zips liberating in comparison.

    I used to be a Paramo fan, so I suppose I have got used to Martin’s point of view about not expecting total water-proofness. However, I now have a Rab Latok Alpine with a kind of rubberized reversed zip, and in six years I’ve never had any serious problems with it.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I can understand your viewpoint. The problem as I see it is that people with your preference are well (over?) catered for, but those like me who prefer better protected zips have few options other than to buy heavy, over specified mountaineering jackets or put up with less than ideal lightweight ones.

  13. Robin ,
    agree with your comments about pertex shield. Just got back from the Lakes,where I was using my Montane Minimus. Had two days of fairly heavy rain and it completly
    wetted out. I think the zip was the minor of the overall problem ! At the end of the
    day it was just a vile soggy mess. It’s a good windproof maybe and very light, and
    in my opinion not good for much else. In contrast I was wearing Paramo valez trousers and they kept me dry all day and very breathable. I know some people
    have a problem with Paramo but I found these to be excellent in heavy rain. The zips seemed to cope well,although by the end of the day some minor dampness did
    creep in.

    1. Thanks, Charles. Sorry this comment is late in appearing. For some reason it got labelled spam! Anyway, interesting to hear your experience with Pertex Shield. I don’t think I’ll be using mine on serious trips!

  14. Well done on airing this issue.

    I’d say every jacket I’ve ever used has leaked at some stage at the zip – most commonly at the neck area. My base layers have sometimes been soaked in a narrow line behind the zip from the neck down to the trouser line. No problem really on day hikes but, on longer backpacking trips in winter, this becomes more than just a comfort issue.

    The worst culprit was an expensive Montane Superfly – I sent it back and they blamed me for not keeping the jacket clean enough! (Condensation was their argument)

    I find that it’s the front zip and not the fabric that tends to fail. Covered zips seem to do better but in the end rain gets in.

    So, a Question: why do door zips on tents/shelters seem to prevent water ingress when zips on jackets so commonly fail?

  15. It makes me wonder how much influence YKK has on a manufacturer’s designs, much like Gore Tex, tying brands into stifling contracts and actually demanding certain design elements in order to highlight their own products. Would YKK be happy to keep supplying zips if a certain brand hid all their fancy looking zippers behind a storm flap? Being able to add another line to your garment’s specification menu that reads “Reverse-coil laminated YKK Aquaguard zipper” sounds much sexier than “YKK zip and flap”.

    I still love my first generation Montane Atomic for it’s simple zip and storm flap. In fact the whole jacket displayed a lot of sensible deign elements in fairly minimal, reasonably priced jacket. My current Haglöfs OZO jacket has many so-called ‘advancements’, yet I’m not sure I can honestly say it’s any ‘drier’ inside.

    I wonder if there are any actual weight benefits between a fancy ‘water- ‘resistant’ zip and a traditional zip with a storm flap? I’d like to see the figures.

    My final point echoes Martin and Terry, in that, I don’t think any design of ‘waterproof’ gear can keep you ‘dry’. The fabrics themselves may be waterproof in a three inch circle on a lab testing machine but once we cut holes in it for our bodies and cover it in stitch holes and gummy tape I’m afraid that all goes out the window. We move and sweat and get things abraded and dirty. It’s how we manage the accumulation of moisture ‘inside’ these garments that is key to our longer term comfort and safety.

    I’d like to see the term ‘waterproof’ struck from the outdoor lexicon.

    1. Some good points. The thing that annoys me is that choice is being denied us. If you want a rain flap, you have to buy a heavy jacket.

      Agreed that nothing will keep you completely dry in heavy sustained rain, but to design in a weakness with a zip that is not fully waterproof seems mad.

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