Meet the Geeks: Kurt Gray

Meet the Geeks

Technical Apparel Developer

Kurt Gray insists he is not a scientist-though he earned a biology degree with a specialty in alpine tundra ecology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he still lives. He calls himself an apparel designer, which makes it sound as if he's one step up from a humble tailor. In fact, Gray, whose clients include such leading names as The North Face, Helly Hansen, K2 and Salomon, is something rarer than either a scientist or a designer: He is a philosopher of clothing.

It intrigues Gray greatly that a Department of Defense study found a clear correlation between marksmanship and spinal temperature, or that a German scientist discovered that lactic acid levels were higher in nordic skiers who wore polypropylene underwear than in those who wore wool. To Gray, findings like those are signposts to the future. "For 20 years, our industry has been focused on ergonomically-based clothing, stuff that bends and stretches and follows the body," he says. "We treat foul weather gear like a car that you get into and drive around in. If you're comfortable, you're happy. I believe we now are on the cusp of physiology-based apparel design."

Here's where an otherwise unflappable lifelong alpinist like Gray begins to get excited. What he means by "physiology-based" is clothing designed to elicit specific responses from the wearer's body. "It turns out that your body pays attention to the surface temperature of about 10 different places where the response is out of scale to the size of those areas, places I call 'pulse points,'" he explains. "Why do you hold your hands out to the fire when you're cold? You're warming your wrists to fool your body into thinking it's not cold. Your body then releases blood from the core and you actually feel warmer. We play with our own metabolic response."

Recently Gray was part of a small team hired by the Special Forces to design a new combat uniform for use in Afghanistan. "We came up with 17 different garments that worked in this physiologically-based way as well as being ergonomically very forward. We're just on the brink of being able to add or subtract energy from the system to support the natural preferences of your body-this pulse point idea. Here's an example everyone can relate to: You can buy socks that are knit differently for walking, ice hockey.... Every sport has its own specific sock now. Well, how come sweaters aren't made that way? Why don't we make sweaters for skiers that are heavier in the back? The future I see is designs that are more physiologically and environmentally accurate."