Eric Dayton wants to sell you an expedition-level parka to enjoy the coldest days of winter, but for less than half the price of Canada Goose.
In the coming days, he plans to launch this parka as the central product of the revamped Askov Finlayson, formerly a men’s boutique in Minneapolis’ North Loop that will reopen with a new focus.
Dayton has retooled his business to become primarily an online seller of outdoor clothes under his own brand. His aspiration is to become a national player that shoppers consider with brands like Patagonia, Arc’teryx and the North Face.
But he’s starting first with a parka. With it, Dayton has combined his passions for Minnesota’s cold, snowy winters and environmental sustainability. His campaign to “Keep the North Cold” and fight climate change will be represented with a label attached to the jacket’s zipper.
“This parka feels like the complete realization of what we’ve been doing, talking about, and stood for the past eight-plus years,” Dayton said in his office surrounded by prototypes and sketches.
In the last year, he and a small team have agonized over every detail in designing Askov Finlayson’s parka.
It’s made almost completely from recycled synthetics, including the filling, a new featherless product made by Maplewood-based 3M Co. There’s no fur-lined hood or other bells and whistles that don’t have much function, which also helps keep costs down.
Its new logo with a cardinal, a bird that doesn’t fly south for the winter, is fairly discreet compared to the loud patches and prominent branding found on many other parkas. The parka won’t come in black, the ubiquitous color of winter coats, but in three colors — midnight navy, boreal green, and golden brown.
And its price: $495. Not exactly cheap, but more within reach compared with the parkas of similar quality that Dayton is benchmarking himself against that sell for upward of $1,000.
“It felt like it had become something of a luxury category,” he said, nodding to Canada Goose. “But having a great winter parka to me shouldn’t be a status symbol. It’s something that you need and we want to make accessible to as many people as possible.”
He didn’t want to sacrifice quality to get to a lower price. Instead, he drew inspiration from direct-to-consumer brands such as Away luggage, Harry’s razors, and Warby Parker in eyewear, the latter of which had a small mini-shop inside his store for a few years. By selling online, they were able to bypass retail markups that can sometimes double the price.
“Most of the big companies that exist in this [outdoor] category were built on a retail distribution model so they’re locked in to that,” Dayton said. “Which we knew very well because we were a part of it. We were a retailer. We were buying from these companies at their wholesale prices and then marking it up to retail and the difference was our profit as a store. Now that’s something we’re passing along as value to the customer.”
Chris Walton, a former Target executive who now provides retail commentary through his Omni Talk blog and podcast, said Dayton will likely do well out of the gate because he has loyal following here in Minnesota.
“But I think the key is to overcommit until you understand how much demand is out there,” Walton said. “How many $500 coats are you going to buy and how frequent is the repurchase cycle on that?”
Many online-only brands have struggled to become profitable and have either opened their own stores or sought distribution through other retailers.
Dayton noted that many digital startups, fueled by venture capital and pressed by the need to repay investors, grew fast at high cost. By contrast, he and his business partner, his brother, Andrew, are self-funded and are looking to grow at a more reasonable pace. He added he sees a path to profitability within the next few years.
Dayton, of course, has retailing in his genes. The son of former Gov. Mark Dayton, his forebears founded and ran the Dayton’s department store empire that launched Target Corp.
The Dayton brothers opened Askov Finlayson in 2011 as a modest shop next to their popular Bachelor Farmer restaurant, with Eric Dayton in charge of day-to-day operations. It primarily sold third-party brands, but increasingly added more of its own products, including its stocking hats with the word “North” that sparked a movement to reposition Minnesota as part of the “North” rather than the Midwest.
A year ago, Dayton decided he wanted to refocus the company around its own brand. He sold off the inventory and temporarily closed the store as he developed the parka as the initial product to build a new lifestyle brand around.
One of his first steps was heading up north with his team to Ely to visit Will Steger, the famed Arctic explorer who has become a friend and mentor of Dayton’s since he accompanied him on an expedition in 2004. Steger dug into his archives and laid out before them all of the parkas he had used over the years.
They took copious notes. An important early lesson: All his parkas had synthetic filling rather than down. “The reason is that down, while great in a number of ways, as soon as it becomes wet, it loses its warmth,” Dayton said.
The team reached out to 3M, whose Thinsulate had been used in some of Steger’s coats, and learned about the company’s new recycled synthetic product.
As they worked on the design with John Ly, a longtime outerwear designer who previously worked at the North Face, they put function before form.
“A lot of what is currently available on the market is what we would describe as overbuilt,” Dayton said. “It’s got things you don’t need because that’s what people have been trained to think they need.”
But one thing he decided customers did need is a little help to get off the grid when enjoying the outdoors. So he decided to include a pocket with material that blocks cellphone signals, noting that his wife gets upset when his phone distracts him on hikes along the North Shore of Lake Superior.
After looking at manufacturing options both domestically and globally, he partnered with a factory in Vietnam because of its technical expertise, environmental-friendly practices and ability to grow as Askov Finlayson does.
The environmental impact of shipping the product from overseas will be factored into Askov Finlayson’s commitment to give back 110% of its carbon footprint, a sort of self-imposed carbon tax that it conducts annually and posts on its website, toward climate-focused initiatives. The company is already a couple of years into its pledge to donate $1 million over five years, but the level of giving will rise if the company grows in future years.
In addition to free shipping and free returns, the parka will also come with a one-winter guarantee so customers can return it if they’re not satisfied with it.
The parka will be available for pre-sale later this week for members of Askov Finlayson’s e-mail list, followed by an online launch on Nov. 6. Its downtown Minneapolis shop, which will also sell “North” hats and some T-shirts and sweatshirts, will have a grand reopening a couple of days later.
“The store legitimizes the [online] brand even more, so that’s a smart play” to keep the store, said Marshal Cohen, an analyst with the NPD Group.
If Dayton can build integrity around this first product and justify his claims, he should be able to build a whole lifestyle brand around it with various products just as Patagonia, which started with outerwear, did, Cohen added.
Dayton wants to add fall and spring products so the store can stay open and the website humming all year long. Down the road, there could be additional stores, too.
“But I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Dayton said. “If we do this parka well, then we’ll earn the right to do more.”