WHEN CHRIS VAN DYKE, a seasoned alum of Nike and Patagonia, was approached by, in his words, "adventurer and serial entrepreneur" Eric Reynolds in 2004 with an idea for a new performance-apparel company, he was in the midst of launching a consulting business with his friend Jil Zilligen, formerly Patagonia's vice president of environmental initiatives. But the concept was too good to pass up, and he and Zilligen quickly signed on. They were almost immediately joined by Mark Galbraith and Ian Yolles (also Patagonia alums), and together the foursome formed their new company's core leadership team. Based in Portland, Ore., Nauthat's Maori for welcome and pronounced "now"is sending shock waves through the industry with some seriously groundbreaking ideas. To save money and energy, it has replaced traditional large shops with "Webfronts," small stores that, in order to keep stock levels low, offer a 10% discount and free shipping to customers who opt to have their purchases sent homefrom Nau's warehouse.
Shoppers have been overwhelmingly receptive. Nau forecasted that only 20% of buyers in 2007 would choose to ship, but half have elected to do so since the first Webfronts began opening in April in Portland, Seattle, Chicago and Boulder, Colo. There's more. Five percent of every transaction goes to charity ("That's five times the gold standard," says CEO Van Dyke), and Nau even gives shoppers the chance to choose, from a preselected list, where their dollars get sent. Twenty-eight of the 30 fabrics the brand uses were developed internally to produce the most eco-friendly products possible. And the clothing was painstakingly designed to merge fashion and performance, with luck extending the appeal of a garment beyond a few seasons. Says Van Dyke: "We are trying to not only redefine outdoor performance in terms of its responsible creation, but we are also trying to give it a different look and a different feel." With four Webfronts already open and 20 more planned for 2008, Nau is next.