Mount Pleasant, Utah

The performance apparel manufacturer has righted the ship after an outsourcing fiasco that knocked the wind out of the company’s sales.

Serial entrepreneur Dale Lewis started companies in telecom, real estate, and other industries before turning his attention to insulated clothing with Fortress Clothing in 2012.

When he appeared on Shark Tank in early 2020, Mark Cuban asked him what kind of business Fortress was. “I said, ‘We are a technology company, and we manifest our technology in winter clothing,'” says Lewis. “It’s our technology that differentiates us.”

Made with “open-cell polyurethane that’s hydrophobic” that’s manufactured in the U.S., Fortress’ patented insulation is the backbone of clothing that can be comfortable at temperatures as low as -40 degrees F, says Lewis.

“The law of thermodynamics dictates that moisture moves away from heat,” he explains. “So if you’re outside and it’s colder than 98.7 [degrees F], you’re going to have moisture — sweat — evaporate off your body.”

The fact that the moisture isn’t trapped in the layers is the key to comfort. “The colder it is, the faster our technology allows for moisture evacuation,” says Lewis. “We retain body heat while allowing for moisture evacuation. . . . That’s what gets you hypothermic — your moisture. Once you’re wet, water is 25 times more conductive to heat transfer.”

Case in point: Lewis and others have tested Fortress products by diving into an icy lake in the backcountry.

“The first time we did it, we brought a doctor with a defibrillator,” says Lewis. “You are soaking wet to the bone, so you are absolutely cold and wet in the water. Once you get out, though, that’s when the law of thermodynamics takes over. You’re out of the water and your body heat is pushing that moisture away while simultaneously our insulation retains your body heat. Within about 45 seconds, maybe a minute, you’re comfortable.”

Fortress initially made its products in the U.S., and targeted the industrial workwear market with oil and gas crews in mind. Aesthetics were secondary. “We embraced our ugliness,” says Lewis. “It’s ugly, but it’s warm.”

The designs evolved and became more pleasing to the eye after the oil market hit the skids. “We had to reinvent ourselves,” says Lewis.

Fortress launched a consumer-facing line that includes base layers, outerwear, and gloves with a Kickstarter campaign in 2018. The campaign raised about $700,000, but the company’s new Mexico-based contract manufacturer was six months late with the order. Annual sales — which were nearing $1 million with the workwear focus — plummeted. “We just got slaughtered on the Internet,” says Lewis.

“Like any good entrepreneurial story, you either give up or dig in, and we dug in.”

Fortress retrenched with manufacturers in both Utah and Asia and relaunched with a direct-to-consumer model in 2021. Lewis says he now makes about 40 percent of the products in Utah, but that could grow to 75 percent in the coming years.

“Now our growth is great, since we started over again,” says Lewis. “For April this year [2022], we’re up 700 percent this year versus last year. . . . Year over year for the last two years, we’ve doubled our business for the last two years.”

Challenges: Shipping is a big one. “Some of what we’re doing is Asia-based,” says Lewis. “If you Google ‘Shanghai port satellite congestion,’ it will blow you away.”

While some of that can be mitigated by domestic production, most raw materials tend to be coming from Asia as well. “Pretty much everybody who’s doing cut, make, and trim here usually has fabrics coming from somewhere in Asia.”

Opportunities: “Right now, it is primarily hunting, fishing, camping, lifestyle,” he says. “A subcategory of that would be military. Once it goes, it goes big, but you just can’t count on it.”

Needs: “Better marketing,” says Lewis. “Our message has just been worn out, so people don’t believe it.”

“When I say, ‘You’ll be warm, even when wet,’ and ‘You’ll be warm with fewer layers,’ it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard it before. That has been our biggest hurdle with all of our customers.”

When people experience Fortress, however, they usually get hooked. “If you try one thing, you will buy everything that I produce that is applicable to your use,” says Lewis. “If you buy a top you’re going to get the pants. If you get a quarter-inch and you’re in colder temperatures, you’re going to augment that with another top.”