Meet the climber behind Beyond the Wall, The North Face’s new line of climbing-specific apparel.
I’ve always known my friend Sam Elias was really good at many things including crushing rock climbs. But I was surprised to see The North Face, who sponsors Sam as a pro climber, introduce a new line of climbing-specific clothing that Sam helped design. Fashion was not something I had known to be in Sam’s wheelhouse. After all, he’s a guy who I’ve seen show up at a wedding in cut-off jean shorts with a button-down shirt, bow-tie, and blazer.
Over the past few years, Sam’s been racking up some impressive ascents, including Fat Camp (5.14d) and Bad Girls Club (5.14c) in Rifle, Joe Blau (5.14c) in Oliana, and Necessary Evil (5.14c) in the Virgin River Gorge. He’s also climbed Mount Everest, taken second place in the Ouray mixed climbing comp, and free-climbed the Pre-Muir Wall (5.13d) on El Capitan.
But in between training and sending seasons, he has been sneaking out to The North Face’s California headquarters to volunteer as an intern for the design and product development team. Grabbing cups of coffee for the higher-ups eventually led to more responsibility and taking on a project to develop a new line of apparel for the contemporary rock climber who is out there doing it all, from gym to crag.
The result is the Beyond the Wall line of clothing. I’ve been wearing some of these pieces over the past few months and despite a few minor sizing issues that have apparently been fixed, I’ve been really happy with the comfort and performance of this gear. My favorite piece is the Beyond the Wall Shorts, a stretchy, durable and slim-fitting pair of shorts that seems to be made specifically to move and fit under a harness.
This is the first iteration of this line, and it’s a pretty damn good one. I’ve also seen some sneak previews of upcoming styles that are also really exciting. But more than just being a functional, form-fitting, and comfortable line of climbing gear, the thing that I think is coolest is the story of the guy behind the inspiration. I asked Sam to share some of that with the readers of this site, and here is our brief conversation about his creative process.
What made you want to get into designing clothing?
I’ve always been into art and making things. I’ve drawn from a very young age, and one of my degrees in college was in ceramics. I love making stuff. I love making things with my hands. I even love manual labor. Certainly, this love for working with my hands translates to climbing.
Since I didn’t get seriously into climbing until later in life, I always had other things I was interested in. Even though I’ve been able to climb full time for a number of years, I’m always searching to balance my climbing life with other stuff.
This is how my internship with The North Face product department came about. TNF is always really open to their athletes’ ideas for skill and career development. The company wants to set us up to succeed in our sports, but also beyond that. So in 2016, I worked with some of the product leadership positions, and we created a research, design, and development internship.
What were your goals with these designs?
Ultimately, I wanted to make clothes that my non-sponsored homies wanted to wear. Period. I wanted to make stuff that was clearly made for climbing but was also simple, functional, and stylish. I wanted people to be able to stand out, or fit in—at the gym, at the crag, or in the city. I’m quite happy with where we ended up, but it’s not perfect. There was push and pull. Compromises.
It’s an arduous but almost magical process from start to finish. It’s a concept that begins in my brain, built on thousands of thoughts and interactions; then drawn onto paper with my hand and a pencil; then given to The North Face designers. It’s further explained with words, translated into computer language, sent to a factory to be cut and sewn together. Sent back as a prototype for testing and measurements. Tweaked several times until just right. And then it’s off to production.
What’s your favorite piece out now, and do you have something you’re psyched about that’s coming out soon?
My favorite piece is the Rock Short in the flower print. That short is so comfortable and light. It’s like wearing nothing. It’s an overwhelming favorite by the rest of The North Face athlete team, too. The flower print is extra special to me because it’s jasmine, the national flower of Syria, where my dad was born and where part of my family is from. It’s subtle and from afar it kind of looks like green camo
There are also cool things coming in the future—evolutions of this collection, but also other stuff. I’m currently working on a couple different projects, but I can’t say a whole lot. I can reveal that one is Olympics-based, and the other is wildly experimental.
Any behind-the-scenes insights you’d like to share?
Through this process, I also got to see just how truly passionate, intelligent, and talented all of the employees are at The North Face. They care so much about what they do and what they make. It’s important to me to believe in who I work for. I’m not so interested in just being “marketing asset billboard pro athlete model” person; I really want to help my sponsors and the industry as a whole to progress and flourish. It’s like a family.
What does this line say about who you are?
I like to work hard and create things that I’ll use in everyday life
I entered the climbing life through a small community, and with a simple and withdrawn approach. It was much more about quiet, reflective time. Soulful and introspective. Being a professional athlete is quite the opposite of all these things, and through the years I’ve worked to find a balance. In some ways, working on product design has helped me find that balance. It’s the same thing that drew me to ceramics in college. I don’t care so much about recognition. I like to work hard and create things that I’ll use in everyday life—whether that’s a clay bowl or a pair of climbing shorts.
I just want to make things I’d use, and also the close people around me would recognize as good and also want to use. It’s possible that my whole life is built around this principle.