Like its home state of Vermont, with its woodstoves and Subarus, the apparel maker Ibex has always had a pragmatic contrarianism about it. The company, which makes wool-based outdoor clothing, launched in the late 1990s—right when advanced synthetics were taking off. “People thought we were nuts,” says CEO John Fernsell, who sits across from me at Ibex’s headquarters in White River Junction, his bare feet poking out from under his desk.
Fernsell, who was an investment banker in Boston before starting Ibex with his friend Peter Helmetag, wore a wool suit every day but switched to synthetics for bike rides. “I couldn’t reconcile why, if polyester didn’t work in a business suit, the outdoor industry was so completely wedded to it.”
Fernsell’s hunch paid off. By 2006, Ibex had grown from two employees to twelve and had moved into an old warehouse in Woodstock; today the company has revenues exceeding $20 million per year. One unorthodox key to Ibex’s success is the ultra-soft, nonscratchy merino fiber it imports from New Zealand. Another, even more radical: it manufactures most of its goods in California and began doing so at a time when production was typically sent overseas. “In the investment business my mantra was, When everyone else is doing something, you don’t want to go that route,” says Fernsell, pausing briefly to glance over at a golden retriever named Shackleton that has padded into the office, one of a dozen or so canines on the premises. “Everyone was going to Chi...