With a fresh take on fleece hoodies, Senchi Designs isn’t just dipping its toe into the world of cottage backpacking gear; in a lot of ways, it’s taking it by storm. With each new drop, the fledgling brand out of Portland, Oregon typically sells through its inventory in mere minutes.
What makes Senchi Hoodies so sizzlin’ hot? It has a lot to do with the material they're made from: Polartec Alpha. A relatively new fabric, it’s a tightly woven lattice of synthetic loft and fibers that features 2-way stretch and incorporates recycled materials. The signature characteristic of Polartec Alpha is that it’s extremely breathable, while also providing ample insulation.
Senchi Designs Founder, Ryan Windus, first got the idea of using Polartec Alpha for technical outdoor apparel after coming across a boxy sweatshirt made from the fabric. While Ryan didn’t love the fit of that particular piece — it was designed as if for cotton — he was quite impressed by the material’s unique properties.
So he bought a few yards of Polartec Alpha, set up shop in his garage, and it’s been a “long-winded experiment” ever since.
Ryan sold his first few Senchi hoodies on Reddit, where he used direct customer feedback to tweak and refine his designs. With time, he added a gusseted under-arm to allow for easier movement, designed a fitted hood, and worked his way through the tedious process of creating patterns — originally done with cereal boxes.
“It’s been all homemade in our garage for the last year,” Ryan says. “I can do a lot of things; the last thing I thought I was ever capable of doing was owning a business.”
Senchi is something of a side gig for Ryan, one that he does while working his way through nursing school. And, frankly, he likes it this way. It means less pressure to turn a profit and a lot more focus on fun, as well as furthering the values that are important to him.
“I love the outdoors, but at the same time I also kinda hate the gear industry,” he says, referring to the competitive, influencer, bro-brah culture so prevalent in action sports. “I think the outdoors can be a really communal, really collaborative and welcoming space.”
Ryan tries not to take himself or his small brand too seriously — it’s named after a mispronunciation of a Justin Bieber lyric after all. But that doesn’t mean he has a half-assed approach to life, or business.
“I’m the type of person, when I’m into something, I’m 100% in,” Ryan says, whether that’s enjoying the simplicity and solitude of backpacking, giving his all to nursing school, or pulling rad stunts on roller blades.
This mentality also applies to Senchi, and has certainly contributed to the brand’s success.
“A lot of bigger companies are focused on adding things to a piece instead of taking away,” Ryan says. “I think it’s not really on their radar to design something that has less features but with the benefit of really enhanced breathability.”
Ryan underscores the importance of using a Senchi hoodie within a layering system. “It’s not an all-purpose piece of gear,” he says. “The wind will whip through it. That’s a good thing when you’re hot.”
But when a chill creeps in, it’s important to have a rain jacket or other shell handy to put over a Senchi fleece; this will turn the garment into something akin to a synthetic jacket.
In fact, it’s as insulation within synthetic jackets that Polartec Alpha has mostly made its mark on the outdoor industry to date. Senchi stands alone as the first to use it as “next to skin” fabric by turning it into a fleece.
“It’s perfect for those who are doing a lot of active, outdoor adventures, and those who really understand what a layering system is,” Ryan says. “It's about having simple things you rely on and trust. It’s about trusting your gear.”
Ryan adds,“Like any other ultralight piece of gear, it's less durable than other options.”
Ryan’s biggest challenge in launching Senchi has been keeping up with ever-growing demand and, as a people pleaser, inevitably disappointing those who miss the lightning-speed drops.
To alleviate the inventory bottle-neck, Ryan recently started working with a local cut and sew company — one that provides its employees benefits, and also does a fantastic job. “I’m really grateful to have a supplier we trust,” Ryan said.
Senchi has also recently grown into a two-person operation, with Ryan’s close friend and roommate, Bana Mulholland, now officially on the team. “I’ve literally been doing everything myself for so long,” Ryan says. “It feels really great to integrate Bana into the company. She’s a badass!”
In addition to Senchi, Bana works part-time at Planned Parenthood — and in a fun, full-circle twist, Senchi has been able to make $500 donations to Planned Parenthood after its last two drops.
That has to do with the brand’s ethos of “creating cool things and giving back to other organizations that need it more than we do,” Ryan explains.
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Ryan what he would love to be saying about Senchi three years from now. His response:
“I would love to think we have a small community of people who feel like they can be themselves outside and feel accepted for who they are, and don't feel like they have to abide by the industry or gear culture. I would love to be able to build a community of people who love being outside because of the simplicity aspect of connecting to nature and not connecting to gear. Thinking about gear too much can really limit our experience of being outside.”
Garage Grown Gear is both fortunate and excited to be releasing our own Senchi Designs drop of 100 hoodies later this month! If you’re not already signed up for our newsletter, be sure to put your name on the list to be the first to find out!