Tracing a New Path

Following Ralph Lauren’s premium, USA-sourced down fill from egg to jacket

The Ralph Lauren team works tirelessly to perfect the design, fit, and quality of each piece of outerwear so that it looks and feels great in every context, from mountaintop to city sidewalk. It’s a level of effort that goes more than skin deep—the same care and attention to detail goes into the sourcing and production of the down itself, as part of our ongoing commitment to ensuring that our down is sourced from only the finest, most humane facilities. To do this, we turned to a 102-year-old family-operated company in Ohio.

Sarah Werthaiser, known as “The Feather Queen,” started her down processing company, which would eventually become the US-based Downlite, in Bavaria in 1915. Her two younger brothers survived the concentration camps of WWII Germany and immigrated to the US in 1950. Soon thereafter, Sarah followed her brothers to America and settled in Cincinnati, where she started a new mill, called the Midwest Feather Company.

“More or less all of the people who specialize in down processing in the United States come from the same area in Germany and settled in the Midwest,” Downlite’s Chad Altbaier says when asked about the company’s history. “There’s no doubt that the art and science of sourcing and washing down is a European tradition.” In 1983, Sarah’s sons Larry and Marvin Werthaiser took the reins of the company, renaming it Downlite. They brought it up to speed technologically, and brought on Altbaier’s father Bob as a partner. The three remain the sole owners of the company, while eight of their children—including Chad—and children-in-law are helping to run Downlite in 2018, more than 100 years after Sarah established her first mill in Bavaria.

The journey of Ralph Lauren down starts at a network of small, family-owned farms in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, which are part of a farm-sharing program established for the benefit of the birds, the land, and the families who raise them. “It’s really a ‘get to know your farmer’ type of supply chain,” Chad Altbaier says. The ducks are raised for food and the down is a byproduct of this process. “What makes the US supply chain so compelling is that it’s literally a vertical supply chain where you just have one or two meat suppliers and some small, family-owned farms, and that’s it,” Altbaier says. Ducks roam fields freely, eat locally sourced feed, and are given ample space in their barns for rest. This method in turn allows the ducks to produce feathers of extremely high quality, providing a sustainable and environmentally friendly process for sourcing down.

While responsibly sourced down is available from Europe and Asia (in accordance with the meaningful, though non-binding, Responsible Down Standard), where raising ducks for various purposes is common, in those parts of the world the operation of obtaining, preparing, and using down tends to be of industrial scale, which can affect quality and the environment. Ducks may not spend their entire lives free from cages, processing facilities may, by virtue of their size, contribute to air pollution, and the down may be left wet for extended periods of time after cleaning while awaiting delivery to down suppliers. By nature of its scale and provenance, US sourcing significantly limits these logistical threats to quality and the environment.

Ralph Lauren made it a goal to eliminate the ambiguity in the down sourcing process and hone in on Traceable Down Sourcing (TDS) through specific people and farms involved in order to get the best possible product into its outerwear. The partnership with Downlite allows the company to look at a bale of down and know exactly which farm the feathers were sourced from, exactly when they were collected for processing, how they were processed, and where they were shipped to.

A network of family-owned farms in Indiana provides an example of the process: Once mature, ducks raised under their farm-sharing program are brought to a veterinarian-certified facility, where the ducks are exsanguinated for their meat wholesale. While the ducks’ down might otherwise be discarded, Downlite carefully upcycles it in its own facility, located nearby in Ohio, just a few hours away. “We’re literally buying the down and feather material one state over from where we are doing the processing, so it only travels a couple hundred miles to get to us,” Altbaier explains. The proximity limits pollution and preserves the precious collagen coating that keeps the down soft and fluffy over time. “Compare that with putting the down in shipping containers and sending it across the globe—this is really a local process.”

When the down and feathers arrive by truck to Downlite’s Ohio facility, they are carefully cleaned and sterilized. Coarse feathers are removed and recycled, leaving behind only the softest down, which is washed with an oil-emulsifying soap, a gentle formula that hasn’t changed in the company’s 102-year history. “It’s really a simple wash-and-dry process, just like you wash your clothes,” Altbaier explains. “All of the water, like 50 million gallons a year,” he adds, “we recycle right here on site.” Last year, Downlite installed a state-of-the-art wastewater recycling facility as part of its ever-expanding sustainability program.

Once clean, the down is dried, cooled, and sorted to remove dust and small particles, before being tested by an internal lab to certify content, cleanliness, and color. The white duck is the dominant breed in the United States and comprises the majority of Downlite’s down sourcing; its down is of high quality and invisible in white and light-color outerwear garments (including Ralph Lauren’s recent jackets for Team USA at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018).

After it is tested, the down is shipped in parcels to Ralph Lauren’s manufacturing factories, where it is blown into each jacket, taking care not to constrict the down-filled chambers—after all, the pockets of air that exist around the feathers’ fluffy plumes are what make down an exceptional performance insulator, offering several times more warmth than synthetic fibers. If you’ve ever noticed a number on the sleeve or tag of a down coat and wondered what it referred to, now you’ll know: it indicates the percentage of down cluster vs. feather which is associated to a “fill power.” It’s not a measurement of the content or quantity of down inside, but of the loft, or fluffiness, of the down (the higher the down cluster percentage, the greater the fluffiness)—and the higher the fill power, the more insulation can be achieved with less down use, increasing the lightness of the garment. While Downlite’s standard fill power for outerwear is an admirable 650 cuin (cubic inches per once for down), Ralph Lauren raises the bar and uses for its premium garments US-sourced white duck down that achieves a fill power of 750 cuin.

Through this partnership of two American heritage brands, Ralph Lauren is able to offer down outerwear in a league of its own. Stylish, exceptionally warm, and transparently sourced from within the US, there's nothing smarter or more luxurious on the market today.

MEGAN GUSTASHAW is an Austin-based writer and mother who loves denim, travel, and all-day reading marathons
  • © Photos courtesy Ralph Lauren Corporation
  • Illustrations by Catherine A. Moore