IN SEPTEMBER 2007, Neil Fiske clipped into a climbing rope with Peter Whittaker high on the flanks of Mount Rainier. Fiske was a stranger to Whittaker and the mountain. At 46, he’d just been hired on as the CEO of Eddie Bauer, the venerable outdoor retailer. He’d barely gotten settled in his new digs—an office in Bellevue, an apartment five blocks away—when he found himself trudging up the steep slant of Disappointment Cleaver. It was a promotional climb. Men’s Journal had invited a few advertisers to climb the mountain with the magazine’s publisher. Fiske figured it would give him a chance to get to know the territory. In his previous job, running the Bath and Body Works chain, he’d become an expert on soaps, lotions, and candles. As he stabbed his ice ax into a glacier, he realized he was a long way from the world of baths and spas.
For Peter Whittaker, it was another day at the office. Born into Northwest climbing royalty—his father Lou and his uncle Jim, the Whittaker twins, were leading American mountaineers of the ’60s and ’70s—he’d grown up on Rainier. His dad cofounded Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI) in 1968, and Peter took over the business in the early 2000s. He’d been to the summit more than 225 times.
Whittaker, the guide, and Fiske, the client, didn’t talk much on the way up the mountain. Fiske was a nice guy, but Whittaker had little interest in his company’s products. Climbers today wore the North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot—not Eddie Bauer.
It was tough going. Warm weather had glazed the mountain’s upper crest with smooth glare ice. Things were dead slippery underfoot.
The climb gave Fiske plenty of time to consider his precarious position both on and off the mountain. Although Eddie Bauer remained a premier name in retailing, the company teetered on the edge of disaster. It had grown too big, had too many far-flung product lines, and suffered under crushing debt payments. Its very survival was in doubt. The Bauer board had hired Fiske, a protege of Limited Brands founder Les Wexner, hoping the retail wunderkind could turn things around.
During the ascent, Fiske had begun mulling over an idea. At a rest stop the client asked his guide a favor.
“Peter, can I meet you in your office after the climb?”
Whittaker and Fiske made it to the summit. Back in Whittaker’s office at the RMI Basecamp, a grassy compound in the mountain town of Ashford, Fiske laid out his proposal. “I want to reconnect Eddie Bauer with its heritage,” he said. “The company was built on its founder’s love of fishing, hunting, and outdoor expeditions. Your uncle Jim was a big part of that. Eddie Bauer outfitted that American Everest expedition in 1963. I want to bring back the old Eddie Bauer, the company with a soul, the company people loved. I’d like to know if you’re interested in helping me.”
Whittaker was taken aback. He knew all about Uncle Jim and the Eddie Bauer down jacket that accompanied him as the first American to climb Mount Everest. But that was ages ago. Eddie Bauer was a middle-age lifestyle and furniture company. Whittaker had relationships with Mountain Hardwear and Marmot. He couldn’t just throw them over for some guy with nostalgic thoughts about Uncle Jim.
“What do you have in mind?”
“I want you to put a team together to build a line of expedition gear,” Fiske said. “You’ll build it, you’ll be in control. Nothing will go to market without your approval.”
That got Whittaker’s attention.
“How long are you going to stick around?” he demanded.
“Five years, minimum,” said Fiske.
“Good,” said Whittaker. “Because that’s how long it’s going to take.”
• • •
FOUR YEARS ON, Neil Fiske has kept his word. He remains large and in charge at Eddie Bauer headquarters, in the Lincoln Square building across from Bellevue Square. The brand of adventure outerwear that Whittaker and his team ultimately created, First Ascent, has garnered awards and respect from the outdoor community. Fiske hasn’t just talked about reconnecting the brand to its historic roots. He’s made it visceral. One of his first moves as CEO was to direct the construction of a company archive. The mini museum now greets employees and visitors in the foyer of Eddie Bauer headquarters. It’s chock-full of great stuff: the earliest Eddie Bauer down jacket, a patented 1934 badminton shuttlecock (with real feathers!), hickory skis imported from Norway, a mountaineering jacket from the ’63 Everest expedition. For a mountaineering geek, it’s a slice of heaven.
It’s clearly a pleasure for Fiske, too. “It’s all about who we are and what we stand for,” he said, gazing over the glass-encased jackets and fishing gear.
The challenge for Fiske isn’t entirely about the past. It’s about merging two pasts—the founding half century (roughly 1920 to 1970) and the company’s post-1970 expansion era—with a retail market that demands constant invention and innovation.
As if to emphasize the company’s fresh outlook, Fiske appeared for our interview wearing jeans and a black First Ascent T-shirt. He’s 49 now, but his boyish face allows him to pass for 35. The crumbling retail empire he took over in 2007 looks to be—finally—shoring up its foundation. Having weathered the worst retail downturn since the Great Depression, Eddie Bauer is looking forward to its 100-year anniversary in 2020. But for a while, the company’s survival was no sure bet. Its story is the saga of a name, a brand, a company, stretched far beyond its origins. At the entrance to the company archive there’s a phrase prominently displayed: “The soul of a brand.” It’s an apt motto for the past four years, because Neil Fiske wasn’t hired merely to turn around a failing retailer. He came to save its soul.
THERE ACTUALLY WAS an Eddie Bauer, and he was the real deal.
Born on Orcas Island in 1899, he developed a passion for hunting and fishing around Puget Sound as a young boy. At 14, he went to work for Piper and Taft, Seattle’s leading sporting goods store. By the age of 20 he’d opened his own shop near Second and Seneca, a block south of today’s Benaroya Hall. His early success grew out of Bauer’s ability to pair his retail personality with a flair for promotion and a mind that burned to find, or invent, the very best sporting products. “If I needed equipment that wasn’t available elsewhere,” he once said, “I developed it myself.”
As author Robert Spector recounts in his company biography, The Legend of Eddie Bauer, Eddie patented a badminton shuttlecock, invented a mechanical racket stringer, and was a force for popularizing the sport of salmon fishing. But his greatest creation was the down jacket.
The idea came to him after getting caught in a late-season snowfall and nearly dying of hypothermia during an Olympic Peninsula fishing trip. Back then, outerwear was all heavy wool. Bauer recalled his uncle’s tales of surviving the Russo-Japanese War in a jacket lined with goose down. He decided to give it a try. In 1940, Eddie Bauer received U.S. patent number D-119122 for the Skyliner Jacket, a muslin shell insulated with goose down. (The patent was for the distinctive diamond-pattern stitching, which held the down in place.) An ad in Field and Stream for the “blizzard-proof” jacket attracted the first customers for Eddie Bauer Expedition Outfitters, the mail-order business that would become the company’s foundation.
With the coming of World War II, Bauer’s cold-weather garment experience came into demand. The Army asked Eddie to supply sleeping bags and flight suits to troops heading up to Alaska and northern Europe. He agreed, although the company eventually lost money on the deal—an almost unheard-of feat for a military contractor.
The label saved him. Sewn onto every Army garment were the words “Eddie Bauer, Seattle USA.” His winter gear performed so well that after the war some 14,000 GIs wrote asking for more. Many letters were addressed simply “Eddie Bauer, Seattle USA.” The Post Office knew where to send them. Those letters became the basis of the company’s mail-order business.
Eddie was a great retailer and inventor, but he wasn’t the savviest money man. He came out of the war overstretched, in hock, and suffering from depression. He would have lost it all if Bill Niemi, an outdoorsman and owner of Pioneer Square’s gay cabaret Garden of Allah, hadn’t bought into the business in 1948. Bill and Eddie shut down the retail store in 1951 to concentrate on the company’s growing mail-order business.
When current CEO Neil Fiske talks about the good old days when Eddie designed innovative garments hand-in-hand with mountaineers, he’s not just making up stories. In the 1950s, Cascade mountaineers began coming to Eddie with special requests. Their eyes and ambition had latched on to the Himalayas, and they needed outerwear that could stand up to the challenge. In 1952 a group of local climbers, including Pete Schoening and Dee Molenaar, asked Eddie for a parka warm enough for the slopes of K2. The resulting jacket, the Kara Koram (named after the Karakoram Range, which includes K2), kept Schoening, Molenaar, and their rope mates snug down to minus-70. For a later Himalayan expedition, to Gasherbrum I in 1958, Schoening and his climbing partner, Nick Clinch, asked Eddie to ease up on the weight. They weren’t scraping Douglas fir branches up there at 26,000 feet, they said. The climbers were willing to trade durability to shed a few ounces. The result: the world’s first down jacket to use ripstop nylon—the standard still today—as its outer shell. The pinnacle of the expedition years, of course, was the 1963 American Everest expedition. The linchpin was Jim Whittaker, Peter’s uncle. “I was selling Eddie Bauer clothing at REI,” the elder Whittaker, now 82 and living in Port Townsend, recalled recently. “I knew it was the best. So when I was invited on the expedition, I called Eddie and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to use your stuff if that’s okay.’ ”
Eddie Bauer became the expedition’s outfitter in one of the landmark sponsorship deals in the history of the garment industry. Bauer’s Mt. Everest Parka performed splendidly, getting Whittaker to the summit and keeping his teammates Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld alive during an overnight bivouac at 28,000 feet. The iconic photo of Whittaker on the summit, resplendent in his tomato red Eddie Bauer parka, ran in the pages of National Geographic and cemented the company’s position as the greatest American outfitter of the era. “Hell of a product,” Jim Whittaker recalls. “It worked out well for everyone.”
The company clicked along. By the mid-’60s, one-third of the world’s supply of goose down was being shipped to the company’s sewing rooms. Eddie and Bill found they couldn’t expand fast enough. One apocryphal story, passed down in company lore, tells of a catalog clerk so overwhelmed he stirred the incoming mail in a barrel and picked out a few lucky customers whose orders would be fulfilled that day.
The operation got so big, in fact, that in 1968 Eddie sold his share of the business and went fishing. Literally. He didn’t enjoy the day-to-day pains of running a $5 million company. He was in it for the fishing, the hunting, and the fun of developing new products. Bill Niemi kept running things for a few years before selling the whole works in 1971 to General Mills.
That’s when things really blew up.
THE EARLY ’70S WERE THE HEYDAY OF the sprawling conglomerate. For General Mills, the Minneapolis-based maker of Cheerios, Play-Doh, and Betty Crocker cake mix, the Eddie Bauer purchase was part of a corporate expansion that included the purchase of Red Lobster restaurants and the Talbots clothing chain.
Sensing an opportunity for synergy, Eddie Bauer and Talbots exchanged mailing lists. When the Talbots crowd started receiving the Eddie Bauer catalog, they went nuts for the stuff. Eddie Bauer had always had a line of women’s apparel, created by Christine “Stine” Bauer, an outdoorswoman, entrepreneur, artist, crack shot, and Eddie’s wife.
The cross-selling worked so well that Bauer executives broadened its women’s line. By the mid-’80s, Bauer was downplaying its mountaineering history and its field-and-stream heritage in favor of sweaters and skirts. When catalog designers wanted a picture of Eddie in the catalog, they found a great shot of the founder in front of his sporting goods store—but had to airbrush the dead deer out of the photo. Tents and other outdoor products disappeared from the catalog. Home furnishings were added. Retail stores opened at an increasing clip. Ford licensed the company’s name for its Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer. The transformation was so complete that in 1984, when General Mills hired a new CEO for its Eddie Bauer division, the choice was the former head of sportswear at Liz Claiborne.
The suits at General Mills were no fools. By 1988, when the Minneapolis conglomerate sold Eddie Bauer to the catalog giant Spiegel, Bauer’s mail-order business and 58 retail stores were doing $250 million in annual sales.
Spiegel thought it could expand the Bauer brand even further. The Chicago-based company blitzed the country with new outlets, introduced separate Eddie Bauer Home stores, expanded its dress-casual women’s wear line, and capitalized on Spiegel’s sophisticated mail-order operations to get the Bauer book in front of millions of new shoppers. The days of ads in Field and Stream were long gone. Spiegel expected Bauer to compete with the big boys, L.L. Bean and Lands’ End. Bauer’s advantage was its rugged Western panache. L.L. Bean was East Coast preppie. Lands’ End sold modest swimsuits for Wisconsin mothers. Eddie Bauer was Aspen style with the tough frontiering spirit of Alaska.
Within five years catalog orders had doubled, the company boasted 294 stores, and Eddie Bauer cracked $1 billion in total sales. Most significantly, the company for the first time surpassed L.L. Bean in annual sales.
There seemed to be nothing that couldn’t carry the Eddie Bauer brand. There was even a cologne, Eddie Bauer Adventurer.
More stores, more sales: The party lasted through the ’90s. And then it crashed, hard, in 2003.
Spiegel fueled its growth in the late 1990s on flimsy credit, encouraging customers to run up charges on Spiegel-issued credit cards. When those cardholders defaulted, the whole fiasco threw Spiegel into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company’s creditors had no faith in the outdated Spiegel catalog, but they liked Eddie Bauer’s 575 stores and healthy $1.6 billion in sales. So Spiegel died while the Eddie Bauer brand survived, with one condition. Bauer emerged from the Spiegel bankruptcy in 2005 carrying $328 million of its former parent’s old debt. For Bauer executives, it was like being told they could still compete in the retail race—but would have to run shackled to an iron ball.
• • •
THE NEWLY HOBBLED EDDIE BAUER had one thing going in its favor: Bill End, a catalog master who’d risen up the ranks at L.L. Bean and Lands’ End. Eddie Bauer’s new owners hired End as chairman of the board. His first year was a disaster. A sale of the company fell through and his CEO resigned. Faced with crushing debt payments, a drifting company and an empty captain’s chair, End put all his energy into finding the one thing that might save the Bauer brand: a visionary CEO.
The man he found was Neil Fiske.
Golden boy, prodigy, wunderkind: Fiske earned the label. Raised in Denver, schooled at Williams College, Fiske cut his teeth as a congressional speech-writer and legislative aide in Washington, DC. After earning an MBA at Harvard, he signed on with the Boston Consulting Group, where he became a promising young partner, in part by recognizing the growth of everyday luxury retailers like Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and Callaway Golf. In his spare time he wrote the book Trading Up, which became a primer on the phenomenon.
Fiske caught the eye of Les Wexner. Founder of the Limited Group, Wexner had become a retail legend by overseeing the rise of stores like Victoria’s Secret, Lane Bryant, and Abercrombie and Fitch. In 2003, Wexner hired Fiske to turn around Bath and Body Works, a languishing soap-and-lotion chain. In short order, Fiske upgraded the merchandise and morphed his stores from homespun to modern upscale. Sales boomed.
Fiske’s interest was piqued by the Eddie Bauer job. “I’d grown up with Eddie Bauer products as a kid in Denver,” he recalled recently. “It was such an iconic American brand. I thought it would be fun to go and run the turnaround.”
Reading Robert Spector’s company history sold him on the job. “Everything we needed to do was right there in the book,” Fiske says. “The key was to bring Eddie Bauer back to its roots.”
Fiske’s services wouldn’t come cheap, though. Bill End coughed up a $600,000 signing bonus, a $1.1 million salary, and a host of stock options and performance incentives. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer raised an eyebrow, noting that Blake Nordstrom, president of the company that bears his family’s name, made $700,000 for running a chain 32 times the size of Eddie Bauer.
But End and his board were desperate. The previous year Eddie Bauer lost $212 million on $1 billion in revenue, due in part to the company’s onerous debt payments. “In retail, too much debt can send a company into a death spiral,” explains UW finance professor Jarrad Harford. “When suppliers start worrying about your viability, they start demanding cash on delivery, which limits your flow of new stock. Then customers stop shopping. And in retail it’s not just about stock. It’s about current stock.”
The company’s very survival was at stake. “Of all the candidates we spoke to, Neil had the strongest sense of the heritage and history of Eddie Bauer,” End recalls. “He understood where it had come from, how it had gotten itself into trouble, and how it could recover.”
WHICH IS HOW NEIL FISKE FOUND himself on the summit of Mount Rainier with Peter Whittaker.
“We had to reestablish our core identity,” Fiske told me. “Patagonia and the North Face, those are brands built on mountaineering, but they have no field and stream,” he said. “Orvis and L.L. Bean are all about field and stream, but they’ve got no mountaineering. We’re the only brand with both.”
Well, Bauer had both. The company Fiske inherited was more about cardigans, blankets, and ballet flats. Fiske had to reestablish the company’s outdoor credibility without scaring away the customers who’d built Bauer into a $1 billion business. And Peter Whittaker was the key. He didn’t merely have a family connection to past Bauer glory. His reputation in the climbing world gave Whittaker field cred among today’s leading adventurers.
Just as Bill End had to give up some coin to get Neil Fiske, Fiske had to offer something of great value to lure Whittaker. What he gave was free rein.
Whittaker put together a team of world-class mountain guides, including Ed Viesturs, the first climber to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without using supplemental oxygen; Dave Hahn, one of the world’s most experienced Everest guides (he’s summited 12 times); and Melissa Arnot, one of RMI’s top guides and all-around mountain hardwoman. Most outdoor companies bring in their sponsored athletes to get feedback on products already in development.
“You guys,” Fiske told the team, “are in charge of product development.” Whittaker’s team named its brand First Ascent.
For two years, Whittaker kept an office at Bauer headquarters while still running RMI. At first, Fiske wanted everything: Backpacks, jackets, tents, the works. Whoa, slow down, Whittaker told him. The whole point was to meet or beat the best products on the mountain. You can’t do that all at once.
Whittaker’s crew, working with Bauer designers, identified the best pieces of other brands’ jackets. “Marmot’s hood was perfect,” Whittaker recalled. “Arc’Teryx had awesome colors. Mountain Hardwear did zippers just right.” They talked about beating those features in one coat. Because they spent upwards of 300 days a year in mountain gear, Whittaker’s team members brought an intimate knowledge of en route pleasures and annoyances into the design process. “We talked about things like feel and sound,” Whittaker said. “Our jackets aren’t potato chip bags, they don’t make that loud crinkle noise.”
In 2009, the First Ascent team rolled out their Hangfire Hoodie, a jacket with features that turned heads in the climbing community, won Editor’s Choice awards from outdoor magazines, and sold out its first run.
No product better exemplifies Fiske’s compact with Whittaker’s team, though, than the First Ascent tent. Which doesn’t yet exist.
“We’ve been working on a lighter tent with a small footprint,” Whittaker said. “By 2009, we’d made good progress. Our guides slept in prototypes on Aconcagua in the Andes. But then we took it to Everest that spring, and it didn’t pass the Everest test.” They’d sacrificed too much strength in the name of weight loss. Everest’s battering winds exposed the tent’s weak spots.
There was only one problem. Fiske had already ordered up a batch of 300 tents, and the marketing department was gearing up for a launch.
“We came back and said, ‘These tents can’t go to market,’ ” Whittaker recalled. “The company’s CFO was pretty pissed off. But the cool thing is, Neil backed us. That usually doesn’t happen in this industry.”
• • •
THE FIRST ASCENT LAUNCH ALMOST didn’t happen. In fact, the new line geared up for its debut as Eddie Bauer was fighting for its life. The 2008–09 downturn swept through the malls of America like a tornado, wiping a number of well-known retailers off the map. Circuit City, KB Toys, Sharper Image, Mervyns—gone. Bauer survived by slashing costs and closing dozens of stores, but by June 2009 the nosedive in consumer spending combined with those old Spiegel debt payments (which were sapping half the company’s earnings) to send the company back to bankruptcy court.
It looked like the end of Fiske’s run. Few CEOs survive a bankruptcy. But Fiske had a plan.
When he talks about brands, Fiske likes to quote an axiom coined by his old mentor. “A brand,” said Les Wexner, “is a story well told.”
In June 2009, Neil Fiske stood before banking executives and bankruptcy court officials and told one hell of a story.
He gave a precis of that tale in an op-ed published in The Seattle Times on June 17 of that year. Fiske’s experience as a speechwriter shone through. “The story of Eddie Bauer today can be summarized in one phrase: good company, great brand, bad balance sheet,” he wrote. Bauer was doing well, he argued. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) were strong—$42 million in 2008, $53 million in 2009. “This is a business that makes money,” he said. It was the I in EBITDA that was killing the company. Bauer carried $198 million in long-term debt and $75 million in convertible debt. That wasn’t good, but it meant the company had successfully paid down more than $125 million of the old Spiegel ball-and-chain over the prior four years.
“Rumors, speculation, and misinformation have put additional pressure on the company,” Fiske wrote. Translation: Bauer’s suppliers, made panicky by a frightening retail economy, were about to demand cash on delivery—which could be fatal for the company.
“We are already fixing this business,” he argued. “We are restoring a great American brand. We have made progress and know what remains to be done. But we need some help.”
It was grand theater, it was The Devil and Daniel Webster, it was the greatest sales pitch of Neil Fiske’s life. And it worked. Bank of America, GE Capital, and CIT Group stepped up to provide $100 million in financing. Golden Gate Capital, a private equity firm with investments in retail chains like Zales and California Pizza Kitchen, bought the company at bankruptcy auction. Eddie Bauer emerged from the ordeal with its Spiegel-era debt wiped clean, and with Neil Fiske still in charge.
FISKE’S MAKEOVER OF EDDIE BAUER is by no means complete. He has yet to launch Bauer’s field-and-stream counterpart to First Ascent. Fiske says he’s working with some of the top names in fishing and hunting, but is keeping the project under wraps.
Retail industry observers are impressed by the company’s survival and respectful of, if not overwhelmed by, the back-to-Eddie theme of the Fiske era. “I see no energy from Eddie Bauer,” says Michael Tesler, a national retail consultant and marketing lecturer at Bentley University. “Compare it to REI: Those REI stores are experiential, people can walk in and have fun, it’s activity oriented.” Tesler believes Fiske is on the right track, though, in rebuilding the brand’s core. “Its roots in Seattle are very interesting. Seattle has a lot of interesting themes to offer, and they’re right to emphasize it. But they’ve got to find a way to make it fresh, timely, and constantly evolving.”
The company’s Bellevue Square store, a five-minute walk from corporate headquarters, has become a prototype for the new Eddie Bauer. On the outside, the store features flashy video images of its adventure team climbing exotic peaks and rafting dangerous rivers. Inside, it’s a hodgepodge of ideas from other retailers. Here are Gap-style jeans. There are classic check-patterned button-downs a la Brooks Brothers. Nordstrom-esque vintage tees sit on a side table. An old-school leather saddlebag wouldn’t be out of place at Filson. The First Ascent gear is way in the back, which brings to mind one of Michael Tesler’s observations. “They seem to be going after the North Face with their First Ascent line, but they don’t show it off very well,” he told me. True that.
After a 20-minute browse in the Bellevue Square store, a shopper exits with no singular product in mind. This may be one of Neil Fiske’s greatest challenges, finding the killer garment. Eddie Bauer was built on great inventions: the down jacket, the ripstop nylon shell. In fact, a decades-old version of the down sweater, a thin, superlight version of a down jacket, hangs proudly in the company archive. It’s a little disconcerting. Over the past two years, the down sweater has been one of the hottest items in outdoor retail. It’s a product that Eddie Bauer all but invented, but around town and in the mountains it’s the North Face and Patagonia versions that turn heads. At Bellevue headquarters, the company’s designers are working double time to leap the market. Earlier this fall they released an extreme version of the down sweater. It’s a down shirt, so thin and light it practically floats. Nobody else has it.
And the long-awaited First Ascent tent is on its way. After retooling the fabric and the pole configuration, the Katabatic Tent, named after the notorious winds of Antarctica, is set to debut in the spring of 2012.
In fact, Fiske was up on Mount Rainier testing the final prototypes a few days after we spoke.
He and Whittaker usually schedule one mountain climb together every year. This year they hit spectacular weather on Rainier and cruised to the top. “We summited in just under five hours,” Whittaker reported. “We were moving fast; Neil can actually move along.” They walked the crater rim just before sunrise.
This time it was Whittaker who had the agenda.
“Neil and I had been going back and forth about colors for the tent,” he said. Bauer’s designers wanted something close to North Face yellow, the industry standard. The First Ascent climb team had argued for something new, a popsicle lime green. “When you’re struggling back to camp in a storm, you don’t need to just spot a tent, you need to spot your tent,” Whittaker said. While he and Fiske relaxed at Camp Muir, the overnight climbing camp halfway up the mountain, Whittaker pointed out the sameness of the tents perched on the snow.
The message got through. The day after the climb, Fiske burst into the design department full of ideas about tent colors.
“When we show up to market with this tent,” Whittaker told me, “everybody’s going to know we’ve shown up.”
And when those tents show up, it will put Fiske’s new-old Eddie Bauer to the test. Tents take up a lot of valuable floor space. Whether they clash with the jeans and cardigans or pull the whole room together—that may be a test even tougher than Everest.