The US military has long used a type of camouflage pattern designed according to the type of terrain in which it will be used. Now, a Brooklyn-based company has persuaded it to try a new way of (not) seeing things.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was the 19th-century heartland of naval technology in the US but is now home to furniture makers, technology start-ups and television studios. It’s the last place you’d expect to find US Army contractors but the rejuvenated industrial area across the East River from Manhattan is also home to Crye Precision, the first private firm to supply camouflage to the military.
“When we started out, it wasn’t popular to want to make things for the military, especially in New York City,” says Caleb Crye, who runs Crye Precision with Gregg Thompson. “But we had a personal desire to change stuff. Military gear and equipment hadn’t improved as much as their commercial equivalents. We saw it as an area that we could add value to through innovation.” And innovate they did; Crye now designs and manufactures some of the military’s hi-tech equipment, including MultiCam, a unique multiple environment camouflage pattern. Having met while studying at the city’s Cooper Union design school, Crye and Thompson were committed to doing business in New York. Founded in May 2000, Crye today employs around 150 people in New York and New Jersey, who design and manufacture everything from military clothing and armour to hardware and field equipment. “In 2001, we were just a design consultancy and approached military projects in the same way we did everything else,” says Thompson, who trained as an engineer. “But we realised that you can’t just go to the government with a bunch of ideas, so we invested in making things.”
One of Crye’s most successful products is MultiCam, which it began work on in 2002. Responding to the need to deploy troops at short notice, Crye and Thompson approached the military with the idea of a camouflage that could work in different environments. Until then, camouflage had been terrain-specific.
“We were adamant that it was a good idea so we developed a few things until the Army finally agreed to test it in 2004,” says Crye. Designed with seven base colours, MultiCam’s pattern is not repetitive, so no two uniforms look the same. While traditional camouflage design had been approached by looking at the geography of combat locations, Crye approached MultiCam by modelling to the shape and scale of the wearer or object. It’s bespoke camouflage, rather than one size fits all. Studying things like shapes that show up and repeat in different combat zones, average sizes of clothes and equipment and lighting conditions, Crye Precision developed a library of colours and shapes that were common across multiple environments. The company settled on the final MultiCam print in 2005. When the US Military decided to develop its own multiple environment camouflage around the same time, the pair decided to make MultiCam commercially available. The market for it was strong. Soon, US Special Operations units that had greater control over their equipment purchases were ordering products in MultiCam. “We invested in it purely from a belief in the product,” says Crye. “A lot of people told us not to release the pattern and to only use it for our own products but we wanted as many people as possible to benefit from it.”
Today, MultiCam is used by units around the world. Crye manufactures clothing, armour and equipment using the pattern but MultiCam is also available to any other producer who needs it.
In 2010, following complaints about the effectiveness of the US military’s multiple environment design (the Universal Camouflage Pattern, see box page 103), the US Army issued troops in Afghanistan with MultiCam uniforms. Crye was also contacted by the British and Australian armed forces and patterns for other forces around the world are in the works.
Having designed all equipment internally for a long time, the US Military is constantly changing how it works with private companies, and companies such as Crye can thrive. “We have the best customers in the world,” says Thompson. “It would be difficult to maintain the energy and momentum we have if it wasn’t for people calling us up from all over the world saying they need something essential.”
As well as MultiCam combat clothes, Crye Precision makes everything from gun clips to helmets and baseball caps. These are Monocle’s top five Crye products.
The Airframe is among the safest combat helmets in production today. It was designed to reduce head-borne weight while covering more of the neck than traditional designs.
Jumpable Plate Carrier
Among the most advanced armour vests around, the plate carrier weighs about half a kilo when not loaded with ballistic plates.
G3 Combat Shirt
Designed in a lightweight, wicking and fire resistant material, this combat shirt helps soldiers keep cool in sweltering conditions.
G3 Combat Trousers
With stretch panels around the knee, crotch and lower back, these are versatile enough for the most demanding environments.
This device makes it easy to carry multiple ammunition clips safely for instant access. It can be clipped on to a jacket, bag or belt.
In recent years, “digicam” is a phrase that’s been thrown around a lot when describing military camouflage. Referring mainly to heavily pixellated, tonal patterns, lo-resolution digital camouflage was thought to blur more effectively than more traditional larger patterns.
However, the results are not always effective. Pixellated patterns are composed of straight lines, which do not occur in nature, meaning that up close, this micropattern camouflage is easily distinguishable. More successful at close distances are higher resolution, curvilinear patterns like MultiCam. While still constructed digitally, the shapes blend more easily with natural surroundings than the stiff squares of pixellated digicam. This culminated in a high-profile failure recently when the US Army announced that after a $5bn (€4bn) investment, their digital camouflage design would be scrapped.
Having debuted in 2004 to much fanfare, heralding it as the future of disruptive patterns across all terrain, the new designs proved ineffective in almost all combat environments. The rather ambitiously named Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) has now been retired in favour of MultiCam.
Almost a decade after publication, DPM by Hardy Blechman remains the reference point for camouflage design. Curated by Maharishi founder Hardy Blechman, this encyclopaedic work (right) reclaimed “disruptive patterns” from military associations and documented the ways in which these patterns are found in nature and have been deployed throughout human history. With more than six years of research culminating in a doorstep of a book including over 6,000 images, it’s essential reading for anyone interested in this area of design.