Entrepreneurs Forum

Brand awareness

Friday 17 February 2012 6:00

We may not have just conquered the Eiger but we want to appear as if we have – while still looking good on the train, as Josh Sims reports.

“Look at the way water breaks on it into beads and runs off,” says Donrad Duncan. “That’s an example of how nature provides ideas that we try to emulate. It requires a lot of research and development.” Duncan, however, is no fruiterer but the designer of a new Italian clothing company called Ma.Strum.

“Most industries apply the latest technologies wherever they can, but that’s much less so in the clothing business,” he says. “The object of clothing design needs to be much more about benefitting the user – and I say user rather than customer.” The approach is, however, catching on. Ma. Strum is, of course, not the first brand to look at fashion with a more functional approach – clothing as tool rather than trend.

Ma.Strum itself is co-created with the Massimo Osti Studio in Italy, revered among menswear aficionados for its pioneering fabric technologies and creating the Stone Island brand. Duncan’s previous job was designing advanced clothing for Swiss Army knife-maker Victorinox, which is moving increasingly into the lifestyle market. Indeed, such is the demand for smart clothing – in the sense of utilitarian design as much as style – that it is increasingly seeing the same market open up for its originators; those brands that have long developed it for specialist use, but which have found customers keen to wear the kit as much to the mall as the moors. According to Paul Anderton,

European merchandising manager for Patagonia – previously of Saloman and Berghaus – in large, part of the new appeal of such specialist clothing lies in the greater awareness of, and demand for, durability and utility which has been fostered by the recession. “When they have less money to spend people look for clothes that are especially versatile in all situations and are prepared to invest in those that are durable, waterproof, breathable, that have the right pockets and fastenings and so on, rather than pay less for something that just looks like it might have that functionality,” he says.

A more educated consumer – aware as much about cloth and construction as brands, thanks in large part to access to information via the internet – has helped fuel interest too. And a breakdown in dress codes that has seen less and less need for formality in the nine-to-five working world have also encouraged the transition of technical clothing from its intended purpose to tackling the trials of more everyday life.

The specialist brands have certainly preempted this demand too – by providing styles, most notably in outerwear, that look the part as much in an urban environment as in the traditionally day-glo world of outdoor sports. Anderton notes that supreme utility is not enough if the garment looks unappealing, especially for women, for whom colour, silhouette and the right details remain just as important.

And according to Tim Jasper, brand director of Rohan: “There has been a demand for those items of clothing in particular that move away from that highly functional aesthetic that specialist clothing has traditionally had and towards retaining that functionality in more wearable styles.

That can be a problem for the guy who wants to look as though he has just come down off the Eiger, but it works much better for the guy who wants to do that and then not look too out of place waiting for a train.”

Rohan, which has seen business expand to encompass 60 own-brand stores nationally, has consequently introduced the likes of fleeces that look more like conventional knitwear and general use, deconstructed blazer-type jackets that also happen to be abrasion-resistant, crease-resistant, breathable and machine-washable.

And, Jasper notes enthusiastically, with zips on the pockets. The demand for clothing that has as much panache as practicality has spread across sports too. As across the dale, up a mountain or on the snow, so too at sea. If fashion brands have developed their own specialist clothing for sailing over recent years – Prada, for example, has its Luna Rossa line, already with annual sales of more than E20m, while Italian luxury textiles company Loro Piana has recently launched its Regatta clothing collection to celebrate its Superyacht Regatta competition – so specialist sailing brands are becoming more aware that their clothes are not just being worn on deck.

“Marine brands have to be careful not to dilute their perception in the rather insular marine market, but there is no question that the market is developing an appreciation that a technical garment should look as good as it possibly can,” says Matt Gill, product development manager for the Gill brand.

“Now consumers don’t just want bright red, yellow or navy, for example. Up until just a few years ago you would never see classic black. It might be low-visibility in the water but it looks good and has seen real demand.”

Nor is Gill Clothing alone in pursuing more pleasing aesthetics to their specialised clothing. Norwegian brand Helly Hansen has sought to blur the fashion/function boundary with its new Ask advanced sportswear line. Henri Lloyd has teamed up with Japanese fabric and chemical manufacturer Teijin to launch Blue Eco, sailing’s first fully recyclable, waterproof/breathable collection.

But while recessionary pressures, practical lifestyles and changes to the design approach by manufacturers may all be important in shaping this growing cross-over market, none of that touches on one of utilitarian clothing’s biggest draws – image – and especially so for men. The clothing might suggest an outdoorsy life rarely actually lived – “the technical jacket says you’re healthy, active, practical,” as Anderon puts it – but it also suggests a certain old-fashioned manliness that is big in fashion right now.

A trend for workwear-oriented style – backpacks, heavy boots, chunky knitwear – has seen technical outerwear embraced in particular, especially any in line with the growing appreciation for so-called heritage brands. “And this rugged aesthetic not only suits the times, but its comfort and practicality means it’s likely to last much longer than most trends,” says Alastair Rae, co-founder of British menswear brand Albam, which has launched a line of parkas made from Ventile, one of the original, WW2-era technical fabrics.

“It may be fashionable but in a way this is a new appreciation for clothing that is beyond fashion, clothing that is made to be fit for purpose.”

All images courtesy Ma.Strum. http://mastrum.com