When the going gets tough, the tough get going and start their own mountain clothing range. Two ex Royal Marines are attacking the market with their own lean, mean, extreme line, called Jöttnar. We bring you dispatches from their front line.
It all started in a snow hole during a fierce storm in Norway. Two Royal Marines, used to Arctic conditions and wearing the same gear for weeks, and, also seasoned mountaineers, decide that, one day, they will create the ultimate technical mountain clothing.
Since leaving the Marines and a learning curve steeper than the north face of the Eiger, co-founders, Tommy Kelly and Steve Howarth are hitting their stride in their second winter season with their premium brand, Jöttnar.
While many would have buckled under the challenges of manufacturing the ultimate functional mountain wear, let alone going into combat with the established outdoor clothing forces, they persisted, like true Marines, rigorously testing, pushing the limits, doggedly determined not to give up on their high technical standards nor give in to the mass market pressures.
As they say on the Jöttnar website: ‘The route ahead is steep and cold; exactly how we like it’.
Tommy Kelly talks about the journey from that snow hole to creating the Jöttnar brand – and, why, developing just one pair of salopettes was like a military operation.
So what exactly made you decide to jump into the outdoor clothing market?
It started several years ago in a snow hole in Arctic Norway when Steve and I were both serving in the Marines. We’re both lifelong climbers, mountaineers, skiers; we’re also two guys who’ve spent thousands of pounds on gear over the years and as consumers, we felt a distaste for the increasing commoditization of outdoor clothing; an over-abundance of ‘lifestyle colours’ and endless product choices; a churning out of ranges so broad as to be almost indecipherable.
The Royal Marines in Arctic action. Photo: Tommy Kelly
At the outset we knew little about sourcing factories, fabric suppliers, the design and development process, but what we did have between us was 30 or so years of operational experience and knowing what it’s like to live in the same pair of trousers for four months – which is a way of saying, ‘we get how important clothing is in hostile environments’.
Within the outdoor sector there appears increasingly to be a race to the bottom amongst a lot of the big brands. Because of the market, because of the congestion and therefore the competitiveness, many have gone from being very specialist niche suppliers to being providers of ‘something for everybody’ – or lifestyle product wear. They’re competing with one another to distribute through supermarket-style retailers and outlets - competing on price, discounting aggressively and broadening their product offering to the extent that much of it seems to bear no relation at all to the mountains, in order to pursue increasingly peripheral consumers. The heart and soul that should exist in a sector built around the outdoors, just seems increasingly absent.
We firmly believed that there was space for a new, ultra-focused brand that was entirely committed to creating gear for serious outdoor people.
So are you saying that you would never sell out?
What we are doing is producing something that is very focused, for a very specific and defined end user. And we’re producing it to a quality that is genuinely fit for purpose.
We’re not trying to pursue the broad market I described, offering all things to all people. When I look at some of these global giants, I do wonder if they still remember why they’re in business - or when the last time was that their CEO tied into a rope.
But you have investors. Do they all dangle off ropes?
We seeded the business with our own savings, although we now have a private investor behind us. Steve and I remain as the decision makers and the brand guardians, though.
But we’re fortunate that our backer is a genuine outdoorsman who intrinsically gets what we are trying to do.
Going into the Dragon’s Den wouldn’t have worked, then?
The Dragon’s Den? Haha. No.
But when we first began we knew our own funds would only take us so far, but between the pair of us we were able to get ourselves through design, prototyping, branding and web development – although we did live on a diet of toast for about two years.
Then we needed serious money to move into bulk production, launch, range expansion and beyond.
But don’t most investors just want to make loads of money?
Of course – any investor expects a return, but they all have different timelines. The ideal investor for us needed to have strategic patience and a willingness to take a long term view.
We could, if we wanted, prioritise short-term victories by chasing high volume sales at all costs. Or we could play a longer game and invest in the brand, invest in our product, invest in the right people and partners and thus build something with real depth and integrity.
This is arguably a far more valuable proposition from an investor’s prospective.
So what about the actual production of your range? UK or abroad?
In the beginning, we didn’t consider for a moment that we wouldn’t be able to produce in the UK.
But as soon as we started looking to weld, stitch and bond materials in the way we wanted, with a level of craftsmanship we thought was essential in such a competitive space, we discovered that the capacity just doesn’t exist in this country. It was heart-breaking.
So we started sampling and prototyping with a handful of European factories. And with Chinese factories, as well.
When the samples came back to us, the craftsmanship and attention to detail from the Chinese was head and shoulders above what we were able to get in Europe. And economically it was far more viable.
So the decision made itself and we have partnered with the best Chinese factories we could find.
Attention to detail
But one of the challenges for us at the beginning of the development process, as an unknown minnow two years ago, was to find factories that would partner with a company that hadn’t even begun trading yet.
We’re talking about factories that produce quantities for very well-known brands in the thousands and thousands and we come along as a complete unknown, knocking on their door, and say we’d like to produce this tiny amount.
Did you literally go over and knock on doors in China? Or go through an agent?
Yeah, we knocked on doors physically; we knocked on doors digitally – and it began with Steve and I and a kitchen table and the Internet, following up leads and visiting factories.
We spread the net across five or six to begin with because we didn’t want to end up discovering, further on down the line that we’d partnered with the wrong factory that wasn’t able to produce to that quality standard that we were obsessed with from the start. And that did prove to be the case.
When the time came to commit the money, we’d found two factories that were able to operate to that standard and to produce within the time frames that we needed – as well as the tiny order quantities that were so important to us because that was all we could afford. This was our own money out of our own pockets.
So it wasn’t a steep learning curve but a complete overhang of a learning curve. We were in the darkness throughout the early stages, the two of us stumbling around, banging our heads on all sorts of unforeseen obstacles. And just persevering.
So do you see the light now? The top of the mountain?
Oh, no. We’re still in the thick of it.
But I remember, two years ago, thinking that when we managed to get our hands on our first prototype then that would be it. Life would have solved itself and there we would be, living the dream.
Then you get there and, of course, all these other considerations have heaped themselves up on you so, no, we haven’t reached the top of the mountain. In fact, it continually grows as we climb.
And your first season? How was it?
We launched commercially on October 1st, 2013. After two years of design development, prototyping, everything we’ve spoken about, we started online with our web shop with a very small range of items. Six items all told, and with virtually zero budget for any meaningful amount of supporting publicity or marketing. It was just us, telling our story wherever we could, travelling up and down the country, selling gear from the back of the van, and sponsoring a small handful of interesting expeditions where we could afford to do so. We’d built a small pro team of professional British mountain guides, who’d been closely involved in our product design and development, and these guys too were beating the jungle drums.
Climbing the slippery retail market
Last season exceeded our expectations and hopes. Within six weeks we’d sold out of a number of lines and we’d taken on three independent specialist retailers. And, within the first month or two we’d secured possibly the most glowing reviews we could have hoped for from some of the most credible sources. And I suppose the very early signs of acceptance within a busy and competitive market were starting to show themselves.
Crucially, for a business, the sales that we made in our first year have been such that we have been able to plough a lot of that back into production, allowing us to add some exciting new items for next year.
So you have extended the line from six items?
Yes, we’ve brought on board another four items which will join our existing six pieces. We’ve added extra size options as well so we offer XS and XL on top of S,M and L that we’re doing at the moment.
How significant is the ski and snowboard market for you?
Our focus, in the first year, was very much mountaineering and winter climbing. We felt it was important to launch on a narrow front in order to penetrate and establish a foothold in the market – and begin growing a position of strength.
Initial focus on mountaineering
And, with that in progress, our next step is to develop our ski-specific range and this will be for next season, winter 15/16. But, that said, a lot of our customers for this first year have been skiers and ski mountaineers. The shell jacket and the salopettes, in particular, have been popular. They’re made from Polartec NeoShell, which is a fully waterproof, breathable membrane that is also really stretchable so it allows you to cut it a little bit more athletically.
NeoShell is a genuinely incredible material and fortuitously it became available just at the time that we were sampling and testing different membranes. From a performance perspective, held alongside other breathable membranes, it ticks all of the boxes that we as climbers, skiers and mountaineers feel are so important.
The ski market is very style conscious as well as performance orientated. There are a lot of jackets out there from a lot of well-known brands. How do you think you can compete?
We’re not trying to follow fashion or to be all things to all people. From a visual perspective, I think we offer a mature, quietly confident and solid aesthetic; something that isn’t dictated by seasonal fashion trends and buying vagaries.
Alison Culshaw, Off Piste Performance (Jöttnar Pro Team)
So you don’t believe in buying a new jacket every season to keep up with the style trends?
I think that if you make something properly then people shouldn’t require a new one every season. But then we aren’t naïve enough to think that there isn’t an appetite for innovation and new product, at least, on a regular basis. The factor that drives our product development, over and above anything else, is the issue of need. There has to be a genuine case for each new product in performance terms – and it also has to add value to existing items.
If we start chasing style trends, we immediately hand over the reins to something completely out of our control, and the integrity of the company would rapidly dissolve.
Fjorm down jacket, £295 and Alfar mid-layer, £180
What are the new items for this season?
Our yak wool blended base layer, which has been two years in trialling and testing. It’s better than Merino. So soft, so strong, ultra breathable and a really lovely fabric to wear.
This gives the range a coherency so there is effectively every layer in a layering system taken care of.
We’ve also got a new soft shell jacket – similar to our waterproof breathable shell jacket. It’s not as waterproof but softer, more breathable and particularly suited to northern Europe and North America where they tend to have a colder but dryer climate.
There’s an uber light version of our down jacket that is still really high quality down, still hydrophobic but a lot lighter, more packable. A little bit more versatile.
Our fourth new item is a shell jacket using Neoshell but a really lightweight summer-Alpine-specific version that is still ultra breathable, completely waterproof, nice and soft to the touch. It’s about stripping away everything so you have everything you need, nothing that you don’t. It will pack down into something about the size of an orange.
Pah! You have all this for men, but even less for women, this season?
If only women bought more! In this market space, the women are a niche within a niche and when you are dealing with factories and fabric suppliers who operate with minimum order quantities you need to be absolutely certain that the customer volume exists.
We were advised so many times not to bother, not to waste our time, not to waste our money, in pursuing the female market. I’m genuinely proud that we did, though, even if it was just two items that we brought out, and I do hope we can build on it.
As we grow and the female market becomes more aware of us then no one will be more delighted than me – and my wife – if we can produce everything that we do for the men’s in women’s versions. Believe me, it’s nothing to do with chauvinism.
What are your mountain sports?
A bit of everything. Mountaineering, winter climbing, ice climbing, rock climbing, snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, paddling. I love the mountains and I love the outdoors. I’ve lived and worked in the outdoors for most of my adult life, as has Steve.
Love of the mountains
What is your favourite item from your collection? If you had to choose one?
I am most proud of the salopettes and that’s because of the sheer design and engineering challenge that went into getting them right.
There are so many considerations in designing a pair of salopettes, so many different components, that all need to work with one another. So many different performance characteristics, fabric considerations, aesthetic considerations that you need to get right.
And each one of these considerations consumed God knows how many hours and tears and endless back-to-the-drawing-board moments to get right. But to have actually got them into production in a version that we were happy with - and more importantly, our customers were happy with - was a truly brilliant feeling.
So what makes them better than any other salopettes?
I’ve a pair here to show you. Starting with the fabric, Polartec Neoshell. It’s lightweight, waterproof, breathable, stretchy. Just feel it, it’s got a lovely soft handle to it.
Vanir , the ultimate salopettes, £350
And look at these kick patches. This is Kevlar so you can kick away to your hearts content with your front points and sharp ski edges. As a climber, myself, I have destroyed so many pairs of my own salopettes because they just weren’t robust enough. And these come with a pair of zip-in gaiters to prevent snow coming over the boots.
Then there’s the articulation that went into the knees, here, to deliver that pre-formed slight bend. It’s very easy to say, but in practice from a construction perspective, it’s very difficult to get right.
Even deciding on the quality and length of the zip meant testing many prototype variations in the field by ourselves and our pro team of climbers. The zip stops there because if it goes up any higher and you’re wearing a climbing harness, with all of your gear hanging off it for five to seven hours at a time, it’ll start to create a real pressure point. Of course, you only know that if you test and test and test and test - and go through multiple versions to try and get it right.
There’s a soft woven panel on the back where your rucksack will sit and you tend to sweat or get clammy. Although the membrane here is ultra breathable, nonetheless we put the most breathable, stretchable fabric that we could source on that particular part.
There’s also the orientating of the zip pockets that are vertically aligned so you only need one hand as opposed to using two if they were horizontal aligned.
We also made sure that all of the internal seam taping is as tight and tidy as possible, reducing the joint density where the panels join in order to reduce bulk and weight and pressure points.
And, to most people, it’s just a metal buckle and completely unexciting, but the different buckle samples we went through to get something that had the right look and feel to be ultra lightweight and slim line, well, we must have tested 50 different buckles. We then had them electro-plated so, over time, when they start to get scratched they don’t then start to rust.
We used a particular grade of elastic for the braces. It sounds really geeky and obsessive, but we trialled so many different grades just searching for something that has the right handle, the right feel, the right density. Many different varieties of elastic exist in the world and I think we’ve seen most of them by now!
Tell me about the name. Did you deliberately choose one that sounds foreign?
Although spelt differently, the name originates from Norse myth and tells the tale of the ‘frost giants’ who lived amongst the snow and ice of the high mountains – confining man to his lowland valleys. Man’s protector, Thor, ultimately defeated the frost giants and our logo is a representation of his hammer.
Jöttnar also nods to the origins of the company, when Steve and I were in northern Norway with the Royal Marines. We used to go out there for about three to four months every winter, which was a regular part of being in the Marines, who are charged with the defence of NATO’s northern flank, and who have developed an expertise in mountain and arctic warfare.
Jottnar founders, Tommy Kelly and Steve Howarth
We were massively inspired by the Norwegian landscape, the brutality of the weather, but also the beauty, elegance and purity of it. This is something we’ve tried to incorporate into our design.
And did you say, ‘Y’ottnar? So that’s how you pronounce it…