Rab's Shell Technology Propels U.S. Expansion

Designing clothes to meet the most extreme of conditions (including the icy arctic) requires implementing bold ideas, a plan of attack familiar to Matt Gowar.
Fabric At A Glance
  • Company: Equip Outdoor Technologies Ltd.; Derbyshire, UK
  • Brand: Rab
  • Fabric: eVent
  • Fabric Characteristics: Shell fabrics made with nylon
  • eVent's Notable Properties: "Dry System," high comfort, dissipates and vents perspiration without saturating inside fabric.
  • Membrane characteristics: Open-pore structure blocks water but enables perspiration to escape through membrane's microscopic "nano vents."
  • The founder of Equip Outdoor Technologies Ltd., a Derbyshire, U.K.- based marketer of highly specialized, technical outdoor equipment and apparel under several brands, has profited by embracing concepts that seemed unconventional at the time - only to reveal themselves to be ahead of the curve.
    One such strategic decision, recently made by the company, was to select eVent's shell fabrics technology, a relatively new innovation, to be its exclusive foundational fabric for apparel and accessories sold under Equip's "Rab" and "outdoordesigns" brands.
    basis which is what this business is about," says Gowar. "We chose to move the whole business to eVent. We felt they were the right partner."
    It's a move that paid off in dividends says Gowar, especially as his company continues to grow.
    The waterproof membrane eVent fabrics are part of GE Energy's product portfolio (GE Energy acquired the technology, unveiled earlier this decade, through its purchase of BHA Group Inc. in 2004).
    A key eVent
    Gowar's investment in eVent caps 16 years of working in the outdoor apparel industry. Starting as a sales representative for several brands, he says he later created "outdoordesigns," specializing in technical winter accessories and related products.
    In 2003, his company acquired "Rab," which focuses on producing shell jackets, from founder and famed British mountaineer Rab Carrington. "He wanted to sell the business to someone he knew was going to nurture the brand, not wreck it by sticking it on a T-shirt," Gowar says.
    Faced with competing fabric technologies - Rab had recently selected eVent, while outdoordesigns utilized a different fabric provider - Gowar made the pivotal decision to transfer the entire unified line to eVent. "I thought about who would have the best performing technology over the next five years," he said. "We made the switch and handed back that [other] license, which is pretty unique in this industry."
    Open-pore structure offers greater breathability, quick drying
    Like other technically conceived fabrics, eVent was designed initially for nonapparel filtration applications. It is positioned against other competing shell technologies that utilize a polyurethane (PU) membrane; eVent says that its fabric is alternatively constructed using oil-repellent ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene) film.
    Such a fabrication offers a unique dual appeal, says Gowar. "eVent is so different because of its open pore structure," he says. "It doesn't need the PU coating to protect the membrane. The first benefit to the user is increased breathability." eVent's proprietary shell fabric is designed with millions of tiny "nano vents."
    Gowar says the other major advantages to eVent's construction, particularly for his active consumers, are its drying and quick-venting attributes.
    Discussing alternative PU shells, he states: "When you put that PU layer on a membrane to protect it, that PU layer actually absorbs the moisture, which is then passed through that PU layer and then into the membrane. By nature, then, it's really a 'wet system.' You end up feeling damp and clammy inside. So with eVent those breathability and dryness properties are really key differentiators for us."
    Gowar says other face fabrics constructed with eVent provide additional performance, including abrasion resistance and lighter weight, and are often integrated into the company's products based on regional demand for the particular attribute.
    He notes that Rab provides different styles of mountaineering shells and insulated jackets in its key sales territories of the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States.
    "It's a shorter more technical product in the U.S., whereas we provide different, simpler styles for the U.K. market that tend to sell better there," he says. "For us, it's really all about the [eVent] membrane and what that membrane provides is breathability and comfort."
    eVent's lab testing cites exceptionally low water vapor resistance and high moisture vapor transmission with its product. But, as its web site notes, the brand places greater emphasis on field testimonials from extreme photographers to adventure racers. On the site, for example, Rab's sales marketing manager Neil McAdie credits the fabric for keeping him dry in a storm-heavy 10,000- foot Alpine peak climb.
    American designs
    Gowar credits eVent for helping his company reach threefold growth over the past four years. He says the success paves the way for his company to venture further into the United States, with plans to open an operational office in the second half of 2008. (Currently its U.S. clientele is comprised of just 20 U.S. outdoor specialty retailers.)
    Gowar says his plans are influenced by positive feedback, including from exhibitors at the Outdoor Retailer Show. "I don't know how many stores I visited that have said 'we're going to bring this in in 12 months,' so I have yet to have negative feedback on eVent. What that tells me is we need to spend more time [in the U.S.] and we'll get more dealers."
    As for field testing its products, the company works with a few professional mountain guides that use the product "quite intensively," he says, "so you get good feedback in a relatively short period of time. It's a good accelerated way to test a product." Six months usage by them, he elaborates, equates to about five years by a typical consumer.
    The next big decision for Gowar is where to base his new U.S. operations. The Rockies, the West Coast (for its proximity to China) and northeast New England (for its closer distance to Rab headquarters) all offer distinct advantages.
    "We've done a pretty good job with the brand," he says. "By no means am I a brand expert. But I'm pretty sure I've proven I know what I'm doing - in an immodest British way."   Apparel
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