By Jahla Seppanen
Jim McNamara, managing director at Craghoppers, waited patiently for close to 15 years before transitioning the long-standing U.K. brand to American soil. Although still in mass operation across the Atlantic, Craghoppers is now bringing its new Adventure Travel Range, NosiLife, to U.S. outdoor and travel consumers.
This cautious look-before-you-leap approach has been credited for the mounting acceptance Craghoppers has received in U.S. markets.
And although the apparel is still currently designed – and manufactured – in the U.K. and Asia, McNamara expects to see great shifts in design and brand strategy, as dictated by the unique personality of American buyers.
Craghoppers initially thought the ticket that would bring them to America was in teaming with celebrity star power on a unique and gritty line. The niche: high-performance gear made for die-hard, technical outdoor survivalists. Their celebrity: British explorer famous for giving himself an enema to survive days lost at sea, known for the show “Man vs. Wild,” Bear Grylls.
“Bear said to me, ‘Jim, you need to take branding to America,’” said McNamara, in an exclusive SGB interview at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market (ORSM). “But the problem was they didn’t want a technical apparel range.”
After constant reimaginings, Craghoppers landed a win with its new collection of NosiLife Adventure Travel wear. The range made it past concept, design and eventually to American shores, where retailers for the 2016 Spring/Summer season have latched to the apparel for its technical yet lifestyle-driven flair.
“We brought our Adventure Travel range to a market that is already quite competitive,” said McNamara, adding that the difference Craghoppers lends to a landscape dominated by the Columbia’s and Patagonia’s of the industry harken to its Euro-roots. “We created a big range with European styles, like more fit and not a lot of volume.” So far, these Euro-infused cues have kept up with changes in American consumer trends, such as bolder prints and colors in place of traditional neutrals.
Although seemingly minor, bringing European color patterns and more tailored fits to its U.S. line was a risky move for Craghoppers. The brand took another leap when it added more offerings for women. McNamara said, “We were prepared to take a bigger risk on women, because after all, it’s fashion.”
By blending fashion cues with well thought out technical details that don’t overpower the apparel, Craghoppers joins other popular brands that have made a strategic transition away from the purely technical and toward making products that can also be considered lifestyle pieces.
This trend was heavily represented at ORSM, in perhaps one of the strongest shifts made by big and small brands alike – to consider both fashion and function equally important.
Craghoppers didn’t skip a beat, proving itself as adaptive as the rest. And they did it without the support and insights of an American-based design team with its hand on the pulse of U.S. purchasers.
The shift from purely performance-made pieces and into a new style focus may have surprised some hardcore adventure enthusiasts who don’t need, or even care, to look good after a day’s 14er hike. But this small percentage of users did not silence the larger slice of the American pie, which comes as a surprise for an industry dedicated to the outdoors and performance activities. Even McNamara expressed amazement that the Craghoppers’ line now has a whole new category of dresses. “We’re an outdoor company selling dresses!” McNamara said.
“You won’t see any more nerdy safari shirts,” he added, and continued to explain that travel is just the hook, while fashion is what keeps the line selling.
Before the spike in what is still a small American business for the U.K. mammoths, Craghoppers was sought by an American magazine while showing early ranges at ORSM two years ago.
McNamara recalled the story when, in a much smaller booth at OR, representatives from National Geographic came to see some of the first American offerings brought by Craghoppers. These pieces included much of what the brand is famous for in the U.K., such as its Insect Shield fabric weave, protective collars, zip-secure pockets and waterproof apparel. Nat Geo wasn’t aimlessly browsing the floor. They were looking for an official apparel partner.
“They were looking around, paid for a range, and it took a year of testing but they liked the products,” said McNamara. That’s the real secret to success, McNamara continued. “If you get the product right, you can find the market.”
National Geographic felt comradery with the Craghoppers story, while also being confident from strenuous testing around the globe that the apparel would hold up in the field. Craghoppers was named the official apparel partner of National Geographic, on a five-year rolling contract. As of June 2014, National Geographic’s Paid and Verified circulation amounted to more than 3.5 million, making it one of the Top 25 U.S. Consumer Magazines according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
“It’s an icon,” McNamara said. “And it’s given us a bit of confidence. Years ago people would have laughed at us being here (at ORSM).”
Another benefit that came with the partnership was that Craghoppers now had an official group of apparel testers. The company listens to explorers’ feedback, altering products to perform better based off these in-the-field recommendations. For instance, Craghoppers’ 2016 Adventure Travel range incudes features like crease-resistant fabric, hidden passport pockets, sewn-in sunglass cleaner, vented back design, drying loops and RFDI credit card protection.
What Americans Really Want
Now that the brand has transitioned to the U.S., McNamara is certain, “We are going to double the business this year.” And still, despite keeping with American fashion trends and gaining a big-name sponsor, he does not believe either move is the main cause of the brand’s American success.
“American buyers want to know you’re here long-term. A lot of companies come to the U.S. and are gone the next season,” said McNamara. Craghoppers’ long-standing reputation across the pond provides American consumers with reassurance. Newly founded brands are not able to trumpet this level of experience. “People can go on the internet and see how the brand is established,” McNamara added.
Security in the potential lifespan and visibility of a new brand is not an issue for Craghoppers. The brand overwhelms the search function on Google with pages of social media, apparel reviews and heritage information. However, Craghoppers does face challenges in coming to the U.S., such as growing its five-employee New Hampshire office and bringing on an American design team. But McNamara is not shaken. “We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
It’s endearing to see such a big brand meet many of the same uphill battles and self conscious sentiments ordinarily reserved for smaller outdoor contenders. But Craghoppers has the optimism of a much younger company. Its willingness to change and adapt to new market demands is refreshing, and furthermore essential for the outdoor industry.