Ten years ago, you probably wouldn’t be seen dead in the high street wearing a weatherproof jacket and trekking boots. But outdoor clothing these days is more to do with style than substance. Gloria McShane talks to one North East company conquering the world in rugged wear.
RUMMAGE through the average wardrobe in the UK and you’ll find staples such as fleeces and multi-activity shoes, says Richard Cotter. “Outdoor wear has got to the point where it’s transcending the activity,” says the brand president of Sunderland-based company Berghaus.
In other words, customers who flock to Berghaus – which translates from the German as mountain hut – are not just trekkers, mountain bikers and climbers.
“The recreational customers are as important to us as someone who’s going to climb Mont Blanc,” says Richard.
The company is prepared to shell out serious amounts of cash on creating its outdoor image.
“We have two consumer bases. One consists of the active people, such as the walkers and climbers. The other group are more recreational, doing things like taking a family walk around Kielder Water.
“The same thing happened about 15 years ago with sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas. You no longer had to be athletic to wear them.”
And it’s not just in the UK that fashionistas are turning to the fit and wild look – it’s also happening across Europe and Asia.
That’s why Berghaus is on a major export drive to capture a bigger share of global outdoor wear sales.
Already one of the top outdoor clothing brands in Europe, and the number-one UK line, with 30% of the market here, it has set its sights on exploding the nucleus of brands, such as American firms North Face and Columbia, that dominate the world stage.
“We want to catapult ourselves from the second-tier group to the top five,” says Richard.
So Berghaus has begun an exhaustive trawl of near and far markets to achieve this, most recently clinching licensing deals to extend its reach into the wealthy Asian markets.
In Japan the company has signed an agreement with major player Arugo Active, while in Korea its licensee is E-Land, one of the country’s top four retailers.
The two markets are very different, says Richard. Korean capital Seoul has a population of more than 10 million, but its city dwellers like to escape to the lofty open spaces that tower over their city.
“From the middle of Seoul you can be in the mountains in an hour, so there’s a big market for the active walker or climber. I’d say that 70% of our Korean market is in that category.”
Japan, on the other hand, is more superficial, with at least two-thirds of Berghaus buyers in the recreational category – they appreciate nature, but they’ll wear out their Berghaus boots tramping the pavements of Tokyo rather than hiking up Mount Fuji.
The company also has designs on the massive Chinese market where a major licensing deal is anticipated shortly.
The company already outsources some manufacturing to China, and its suppliers have not been affected by the recent earthquake disaster.
At the same time, it’s extending its reach into Europe.
In the past year alone it has signed new distribution or sales agreements for Spain, Portugal, Poland, Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia, helping Berghaus – which is part of the Pentland Group of brands that also includes Boxfresh and Red or Dead – to double turnover to £50m in the past five years.
It’s a long way from the company’s birth in 1966. Set up by North East climbers Peter Lockey and Gordon Davison, it began its long hike to the top as specialist outdoor store LD Mountain Centre in Newcastle, later developing a brand of outdoor wear.
“It’s a cliche, but the world is becoming a smaller place,” says Richard.
And Berghaus is clearly aiming to scale the heights.