Temperatures are falling, rain be a comin’ and soon, the snow will be flying. It’s these months of the year when flip flops and summer short-shorts get relegated to the back of the closet, the warmth and comfort of winter clothing slowly starts to make its way to the front again.
Base layers are an integral part of winter wear, keeping warmth as close as possible to the source – your own skin. One of the most effective base layers is wool, its natural fibers superior to polyester and polypropylene synthetics in terms of warmth-to-weight ratio. The problem with traditional wool is its scratchy feel to the skin and the tendency to shrink in the washing machine, but in the early ’90s New Zealander Jeremy Moon tried wearing one of the first garments made from 100 per cent merino wool, the fibers offering all the natural antibacterial properties of traditional wool, without the itch.
Since then Moon has managed to grow his company Icebreaker from a travelling salesman peddling thermals out of a suitcase to a global company with annual sales exceeding $200 million. Twenty years on, Icebreaker continues to innovate, now reinforcing its technical garments with Corespun technology (wrapping merino wool around strands of nylon to strengthen the weave against ruptures) and even developing its own line of “puffy” jackets with MerinoLoft. In this interview with Icebreaker’s founder, he talks about his humble beginnings, defying the status quo and unlocking “Nature’s secret.”
MSA: The return of wool in the form of merino garments has been viewed by many as “Nature’s Second Coming” in the outdoor clothing market. From your first sales pitches in the ’90s, how long did it take for the industry to begin taking notice of merino?
JM: My dream when I started Icebreaker was bigger than what was in those first five merino samples in my grandfather’s suitcase. As I was driving around selling to outdoor stores, pitching them on this new concept from nature called merino, I was dreaming about how to disrupt the outdoor industry. It seemed so crazy that everything was made from synthetic plastics. We were trying to give customers a chance to buy outdoor clothing which was high tech and natural instead. It took seven years before the idea really started to move. In the first year, our sales were $110,000 and it took 10 years to get to $10 million. This year we will do over $200 million so the last few years have been a very wild ride, and beyond my dreams.
Those first few years were very tough. I was working 100 hour weeks, but it was our first customers and first retailers that really built Icebreaker.
MSA: Was there a greater international push towards sustainability in the 90’s and 2000’s that helped fuel the rise of Icebreaker?
JM: The push towards sustainability only really started 10 years ago in a big way, but for me it wasn’t about the trend, it was just a founding natural truth. If you are making a natural product, you have to build a highly sustainable company in order to deliver beautiful natural products – it’s common sense. The latest consumer mega trends around wellness and health and products that are good for you has helped us immensely, but we have always tried to simply do the right thing and I’m very proud of our strong social and environmental ethics.
MSA: You have said in a past interview that “Tokenism is the enemy of sustainability, and consumers have an acute sense of smell.” Can you explain your reasoning behind that statement?
JM: It used to really piss me off that people would do stuff like recycled buttons and then call the garment ‘green’ without considering the whole. If you want to make a green product you have to build a green company. There are no shortcuts and every choice needs to be conscious and aware of the trade-offs. I am very proud of what we have built, and can genuinely say that Icebreaker is deeply committed to its sustainable values and behaviors. We’re constantly searching for even better sustainable solutions when possible. The inside is the same as the outside, and that’s what integrity means to me.
MSA: Now that Icebreaker has helped make merino wool a staple of the outdoor industry, how does the company innovate and continue to stay at the forefront of garment development and design?
JM: We have a product development cycle that works two years into the future and we are constantly testing new ideas internally and externally with customers. Our customers and our team are aligned; we are adventurous, authentic, and passionate about the product and about adventures in nature.We are filled with a sense of excitement around innovation and creativity to understand what nature can really deliver. There is so much technology within certain natural fibers, merino in particular, and it’s about unlocking nature’s secrets.