In this series of profiles, we aim to bring you closer to the people that make up the Rab family; the characters that have shaped the history of the company and those who are driving us forward into the future. What inspires them? How has working for the company influenced their lives? We will bring you profiles from across the Rab staff spectrum, from designers with the vision of tomorrow’s products to the warehouse staff who ensure your local Rab stockist receives their deliveries on time and in order – everyone has a story, and through this series, we want to tell it.
This month we sit down with Kate Ennis, Rab’s newly promoted Senior Designer, to discuss her path into design, what it takes to become a skilled designer in the outdoor clothing industry and how her passion and dedication to climbing shapes her approach to design.
When did you first become aware of the brand?
I’m from Ambleside, in the Lake District, so obviously I’ve always been surrounded by the outdoors and I’ve worked in outdoor shops; my grandma worked in an outdoor shop too. She worked in the first outdoor shop in Ambleside, which is now Adventure Peaks. So I always knew about Rab but I didn’t have any Rab products when I was younger. The first time I bought a Rab jacket, it was an Ascent down jacket, all my family had that jacket. I loved it, I thought it was the best thing ever. I’ve been working for the company for six years now.
So what led you to become a designer?
I studied fashion design with business down in Brighton, but it was a very avant-garde, conceptual degree. It wasn’t commercial in terms of fashion, it was very whacky, anything went really. That was really cool, only 15 of us on the course, and I think when I was doing that I always thought I’d become a little designer in London doing one-off things. But then, after uni, I went off travelling with my boyfriend around the world for two years climbing, living in vans. So after that, the ideals of this niche designer idea didn’t really fit into my lifestyle anymore. Why would I wear a pretty little dress when I lived in a van?!
We got back and I decided I wanted to design my own climbing trousers, I felt there was a bit of a gap in the market, so I set up my own climbing brand called ‘Godsrock’. I think maybe in hindsight it probably wasn’t the best name, people thought it had religious connotations! But really it was about Gods own rock and living in Yorkshire, climbing on the gritstone. I had a small range and a website and sold it in a few places. I was doing the designing, producing and selling of it, just me. It was hard! I decided I needed some more experience, so I got a job working for Tog24 which was quite local to where I was living at the time. They had the production on site which was great, you could see the whole process; you could do the design, make a pattern for it and work with someone to make a sample. I then jumped at an opportunity to work for Lowe Alpine which came up, back when they were producing clothing, and after three years there I moved over to Rab.
What skills do you need to be a good designer?
It depends on the company. All the companies that I’ve worked for have been quite small teams, so it’s quite hands on. I’ve not worked for a big company where maybe a job would be more focused on just design. I tend to have a large variety of things to do. So you need to be able to do all of it. When I started I didn’t have Photoshop or Illustrator skills, because on the uni course I’d done it was all hand drawing. I had to learn all of that…
Is that in some ways an advantage? As in learning the more manual, drawing skills instead of relying on computers?
I think it….you get all sorts of different people coming in to what we’re doing, so you might have people coming in from a more product design background, or you might have people from a more technical, fabric side. I suppose for me, I enjoy doing the colour and the mood boards, so I can still use those creative skills that I learnt at uni, the sketchbook approach; colours and trends. Coming from a more fashion design background, as well as the functionality of a product, you’re also interested in the product being beautiful and it looking good, which I think is very important for outdoor-ware currently. I think that the ‘outdoors’ is very fashionable at the moment, people are after experience and adventure. People are taking more interest in the outdoors, so maybe our colours are becoming slightly more muted, less alpine. Our focus will always be as an authentic outdoor brand, our focus will always be for the top-end, but at the same time we’re aware that’s perhaps not the majority of our customers, so we have to be mindful of that and also offer more fashionable, toned-down colours.
What would you say are the biggest pressures and challenges of your position?
I think it changes. We have a six month cycle. Right now (late August 2017), we’re at this crucial point of choosing colours and defining the range for spring/summer 2019. We’re working a year and half in advance. Funnily, it’s a big challenge just remembering what year you are actually in right now! But we’re almost always still looking at product from previous seasons as well, so we’re looking at three seasons at the same time, and trying to plan for the following winter (2019). So that’s certainly a challenge for everyone.
Personally, one of the biggest challenges I find is colour. We work really hard to come up with exciting colours, but they might not even make it to market, because at the end of the day we still have to be commercial. That’s the same with our really exciting technologies that we want to push, they can be quite niche. That’s why we really need our independent stockists, because those are the people who really support us on those interesting, exciting pieces. They’ll take more of a risk, but even then sometimes not in enough quantity to make it a viable product.
Talking about colour then, how do you predict trends in colour? Where are you looking, are we setting the trends or do you look to other inspirations and industries?
There’s a whole industry on colour trend prediction. We use various different websites and agencies which are really useful. They go all over the world looking at different trends, they’ll look at what’s going on politically and economically, even looking at food and beer. For example, the fact that the beer industry, the ale industry specifically has become really trendy, this will impact colour trends. It’s really interesting, it’s about behaviour. I’d love to spend more time analysing colour! We also look at our sales numbers from previous seasons, what’s sold and what hasn’t. Quite often it’s the brightest colour that has the lowest sales, but we need ‘pop’ colours in our ranges, so we would look at the trends and introduce some new trend colours for the season.
Can you explain the process from idea to production for us?
Right now we’re looking at the range for spring summer ’19. Initially we’ll decide what we’re missing, what hasn’t worked and what new products we want to introduce. After this we divvy up the products between the design team. Then we’ll move on to fabric, any developments and innovations we want to introduce. At the same time as this we’re looking at colours, deciding our pallet for the season. These colours need to be lab dipped. That’s the process whereby we ask the fabric mills to colour match our fabrics to our new colour palette. Colour’s react differently when they’re dyed on different fabrics, so sometimes it takes a couple of dips to get it right. For example, a nylon and cotton would react very differently to one another when they’re dyed. Following on from this we work out specifications and send these to the factories which involve size charts, all the details drawn out in illustrator. They then produce a prototype sample, which we will review, doing fittings on models and making various comments which get fed back to them.
The next stage after this is actually going out to the factories and talking face-to-face with them, because a lot can be lost in translation. It’s really good to actually meet the people you’ve been in communication with. We’ll see the second prototypes when we’re there and we’ll make comments at the time. A few weeks after getting home we’ll receive the final prototype sample. Finally we do the trim. So that’s deciding on all the zip and cord colours, because these are coming from specialist producers, not the factories. Once that’s all done, hopefully you’ll receive a box containing a shiny new salesman sample that all the sales reps can show to our retailers. That’s where our role finishes in the process and we hand it over to the garment tech team. So it’s about a six month process to when we hand it over to them, about a year and a half ahead of products being in store.
Is there a product that you have designed that people who are reading this might own? Is there a product you are most proud of?
Well it’s quite a collaborative process within the design team. But I have managed the rock climbing range because it’s something I’m really interested in. I’ve been wearing the Asylum Jacket which I think is the perfect bouldering jacket. Also the Gravity Pants, I’ll wear them whatever the weather. In terms of other products that have been designed within the team, I love the Flashpoint Jacket, it’s so light I wear it all the time, and also the new Photon X belay jacket which is redesigned for this season.
So do your own experiences on the hill, at the crag, shape your approach to design?
Oh yeah, definitely. I regularly take prototypes down to the wall to test. I get obsessed about fit when I’m climbing, so my experiences definitely shape the products. The Asylum jacket came about because I felt like everything on the market was going super, super lightweight, and it wasn’t what I needed. For alpine climbing obviously lighter but warmer is what you need, but for bouldering you want something that is super-durable. Weight doesn’t really matter. Boulderers want something that will last. That’s the same for the new Kinder Smock, it looks great and it’s really durable.
Sometimes you have to temper your own experiences though, you still have to be aware of what’s going on in the market and not just focus on your own opinions. For example, I don’t wear leggings, but they’re a massive trend within the market right now.
It’s really satisfying being down at the wall and having people comment on the prototypes, saying ‘oh those are nice’ and ‘oh, where can I get those from’. I’ve just been to the Women’s Trad Fest and it was great to see so many women in our gear too, there’s a lot of respect for the brand.
So you’ve climbed extensively?
Even though I’m from the Lakes I haven’t actually climbed there that much. My first real experience of serious climbing was after uni when we went away for those two years. I learned to sport climb in Canmore in Canada, shortly followed by Thailand. Really local! Now I’ve climbed all over the place. We go on holiday to climb, but mainly bouldering. Rocklands in South Africa, the States, Switzerland, Fontainebleau loads of times, going down the list of classic locations and ticking them off. Locally, we live in Skipton, so we go on the grit, Almscliff for example. We get out as much as possible when the weather’s dry.
Finally, how do you see the future of outdoor clothing developing?
The future for us at Rab, well we’ve got loads of exciting new products of course! (laughter) We’re just trying to constantly improve the products. We want to remain authentic to our brand and we re-work our products; we make them better, lighter and more durable. We’re looking for any new developments, any new exciting technologies and trying to incorporate those into our range. In terms of trends, bouldering is a massive rising market, whereas trad climbing is becoming less and less so. That’s why the Women’s Trad Fest is so important I guess. There’s bouldering specific gyms popping up all over the country because they are so accessible; they don’t cost very much and you don’t need much equipment. Little kids can go, and with the Olympics coming up with the inclusion of bouldering, sport climbing and speed climbing, there’s going to be a real push to get more people into climbing.
Many thanks to Kate. If you have enjoyed reading this staff profile and think your expertise would add to the Rab family, then please take a look at our list of current available positions here.