Expensive outdoor kit is always a bit of a contentious topic – and of course, the more expensive it gets, the more likely it is that you’re going to crash and destroy it on the first outing. So, if you were going into business as a technical clothing brand, why choose to start your range with a top-end, top-dollar riding jacket instead of cheap and cheerful T-shirts?
We caught up with Matt and Henry from new brand Upper Downs to find out why their jacket fixes what’s wrong with other jackets, and why they’re Kickstarting to get production of their Neo jacket into action.
Friends for 15-plus years, growing up very close to the South Downs, riding bikes became a huge part of their lives and still is. Matt’s sporting a nasty shoulder injury after an innocuous crash (perfectly timed to coincide with the hectic pre-launch week) and Henry squeezes rides in round life with his young family. The brand focuses on multi-use products, launching with a jacket (the Neo) which they hope will be as at home in the pub or dog walking in the park as it is up a mountain on a bike – as Matt says: “It’s a cycling cut but it won’t look drastic with a pair of jeans… We have friends who ride bikes a bit but not enough to justify buying a jacket just for that; if there was something that works off the bike they’d be more interested. The multi-use justifies the price, and Upper Downs focuses on dual use products.”
The beginning of the story is probably pretty familiar – it’s one which is playing out at various desks all over the world as you’re reading this. “After years working in IT and hospitality, I threw the towel in because I felt I needed my life back and I really wanted to start something up… The jacket came from the frustration of having jackets that looked really nice but weren’t fit for cycling and weren’t very breathable. They also didn’t have the look and feel we wanted. There are loads of really good cycling jackets out there, but we wanted to create something at the premium end – and premium doesn’t always mean really expensive, it means brilliantly made, with no compromises and using the best possible materials to get to the end goal.”
They have a development team primarily made up of young, local riders – “up and coming riders, we wanted to work with people that weren’t massive names and had lots of ideas” – and are working with technical fabric innovators Polartec to produce the Neo jacket – which, as the name suggests, is made from Neoshell, a super light and breathable fabric that’s not commonly used in the cycling world, though is prolific and well-regarded in the outdoor industry as a whole. What’s it like approaching a huge brand like Polartec when you’re very much in the position of the little guy?
“Polartec is great to work with, it’s a no-barriers company; they’re really keen to work with the brand and they want to be a partner with you, they want to be involved and supportive. They have so much product in their range – insulation, fleece layers, tech tops, they’re working with hybrids like merino/polyester – they really are the market leaders in the technical fabrics industry.”
“Polartec Neoshell offers the best – it has lightness, stretch, it’s ripstop, and it has the highest level of waterprorfing and breathability. We looked at other fabrics, and they were light and waterproof but didn’t stretch, or had stretch and were light but not waterproof… Neoshell ticks all the boxes. It’s 96gsm, and because it’s two-way when you wear it in high winds, you don’t get so hot. We still included vents in for summer downpours, when humidity is the thing – sweat will never be avoided, but we’ve tried to make a jacket that’s ultra-breathable and well ventilated, which works well all year round.”
Designing technical garments is serious, expensive and time-consuming business. What’s the process of going from ‘I can make a better jacket than this’ to having one on the shelf?
“We decided we wanted to try and fill a void that we thought there was an opportunity for, in about January 2014, then turned the idea into a company in September. The jacket’s taken quite a long time to produce, quite a long time to get the fabric we want. And then there’s a five month gap between ordering at factory and getting the jacket in customers’ hands.
“Our production is in Portugal, in a fantastic factory that also manufactures for Finisterre and Formula One racing teams. They partner with Gore-Tex, so they have the highest level of seam taping, laser cutting, bonding. We wanted to manufacture in the EU less time difference, less language barrier, easy travel. There are only two factories in Europe which are that good, and we liked their ethics too – the staff are well treated and looked after 100%.
“We made our prototypes from Neoshell, because we had some samples – one by our designer, one by our seamstress. Then we got the first prototypes made, they were also in Neoshell – that was vital because we wanted to see how it behaved in bonding and washing. We tweaked that design – changed the type of stitching, the amount of stitches per centimetre, the collar and sleeve design, the cut of the body – ‘til we had a good prototype. Now prototype three’s coming and that will be the final version. We’ll test it to the highest level.
“Sizing is difficult, there is no one size fits all, and what we do always has a lifestyle angle – we want people to be able to wear the jacket casually so there’s got to be enough room to fit a sweatshirt or hoody underneath, but not so much it flaps around. We’ve paid attention to length, width, making adjustments – we think we’ve got the sleeves perfect now, great articulation and the way they hit the gloves is bang on, for example, but we still need to tweak the sizes.”
So what’s wrong with existing jackets?
“Well, this started because I bought one, bought another one, bought another one and sweated in it, wanted to buy something from Arcteryx but it seemed ridiculous for riding bikes and it wasn’t cut for cycling anyway, so decided to make one that did what I wanted… There’s a cycling look, that’s not for everyone. Bold colours, block patterns, reflective piping – that’s not what we want to wear. Our designer, Chris Taylor, designed his own commuter jeans – nice quality Japanese raw denim, with a zip to allow an expanding bum so the waist didn’t pull down when he was on the bike. That was reflective, and the outside leg, too – he could wear them in the pub and nobody would ever know they were designed for cycling.
“We’ve looked at quirks like that too – we were playing with an expandable hood to fit over a helmet, a mudflap held up by magnets… The phone chute is fun, though it might just be for Kickstarter. We get rid of everything that we don’t think works 100%. Anything that’s too clever is too clever for a reason. We try everything and if it’s even slightly not working, we don’t use it. At the end of the day the more stuff you attach to a jacket the less breathable and lightweight it is. We live in the UK where it’s unpredictable and we wear jackets in the summer – breathability is key.”
“We need to pre-sell a certain number of jackets to get production rolling. We want to get people wearing the jacket and talking, that’s why Kickstarter works for us. We want it to be bang on; it’s an expensive jacket to produce but it’s a statement piece, our flagship product. We think it’s good value – it’s expensive, but it should be more expensive, it costs more and we don’t make much money from it. Kickstarter lets us thanks the people who support us, too – get in there early and you get 40% off. We want a relationship with our customers, there’s nothing wrong with bike shops or online retailers, and at some point we’d like to work with selected retailers but there’s no point in our jacket sitting on a shelf as an expensive jacket, we’ve got a bigger job to educate people that ride that it’s worth spending that much on a waterproof. If you look at other outdoor sports – hiking, skiiing, snowboarding – people are spending huge amounts on technical gear.”
What’s next for Upper Downs?
“We want to make a full range of technical but well thought-out clothing. We’ve got a jersey and shorts planned, though we parked them to focus on the jacket. Our priorities are windproof, shorts, tech jersey, tech tee – they’re all specced already. For shorts though it’s difficult to find great fabrics, and there’s huge personal preference – some people like shorts above the knee, on the knee, some like them really long… You can get the function right and have great ideas but getting the cut right on shorts is a nightmare, everybody you ask wants something different. If you thought sizing on jackets was bad you should try shorts! We want to build a fantastic range of products that people can afford across all levels, the jacket’s premium but there’s a reason for that; not everything is going to be expensive. The jacket costs a huge amount to make, so it’s good value, we’re not making much money off it. Shorts and jerseys are affordable and accessible, and we will always involve people. Let us know what you think – we know we’ve got our own ideas, but we also know there’s always room for improvement.
“For two people, even the jacket is an incredible amount of work – website launch, videos, design, Kickstarter, factory visits… we work long hours, for not great money but are really happy in our work. We want to keep it fun, about going out for a ride on a Wednesday afternoon – enjoying the brand as well as grafting at it. We want to keep it Brighton because that’s where we’re based, so we need that city edge but we want to stay rider-owned – I spent 13 years working in the city and I don’t want to do that again. We want an office near trails so we can always escape and remember why we’re doing it when things get challenging.”
Which brands do you admire and try to reflect?
“Sweet Protection, Hagløfs – I like their approach and ethic, the commitment to minimal wasteage. Finisterre are a nice company. And then of course there’s the ultra-technical – Arcteryx. I like Patagonia’s philosophy for its staff – work longer hours and then go in the mountains and test the stuff, live and breathe what you do. POC – they might be seen as the Apple of cycling but they’ve done well on it, they’re a household name in skiiing – if you see a skier on TV they’ll be wearing a POC helmet and I like their approach to safety technology.”
Lunch over, I come to the final question, and the one that’s probably on everybody’s lips: why launch a waterproof jacket in June? Matt and Henry look at me and laugh. The sun might be shining today but the previous day’s wind, rain and single-digit temperatures – on 1st June, for goodness’ sake! – underline what they say: “You need a good jacket all year round.”