US-owned Icebreaker going back to its roots

Less than a year after New Zealand merino clothing company Icebreaker was bought by US retail giant VF Corporation for $288 million, the company has announced a big shift for some of its staff.

But not in the direction you might have expected.

Icebreaker is moving its design and product creation team, which has been based out of Portland for the last decade, to join the rest of the staff at Icebreaker’s HQ in Auckland from the beginning of April.

Icebreaker chief executive Greg Smith said in 2008, when the decision was made to shift the product creation team out of New Zealand, the company wanted to tap into what was seen as a stronger pool of designers.

Portland seemed a good choice because it is the home of big sports clothing brands like Adidas and Nike.

“At the time, more than a decade ago, there was not the same design talent in New Zealand,” Smith says. “We felt there was most talent in Portland and we wanted to be part of that.”

That’s changed, he says.

“These days New Zealand is truly innovative and it makes sense given we are a New Zealand company that we have our brand and product design teams together.”

Smith says despite only “low-key” advertising of the 22 new roles in New Zealand, the company had received 300 applicants from all around the world.

The move will bring staff numbers in the company’s Ponsonby Road HQ to close to 100, but he says it won’t be bringing staff costs down.

“We are assuming it won’t be a saving from a talent perspective.”

VF Corp is an almost US$14 billion footwear and clothing company based in Greensboro, North Carolina. It also owns the North Face, Vans and Wrangler brands.

Meanwhile, Smith says he’s optimistic that increasing recognition all over the world of the problems of synthetic clothing - including the impact of microplastics in waterways and oceans - will see growth in the natural clothing sector, including merino wool.

UK figures released last year from Friends of the Earth suggest two-thirds of clothing in the UK is made from synthetic plastic material, and up to 2,900 tonnes of microplastics from the washing of synthetic clothing could be passing through wastewater treatment plants each year and into that country’s rivers and estuaries.

Synthetic clothing is the number two source of microplastic pollution in the UK, the report said, after tyres.

“As people realise the impact on the environment of microplastics entering the water and the food chain, people will realise natural products are exciting,” Smith says. “This is nothing new to us, but it’s a great idea whose time has come.”

Smith says Icebreaker will turn over close to $300 million this year, but could be a $1 billion company within five years.

“Success is more people wearing natural fibre; it is educating people to have a choice between what they are currently wearing and what the alternative could be. Often people don’t know where their clothing is from, or what it’s made of.”

Icebreaker was founded in 1995 by then 24-year-old Jeremy Moon, after a chance meeting with a merino sheep farmer, and getting to wear a merino shirt. Moon, who still works for Icebreaker, borrowed $25,000 from the bank, ostensibly for a new kitchen. But instead of renovating, he put the money into his nascent business.

Within the first 12 months, Moon had his clothing stocked in a dozen local stores. Twenty five years later, the company sells in 45 countries, with 80 percent of sales from Europe and North America, and just a little over 10 percent from New Zealand.

The company has 30 stores of its own, 17 outside Australasia. It also has several partner stores, which are branded Icebreaker, but not owned by the company.

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