16 November 2011

Rohan, a blast from the past.

Rohan's a cool brand, there's plenty of their stores in towns and cities up and down the country and it's one of the old reliable go-to-guys for all your outdoorsy needs, whether you're a full on hiker, camper or just trying to stay dry on an outing to Sincil Bank or Vale Park. Perhaps even overlooked as anything at all trendy or hip, Rohan's just that though, I like Rohan. I've had a few of their coats pass through here over the years, the Pampas being a personal fave and a bit of a classic amongst a select few. They also did a spot-on proper mountaineer jacket some years back, reversible, down jacket on one side bright orange on the other, something you'd happily nip off to the arctic in and know you'd be sound, the Tundra? or something.
Founded in 1972, Rohan has been there seen it done it, makes great gear and avoids fashion and all the blingy nonsense of the modern day, their ethos, not my words. It's good old school functional wear at it's best, it's a proper British hiking brand to be proud of.
Whilst some of these old brochures and catalogue shoots are pretty damn striking even to this day, other bits look straight out of an eighties porno mag, you'd be forgiven for thinking one or two of the below pictures would see that couple at it in the next spread, guffaw! That's if you can still turn the pages, lols. Ok, enough already. Hiking, biking, sportswear, boots and nice jumpers are all the things we steal from and adopt and adapt, Rohan has it in abundance. Look out for a collaboration collection with 6876 in early 2012.

OF all the businesses set up in Yorkshire’s back bedrooms, living rooms or sheds, few can have had as tangled or as emotional a history as Rohan Design. In the nearly 40 years since it was founded by a young couple around a kitchen table in Skipton, it has seen moments of marital happiness, commercial innovation and rapid growth as well as separation and tragedy. Throughout it all Sarah Howcroft, who set up the business with her husband, Paul, has been there and her love for the Rohan remains undimmed. Together the couple developed a new look in outdoor clothing, with the heavy tweed and wool breeches worn by walkers a thing of the past.
Rohan’s lightweight and waterproof designs becoming the essential gear for everyone, from the Sunday stroller to the extreme climber, and their jackets were worn by mountaineer Peter Habeler when he made the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978. Throughout this up-and-down history, Mrs Howcroft’s attachment has remained constant, despite the fact she and Paul were forced to sell the business, after Black Monday wiped out plans for a flotation in 1987. The banks got cold feet and the couple opted for an outright sale to Clarks. Since then it has changed hands again, and for a period was backed by venture capital and private equity, before chairman Colin Fisher took control in 2007.
After improving the product range, simplifying its management set-up, restructuring its balance sheet and converting £4.3m of loans into equity, today’s owners have been credited with preserving its identity. Rohan’s difficulties did not immediately vanish, however. Like many other retailers it was hit by the recession and it made a £400,000 operating loss in 2007.
Now it is growing again. Mr Fisher, today the executive chairman, steered it to a £384,000 operating profit last year and took turnover to £17.9m, up from £15.7m in 2009. It expects to turn over £28m this year on the back of like-for-like growth, store openings and increased internet sales. Rohan is no longer based in Yorkshire but is still has a presence here with stores in Leeds, Harrogate, York, Beverley, Shipley and Long Preston. It has 61 nationwide and plans to take this to 81. Today Sarah Howcroft is more than just an interested spectator. She runs Rohantime, a website dedicated to the brand which allows customers to exchange views as well as carrying news of branch openings, outdoor events and a flashback to garments past.
"We are harnessing all those old emotions and the real values of the company and what the customers feel about the company," she said.
They had moved to Skipton in the 1970s after meeting in Scotland. They chose the market town because it was close to the textile industry in West Yorkshire, the cotton mills of Manchester and the hills of North Yorkshire and the Lake District. Both were in their early twenties and Mr Howcroft had given up his job as a research chemist so he could play a part in the enterprise. The couple only had capital of £70 but it was enough to give them a start, even if it meant living hand-to-mouth. "There was no loan capital in those days for start-ups," Mrs Howcroft, said.
"In the early years we ate cheese rolls and very little else. We had no money at all but our enthusiasm and passion flooded it."
They found a small house which they were able to buy for £1,000 and set about bringing modern designs and materials into their field. Nylon began to be used more widely and brought in a series of then radical ideas, such as stretchy climbing breeches in blue and green with black knee patches.
Some of the firm’s designs caused a stir in the traditional world of walking and climbing but, in 1980, Sarah explained her approach to the Yorkshire Post, saying: "Just because the clothes look good doesn’t mean to say they are not practical."
Article by Peter Edwards originally posted on Yorkshire Post. Catalogue and archive images via Compass.

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