Coldwater surf culture and the military may not seem like natural brothers in arms. But look closely at Finisterre’s collaboration with ArkAir and you’ll see two very different outdoor brands cut from similar cloth…
“A camouflage is basically an optical illusion. You blur the edge of each colour with rows of diminishing-sized dots, so your eye just cannot say what the hell is happening. You can't see the shape of the person wearing it at all.”
Joe Green, site director for Exeter-based Arktis, is on the mezzanine floor of the company’s headquarters, explaining the science behind some of its technical clothes. His words are soundtracked by bursts of machine-gun-like noise – the rattle of sewing machines bouncing off the walls of the production unit below. Arktis makes garments for the French and Belgian armies and UK Special Forces, among others: Joe points out the desert camo, the Alpine camo, and the tropical camo for the jungle. Much of which is produced by the small, experienced team beavering away downstairs.
Down among the maze of sewing machines, there’s a poster on the wall proclaiming: “The quality of endurance”. Arktis was launched by a former Royal Marine back in the 1980s, and has worked to those values ever since. But military types aren’t the only ones with a taste for functional quality. Back in 2003, when Finisterre founder Tom Kay was working on his first fleece, and looking at a utilitarian product maker who could produce something durable and long-lasting, he enlisted Arktis to produce a prototype. The company was right there at the birth of the brand we know today.
But while Arktis has maintained the focus on quality and durability in the years since, it has also broadened its ambition. In 2014 it launched ArkAir, a military-inspired streetwear brand. ArkAir fine-tunes the Arktis functionality, offering brighter prints, slimmer fits and more comfortable fabrics for the fashion-conscious. “It's easier to wear, more luxurious, with a nicer finish and better trims,” says Joe, who has worked in textile development for 40 years. “All the good bits you want.”
It’s easy to lose yourself in Arktis’s warren-like HQ, whether rifling through racks of camo on the production floor, or losing it over the cut of pockets and pouches on its range of jackets, smocks and backpacks.
After a successful winter collaboration with ArkAir – that debuted the Mammoth, a rugged fleece-lined smock for the colder wetter months – the collaborative relationship continued. This summer saw the release of Finisterre's own sea-inspired camouflage print, realised in the form of a utility shirt, a bucket hat and a bag, based on military surplus gear from the ArkAir archives. And, like the rest of the range, it’s produced entirely here in Exeter.
Stuart cites Finisterre’s first sea camo print as the “perfect combination” of both brands. Todd, Finisterre's lead menswear designer, explains how the idea for the camo came from studying the textures of the sea, in a photo of particularly rough waters that they had in the Finisterre workshop. Something that allowed the Finisterre team to come at camo with integrity.
“Doing a camo is really tricky,” says Todd. “We don’t like doing something if it doesn’t mean anything, and we were always a bit uncomfortable about camouflage for the sake of it. This was a really nice way to bring it into our range with a legitimate reason – it’s a collaboration, so we suddenly had a right to do it, and it’s our own camouflage, a design created out of the things we look at all the time.”
Location and heritage
“The fact it’s all made in the UK – and pretty much on our doorstep – is brilliant,” says Todd, who kickstarted the collaboration. Todd had long been keen to revive the trend for army surplus gear among Britain’s coldwater surfers. It was only after he reached out to ArkAir that he learned of Tom’s work with Arktis 15 years before. “We were very interested in working with each other to tailor their best specialist products to our market,” says Todd. “We couldn’t believe our luck. We tailored it, fitted it to our sizing, changed pockets and details and worked on the branding. And we started developing organic, recycled fabrics with their mill in Northern Ireland.”
“Finisterre was one of the early brands to have both the function and the fashion fit for purpose. It's about knowing why a particular feature is being incorporated. It has to have function.”
Stuart Cook, Arktis’s business development manager, has been busy upstairs working on patterns. He bounces down and shares the thinking behind the collaboration. “Finisterre was one of the early brands to have both the function and the fashion fit for purpose,” he says. “It's about knowing why a particular feature is being incorporated. It has to have function. It's taken other fashion brands a lot of time to catch up with that.”
Walk through the production unit and you see plenty of reasons why ArkAir and Finisterre should wish to join forces: they share the same focus on quality and durability, and also the same level of care and attention to detail. Each ArkAir garment is made by hand, one entire piece per person, rather than spending all day making a sleeve, for example, factory-style. This makes it a better place to work, and each garment subtly unique.
But while a collaboration may seem natural in principle, that doesn’t mean the garments are easy to produce. Robert Domagalski is Arktis’s fabric cutter. He works in the centre of the room, at a sprawling wooden desk strewn with paper patterns and samples. A colleague describes Robert as the Arktis ‘cog’.
“Usually we work with the same standard patterns,” he says. “But this was all new. So not only do I have to think about how it will be used, and how to make the patterns, but how to make it easy to sew.” Robert grew up watching his father working with fabric, so has always had the gift of being able to work with patterns and see clearly how they will translate to three dimensions. He points to the first garment he designed and made himself from scratch – the pair of camo shorts he’s wearing while he works.
Strength in numbers
This creativity and collaboration sits at the core of the ArkAir brand. It has now spent four seasons collaborating with Palace, the skate brand. Last summer it launched its functional fashion tie-up with Comme des Garcons, which graced the Paris catwalk. ArkAir is now keen to absorb some of Finisterre’s expertise in sustainability.
But these collaborations bring other challenges, beyond physically making the clothes. You need a partner that buys into the authenticity and integrity of your label. And the garments you produce absolutely have to reflect the DNA of both parties. How much can you afford to alter the cut of a sleeve, for example, before you’ve lost your identity?
“There always has to be compromise,” says Stuart. “But the big thing is to have respect for each other’s brands. You can tell within the first five minutes of the conversation whether the collaboration is going to work.”
“The big thing is to have respect for each other’s brands. You can tell within the first five minutes of the conversation whether the collaboration is going to work.”
A family affair
There’s a shout across the factory floor. “Elmer!” It’s the postman, weaving his way through the maze of sewing machines and rolls of fabric, to hand a box to Arktis’s trims and machinery specialist, Elmer Fanson. Sat at a high desk, his shirt unbuttoned to his belly, his glasses pushed down his nose to rendezvous with his grey beard, Elmer works studiously at adjusting zips and Velcro for the Finisterre range. He’s been here 18 years. Even that’s not as long as Arktis’s office manager, Debbie Evans, who has chalked up 25. “It was very different here when I started,” she says. “I can’t talk to Comme des Garcons like I would do a firearms officer.”
Other changes are more personal, but equally significant. Debbie’s daughter, Hollie, now works alongside her in sales. She points out how crazy it is that much of Arktis’s 25-strong team have known her since she was a baby.
There’s a lot to do. ArkAir and Finisterre are on a mission, to explore the art and science of collaboration, of pushing each other in new directions. At first glance, the two appear to blur together like camo colours – you can’t quite tell where one ends and the other begins. But if you look more closely, the DNA of each is clear as day.
“The exciting bit is watching the range develop,” says Stuart. “And, when you put it out there, seeing people wondering where it's come from.”