Young entrepreneurs are often thought of as naive or idealistic, that is, until their fresh perspective and unabashed distain for “the status quo” turn an industry on it’s head. That’s the goal of Martin and Rob Drake-Knight, the two brothers behind the, Isle of Wight based, Rapanui Clothing Company.
Don’t be fooled by the homemade website, limited product offering or simple designs. These guys turned a profit with their first clothing line, while raising the bar for transparency of a products complete life-cycle. Not to mention, they’ve caught the attention of folks like Ben & Jerry’s, redesigned clothing’s conventional distribution system and still find time to get a few surf sessions in.
I sat down and had a digital chat with Rob Drake-Knight, Rapanui’s Marketing Director. This is an edited version of that conversation.
[Matt Levinthal] What made you guys want to start Rapanui?
[Rob Drake-Night] Two main reasons; 1) we both got sick from surfing in polluted waters from the field run of agriculture chemicals 2) Martin was studying Renewable Energy Engineering and was bombarding me with information about the state of the planet. We both had some experience working in clothing and knew there was a growing gap in the market.
How did you come to building the business around supply chain transparency?
The idea was born from frustration caused by the abuse of buzz words like “organic” and “green,” basically greenwashing.
Do you select products by what can be made sustainably or by trends and just figure out the sustainability part?
We tend to back engineer. We start with the end in mind and work out how we’re going to do what we want to do. We’re looking at some really sweet belts and flip flops made from recycled rubber at the moment as well as a number of other cuts for the women’s garments. The next collection is coming along nicely.
What have your biggest challenges been in creating this level of transparency?¬†
Basically the natural lack of transparency that exists in a products life-cycle. We have had to do a lot of research and refinement of our system to feel comfortable with the 2009 collection. With so many processes it was very difficult to capture and display all the relevant details.
What are your biggest challenges moving forward trying to maintain this transparency?¬†
Growth. As we appoint more staff and increase volumes it is important that our employees have the same desire and knowledge as Martin and Me. We may be suffering a little with “founders syndrome” but it is important for our growth to both let our staff do their jobs and ensure they have adequate knowledge – it is a difficult balance.¬†
I guess that makes the big question, can you actually scale this with your level of transparency?¬†
Yes, we have the capacity to run up to 250,000 garments a week from just one of the factories our products are run through.
We are already expanding rapidly and globally from stockists (a UK term for dealers) using our sell by proxy program. It creates more and more exposure, it’s becoming viral. Every day we are inundated with enquiries. Because of the lean nature of our business model we are flexible and can adapt to meet client requirements; whether that is bespoke or wholesale.
What is the sell by proxy program?
It’s pretty simple really; we provide all the resources needed; images, text and logos, ready to copy and paste into a website in 20 minutes. The store takes a commission on sales and all dispatch and returns and stock are handled by Rapanui on the Isle of Wight.
How did you come up with the idea?
A truly sustainable brand not only covers every aspect of products and logistics but addresses economic and social impacts. The current economic climate has raised some interesting questions about how we do business and made people re-think stock control, overbuying and the “sale culture” of the high street. With a more streamlined business model, we have moved our green ethos into our business model as well as our product. We are really exited about the possibilities.
How did you land the gig with Ben & Jerry’s?¬†
They got in touch. They were off to the north pole on an adventure with their Climate Change College and needed to be kitted out. We later supplied hoodies to the local Inuit’s up there, which was a surprise! Apparently organic cotton keeps you warmer than seal skin! ¬†¬†
Do you or will you sell to the US?
We don’t currently have any wholesale stockists in the US but we have a database of them that we’re talking to – we are holding out for the full US launch in the summer of 2010 range.
How has starting this business changed you?
It has taught me a lot. Mart and I have a policy that we won’t take shortcuts on all the things that need to be done, we will work hard. Consequently the website that you see is only the third that Martin has built, any PR gained is from my hard work – this is the same across the business.
Personally it has been a massive achievement and I am proud that my brother and I run a successful and profitable business – and in a manner that takes a holistic approach to sustainable practice.
What’s the best and worst part about working with your brother?
When we’ve achieved something it means so much more than achieving it with a colleague. The best bit is also the worst bit, sometimes we get stressed at each other. However, working it out and taking a step back gives us both time for reflection. It’s cheesy but it’s like stepping back after painting a picture. You’re working really hard on a tiny patch of grass and you take a step back and realize you’re painted a pretty good landscape. To do that together is far better than doing it alone.
Do you ever just settle things with a good old fashion wrestling match?
Ha ha, yeah. We’ve had a couple of sumo style bouts in the parents garden – but to be honest we get along really well. We’ve got an excellent working relationship and have skills which compliment each other. We usually just go and blow off some steam together at the beach, banter helps too.
Have you teamed up on projects before – besides say twins at a bar?
Ha Ha, Yes! Some classic projects include Rob and Marts Go-Karting Enterprises, which involved some pretty unique go-cart styles, very low to the ground, very fast and very dangerous. They didn’t make it to production but we had some fun in the workshop with our granddad, papa and “product testing” them around the hills of the Isle of Wight. You never know, they may make a comeback as part of a ‚Äòtoys’ section….
Generally, if there is an idea to be worked on, we’ll get it done together.