Professional skier Hamish Acland has turned his hand from shredding slopes to sewing together a merino brand that’s plugging the gaps the others aren’t. Not only does it have major kudos among riders, it’s gone global … all the way to Kosovo.
In winter 2008, professional freeride skier Hamish Acland, having mulled over the idea of launching a global actionsports brand, told his brother Ben of his idea for a merino underwear line that would plug the gap in the market left open by the likes of Icebreaker.
Acland was sitting on the fence about whether to launch it then or hold off for three years in order to finish his ski career. His brother pushed him down the path to entrepreneurship and what Acland describes as “a pretty bumpy start”, but four years on the brand, Mons Royale, is now stocked as far afield as Kosovo.
Its colourful designs and tagline “first on, last off” have been a hit with skiers and boarders, to the extent that it now has a team of top athletes – such as Kiwi skier Jossi Wells and surfer Paige Hareb – riding with its name. Acland’s brother Ben, as it happens, moved south post-earthquake and now manages the business and production operations.
Acland, who also owns and runs NZ Skier magazine, observed that first layer garments “totally lacked style” – or if they did have style, they failed in mere functionality. For years Acland was a professional freeride skier, so he scored freebies for everything he needed, barring underwear.
“I saw what Icebreaker and other merino brands were doing in the traditional ski and outdoor market and that it was missing the younger crowd,” Acland says. “Icebreaker has done an amazing job and totally owns its space, but we’re introducing merino to a whole new audience and often through new channels like the snowboard/freeski store, where the traditional merino players aren’t stocked.
“Because of this we are getting people who are falling in love with merino and Mons Royale all at the same time. When we’re in a store with the likes of Icebreaker or Smart Wool, we’re very much the young alternative and are typically positioned with other ‘rider’ focused brands instead of going head-to-head in the outdoor and traditional ski customer.”
Acland met Hannah Aubrey, a graphic designer who had just landed back in New Zealand after four years working at New York ‘innovation consultancy’ Fahrenheit 212. Aubrey “nailed” the brand identity, colours and graphics. Finding the right expertise in clothing design was a struggle until Acland found Natalie Norman, who had 14 years’ experience in the industry working with the likes of Top Shop and Nike.
The brand hit the shelves in New Zealand in mid-2009, and it took on its first shop in Europe in October that same year. Outside New Zealand, it’s mostly stocked at core ski and board stores – some 300 in total throughout Europe (including Norway, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria). Acland is now dealing directly with retailers in Australia, Japan and the US, with a pilot run of stores in ski locale Colorado.
He believes the brand has experienced untold benefits from his background as a competitive skier, after years gaining insights into the industry.
“I think I also learnt how to succeed through my skiing and how to get back up off the ground. My years of skiing weren’t high-rolling by any means – more surfing the couch and living on the smell of an oily rag – the key goal was skiing and having good times. I think that experience of doing it on the cheap when others had bigger backing goes a long way when you’re starting a company.”
Acland says skiing at a high level has provided “a huge amount” of contacts and friends in the industry.
“I have seen, first-hand, other start up brands succeed and fail, rubbed shoulders with marketing managers of major brands and been part of some pretty big events.”
One of his ski contacts provided a turning point. Volkl was one of Acland’s major sponsors and its marketing manager introduced him to someone who owned distribution company The Source in Switzerland, as well as two ski retail stores, which took Mons Royale on in its first year. Acland linked up with other distributors through The Source and its distribution of Armada skis, which has been a “strong alignment”. They now share distributors in half their European countries.
It isn’t all champagne and cocktails though. Acland and co are still working from home and packing orders themselves in the push to take the challenger brand even further.
“We definitely aren’t big! We do have a global outlook but it’s not to be everywhere – but more to be solid in our niche and to do some pretty rad things along the way.”
Snowboarders and skiers typically do a range of other activities – tramping, surfing, mountaineering – and the range is getting used outside snow sports, Acland says. It also doesn’t hurt that the products are sold as gear for the riders’ ‘lifestyle’ – which means not just on the slopes but also in the bar, at work, and through the summer. Acland reckons mountain biking is where people use the merino gear in a technical aspect post-snow, so that’s his next “obvious” move. Not the skin-tight stuff with coloured seams though – Acland wants to keep the “Mons” style throughout any new product range.
Going from a little brand in small town New Zealand to being not only national but also global is the ultimate for every entrepreneur. Acland says the fact that Mons Royale isn’t attempting to replace another brand, but rather plug a gap in the market, is one of its advantages. It’s also a big tick that skiers and boarders love the product, so they hassle retailers to stock it.
“Because we’re on a bigger mission than just New Zealand, and our sights are global and we want to take the New Zealand actionsports community with us, I think people and industry players can sense that and are more willing to help us.”
Retailers, naturally, are “stoked”. Acland says many didn’t sell much in the way of a technical first layer before his brand came along, so it’s a whole new revenue stream for customers walking through the door – both here and abroad.
There are two final strings to the Mons Royale bow: Acland owns NZ Skier magazine, which lends itself to obvious cross-promotion.
“We probably don’t leverage it enough, but our advertising makes a big impact and we are rated number one in both NZ Snowboarder and NZ Skier magazines through feedback surveys.”
It’s also getting more editorial airtime through its team riders and “industry cats” wearing the product in magazines and webisodes.
Acland recruited Kiwi skier Jossi Wells – “a superstar in the skiing world” – to represent the brand.
“He was stoked on the product. It mean a lot to me that he wanted to rep the brand.”
Then came the likes of surfer Paige Hareb, downhill mountain biker Sam Blenkinsop, moto rider Ben Townley and snowboarder Shelly Gotlieb – all Kiwis gone global and at the top of their game.
“The product is typically hidden when you see these guys and girls in action, so it’s more their word of mouth and the cred it brings to the brand within the industry. As we grow we will be able to do more with our riders, which is something I am really looking forward to.”
Snow fans would be green with envy at Acland’s typical working day during winter. Due to an understandably “heavy itch” to be up the mountain, on powder days he’ll drop everything to “knock out” as many laps as possible at Treble Cone, while answering emails on the chairlift, and get back to the office once the powder is all tracked out. During the southern hemisphere summer, he tries to get to Europe to work and ski alongside the brand’s distributors.
“It’s a good balance,” Acland says. “I’m stoked to be doing something I’m passionate about. For sure it comes with some big hours and can be pretty damn nerve-wracking at times, but I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing right now.”