Inspired by the golden era of European pro-cycling, Solo founder Paul Mason has created a New Zealand-based cycle gear brand that's sparked a retro renaissance. Even Lance Armstrong agrees.
Some mid-life crises involve an extra-marital affair or the purchase of an expensive new sports car. Neither of those options appealed to Paul Mason. Instead, the graphic designer-turned cycle clothing manufacturer marked his early forties by launching a new business venture in an industry he knew absolutely nothing about. Seven years on, Mason has no regrets.
His retro-inspired cycle clothing brand, Solo, is now worn and loved by riding purists in the UK, Europe, Japan, Korea, North America and Australasia. Lance Armstrong requested Solo gear for the launch of his Texas cycle shop, Mellow Johnny’s. And then there are Mason’s favourite customers, those who own every single item in the existing range. Demand has increased to the point where this year, for the first time, Solo is producing both a summer and winter range.
So what makes these weekend warriors and a seven-times Tour de France winner so faithful? A keen cyclist, Mason believes Solo’s authenticity has struck a chord with his target market – guys like him looking for something different, design-focused and well-made.
“I’ve had some great reactions from people when I show them the product shots or when they open the sample box,” he says. “They just reach for it, they want to touch it. Guys who like this style of clothing understand straight away, it’s not a hard sell. They’re attracted to that whole retro feel.”
Mason reckons the brand has a genuine voice, which customers notice.
“We try to let the clothing speak for itself in our marketing material,” he says, citing the company’s habit of using real cyclists as models as an example of that authenticity.
Solo’s core market is guys aged 35 to 55. Many work in industries such as architecture or advertising and have an eye for good design.
“We also have quite lot of customers who are new to cycling. They’re looking for something challenging that will get them fitter than playing golf. Once they start getting into riding a bit more, they start watching classic races like Paris-Roubaix and delving into the history of the sport. They understand how fantastic those old jerseys were, which leads them to us.
“I’ve always loved 50s and 60s-style cycle clothing. I knew there would be other guys my age who liked this type of clothing but can’t find it. You could get the original jerseys from that era, the real ones, but they weren’t practical for everyday riding. Or you could buy replica pro-team kit, but they were covered in advertising and didn’t have that same sense of style.”
It’s a big jump from liking something to turning it into a business, and some might see stepping away from a well-established career to start from scratch in a new industry as madness. But Mason was ready for a change.
“I was sick of designing for other people. I know the exact day it came to a head. We were doing a pitch through the design company for a Botox clinic and I just thought, I don’t like any of this. I don’t like what they’re doing. It was one of those scary, real moments and I wondered: how did I find myself doing this?”
So he turned to an enduring love – cycling – and decided to make his own gear. Over the next 18 months, Mason continued to work full-time at his graphic design business while also setting up Solo, using savings and a loan from his father. A business partner also contributed funds, but Mason bought him out after the first year.
“The early days were long,” he remembers. “I effectively had two jobs. My wife, Brenda, who was my partner in the graphic design business, quickly picked up that my mind was elsewhere and luckily for me I was set free and began working on Solo exclusively from 2007.”
Inspired by the simple, powerful jersey designs worn by European pro cyclists in the 50s, 60s and 70s, he created his own fictitious brands from scratch, combining modern materials and techniques with a cool retro look.
The Solo brand began with just three designs, and with no budget for market research, Mason opted for the ‘I like it, I hope someone else does’ approach. It paid off.
“We took a risk, but we pretty much found a market right from day one. I had a very clear idea of the look and quality I wanted. Originally my business partner had said, ‘Let’s just come up with some designs and send them off to one of those custom gear places and get the designs printed on stock jerseys.’ I knew that wouldn’t appeal and we would’ve been selling out our original concept. It had to be our brand and have our name on it. It’s always been important to conserve the brand and not dilute it.”
In the same way, Mason has intentionally limited the Solo product ranges to only include garments you’d actually need when riding a bike. You won’t find any Solo-branded silk scarves or silver-plated shaving kits. Instead, the range includes cycle jerseys, socks, bib shorts, and arm and leg warmers. There’s also a beanie made from a New Zealand merino wool and possum fur blend.
Faithful to the fifties
Key to the look is Mason’s insistence on preserving the era’s handmade feel. Each design is meticulously researched and put together based on design techniques used at the time.
“In those days they didn’t have the ability to do particular things, like for example putting a keyline around a logo. The letters would’ve been cut from fabric with a pair of scissors, so we are working with those tolerances in mind. I start off with the design and rework it, removing elements to make it simpler. I also research a particular country, the businesses, the typefaces, company logos, packaging and industrial designs for that era.”
It takes self-discipline to stop adding things, he says. But the attention to detail extends right through to the manufacturing techniques. The designs on Solo’s short-sleeved Classique jerseys are printed using an ancient roller printing press, rather than a digital press, to create the authentic-looking custom-mixed vivid colours Mason is after.
To his amazement, the pale-blue ‘St Neith’ jersey, a tribute to French cycle clubs and the first he ever designed, is still the most popular.
“It’s a really simple jersey. There are two colours, blue and black, and something about it just clicks with people. That’s the great thing about retro designs – they don’t go out of fashion!”
His initial ignorance about clothing manufacture actually worked to his advantage, Mason believes, because it left him with no preconceptions about what could and couldn’t be done.
“I had no experience in clothing design – just graphic design. I didn’t even know how clothes were constructed. It was all based on blind faith and asking people for advice and contacts.”
But it hasn’t been an easy ride for Solo’s founder. For a start, there was the name. While it perfectly encapsulates the brand image and works well in different languages, Mason says in retrospect Solo probably wasn’t the ideal choice.
“It came from the cycling term ‘solo breakaway’, which is the best way to win a race. We had a tagline we used in our early marketing: ‘You are not alone’. We were saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not the only person in the world who loves this style of clothing – we do too. You don’t have to be like everybody else.’ The name works on different levels, and it makes a great logo, too.”
Solo has been trademarked in numerous countries. But arranging intellectual property protection for the brand has been a steep and expensive learning curve for Mason.
“We had a couple of false starts with IP lawyers. We went to one to get the Solo name registered as a trade mark. We spent money getting searches done, and then the IP company we were working with found out that there was another Solo in the New Zealand apparel industry. Not only was this company located just around the corner from us, but it also happened to be an existing client of theirs. They said, ‘Sorry, it’s a conflict of interest, we can’t go any further’, but they still charged us.”
He’s now found an IP lawyer who gives good straightforward advice.
Selling to the world
The Solo sales model, too, has gone through some changes. Sales were originally solely web based, when the site launched in August 2005. It has since evolved to a distribution model via wholesale sales to bike shops.
From the start, Mason had the foresight to look beyond the very limited New Zealand market to larger overseas opportunities. Solo is sold by a handful of bike shops here, but today New Zealand only accounts for five percent of total sales. Its biggest market is the United Kingdom, with good customer bases in Korea, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Japan. Sales are also strong in the cycling-mad nations of Belgium, Holland, Germany and Italy, and riders from more than 50 different countries have now bought product online through the Solo website.
“One of the best decisions I made was to be export focused right from day one,” says Mason. “The web gave us instant access to a global market. But having access was one thing – getting customers to find you and buy your product is another.”
Using money from an NZTE Development grant, Mason placed a tiny ad on a popular US cycling website, which sparked some orders. He couriered a press kit and samples to some European bike magazine editors and scored a review in a German cycling magazine, which got the ball rolling over there.
Word soon got around and by 2006, just six months after Solo launched, the first bike shops in Australia and the UK began getting in touch.
“The typical story is this: Someone walks into a shop wearing one of our jerseys and the owner says: ‘Wow! That’s fantastic. Where did you get that from?’ It was its own walking advertisement.”
Despite initially knowing nothing about doing business internationally, Mason had to learn quickly.
“We could tell from the website which countries the interest and sales were coming from so we had a list of our key markets. From there it was a case of getting our offer together, researching the sales avenues – the retailers and distributors – and contacting them. We had the web sales ticking away in the background and would advertise in the cycle press in certain countries. We also had retailers and distributors contacting us completely unsolicited, which was a nice bonus.”
Soon Solo was dealing directly with 25 shops in the UK and Australia, and a large shop in Montreal. But servicing that many retailers from New Zealand was never going to be easy. The first couple of years were pretty full on and stressful, but that was tempered by a sense of exhilaration.
“The excitement overrode the fear of ‘what have we done?’ It was such a thrill when an order would come through from a new country.”
A fork in the road
Solo reached a turning point in 2008. International sales had been growing organically, but it was time to revisit the model. “Because of the high cost of manufacturing we couldn’t really offer the bike shops the mark-up they were used to. Most of them still wanted to stock Solo, even with the reduced margin, but I had a feeling that we could sell a lot more if we got the margin right.”
Mason started to get enquiries from distributors wanting to purchase for less than the cost of manufacturing – clearly that didn’t stack up. Then Solo’s New Zealand manufacturer decided overnight to up its prices by 25 percent. That made the decision easy.
In late 2008, production moved offshore to China. For much of the four previous years he’d been Solo by name and by nature, but now Mason hired an office manager. The extra help was well timed as it was turning out to be a tough year. The New Zealand-based agent Solo initially used to oversee the Chinese manufacturing, let them down badly.
“Our manufacturing cycle is based on the Northern Hemisphere season, so we have to deliver our summer range in March. They missed the delivery date and we lost around $150,000 worth of sales. It was heartbreaking after all the work we put in, and we had to go into damage-control mode with our retailers and distributors.”
It took 18 months to rebuild those relationships and gain back lost ground. Solo now deals directly with five factories in China, each specialising in a particular type of garment. This means the brand can be competitive and offer industry- standard margins to its distributors in 14 different countries and for wholesale sales direct to retailers elsewhere.
Interestingly, the Solo brand doesn’t trade on its New Zealandness. In fact, Mason was initially at pains to downplay the whole Kiwi association and tailor his marketing material to an international audience.
“When we started, we did an outdoor photo shoot and I was getting the guys to ride on the right-hand side of the road and trying to give it a European look. I was a bit self- conscious about that.”
Mason is much more relaxed now, but the only nod to New Zealand is the strong use of black in Solo marketing material, and the use of merino and possum fur in some of the clothing.
“Unless there’s a special New Zealand-sourced material used in the product our market doesn’t care that we’re a New Zealand company, and they’re not concerned with where it’s made.”
By 2009, Mason was keen to diversify a little. Tapping into the resurgence of urban cycling and the ‘fixie’ craze (single- speed, fixed-gear bikes), he launched a new brand, Derny, a fusion of cycle and street clothing designed to take the wearer from a morning ride to work through to an evening function.
It was a chance to do something a little whacky, and while Derny has been successful in Canada, Japan and Switzerland, some retailers didn’t really understand the brand and how it fitted in with the rest of their stock.
“It’s not your usual cycle wear. For example, the trench jacket has a suit jacket lining, a valet collar with cufflinks, but it also has practical cycle features like stretch denim and hidden pockets.”
Mason has had prototypes of jeans and track tops made, but he’s parked Derny for the moment to concentrate on expanding the Solo range.
The journey ahead
2012 has been another important year for Solo with the release of its first winter collection and discussions with distributors in Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Mason’s also adopted what he calls a new “grown-up way” of working. Instead of making products first and then trying to sell them, samples are now sent out to the distributors for feedback, and production figures are based on the pre-orders.
“Things have constantly evolved because we’ve shifted from one model to the next. If we stuck to doing the web sales we’d be in our own little self-contained world. Now we’re doing things like manufacturing seasonally and dispatching to our distributors straight from the factory in China. We no longer get to check every finished garment but we have systems in place including a really good Australian- based QC company we work with.
“I’m looking forward to establishing a full seasonal pattern, getting the pre-orders and shipping sorted out, and going through a full sales/production cycle.”
While Solo is synonymous with retro styling, Mason is aware of the limitations imposed on the brand. So the diversified 2012 Solo offering includes a winter offering and the new retro-tech range, which moves away from retro styling to include more mainstream technical garments.
“We’ve reached the limit with this particular style of clothing. I’ve designed 17 Classique jerseys now, how many more can there be? We want to take over more of the rack in cycling shops, to have a broader offering, with more technical clothing and a winter range.”
That winter range will soon be in Northern Hemisphere stores, and Mason hopes to hit turnover of $1 million as a result. Naturally, he’s thinking continued future growth.
“I definitely want the company to be bigger, but finding the right people is difficult. My greatest fear is that we make a crappy or superfluous product just to make some money and I never want to do that.”
Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription, an Idealog t-shirt and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).