Finisterre: How A Cold Water Surf Brand Became the UK’s Greatest Innovator in Design + Sustainability
Thirty-five miles northeast of Land’s End lies the small town of St Agnes. Here amidst an expanse of dramatic heathland and granite cliff faces, crumbling miner’s cottages and austere empty engine houses are reminders of the once thriving tin and copper industry.
Depending on the season during which one visits the idyllic town the grassland may be dotted with wild heather and asparagus, or perhaps cornish eyebright and dorset heath. Walk along the rugged coast and you’ll find the Wheal Coates Tin House, a picturesque relic, where men once spent much of their days below ground, rarely seeing the crashing waves or pewter blue sky.
Hike down to the harbor from where this tin and copper was once shipped. At Trevaunance Cove, grey seals can still be spotted in their inaccessible sea caves and gold star coral live amongst the shallow shores. The crumbling remains of the harbor, demolished in 1916, make for a stunning backdrop and suitable home for beautiful and brittle lichens. Head up from the wind-swept beach of Trevaunance, past the sand dunes populated by hardy portland spurge and dandelion- esque spotted cat's ear towards the preserved Stippy Stappy cottages. These were the modest homes of men who once mined the landscape. Now under historic preservation, the cottages are conveniently close to the center of the village, whose narrow winding streets house a small but compelling group of gastropubs and small store fronts.
Where the maritime heathland meets the cliffs of the coast, not far from the center of the village, are the Wheal Kitty Workshops. A refurbished relic from the area’s industrial past, this original mine house has since been restored, and is now the headquarters and home to Finisterre -- the world’s only cold water surf brand.
Monocle has forthrightly dubbed Finisterre as ‘The Perfect Brand’ and GQ has proclaimed their Anabatic shell as one of the one hundred best things in the world. In addition to design, the company has been applauded for their initiatives around sustainability, with their efforts winning them both the Volvo European Sport Award For Eco Design as well as the Observer Ethical Business Award.
“We are situated literally on the edge of a cliff looking over some of the most beautiful coves in the world,” said Todd, their head of Product Design and Development. “All of this has an immediate influence on the design of our product. Whether it's Cornish fisherman, tin miners or the ever-changing and extreme weather and rugged cliff faces, there’s definitely something mystical here.”
Todd, who prefers to go by first name only, started at Finisterre about nine months ago, and his focus thus far has been on tweaking the head-to-toe design, hardgoods and heritage feel whilst dialing-in the aesthetic of their womenswear offerings. I am looking forward to what Todd comes up with for Fall 2014. If it is anything like the Petrichor shirt dress or the Hendra Jumper it is sure to be very, very good.
Todd came to the Finisterre family from Central Saint Martins, where he originally specialized in womenswear yet never considered himself a womenswear designer.
“I wanted to design for both men and women, but generally that's not seen as the ‘done’ thing so I felt a pressure to decide between the two. I chose womenswear as a reaction to a masculine design handwriting that could result in a tomboy-esque appearance,” Todd said.
A tomboy myself, I pressed on, asking Todd more about the sort of woman he designs for. “She fits right into our Cold Water Surf ethos," he answered. "She is bold and adventurous and loves the great outdoors. She has a natural flair for style, without following the trends and appreciates quality clothing that's going to last. Throw-away fashion is of no interest to her. I've been working on some new Fair Isle knit patterns for both women and men and hope to create a more unisex Bowmont sweater this winter.”
The Bowmont Sweater refers of course to Finisterre’s Bowmont Project. Back in 2003, during a meeting at the Wheal Kitty Workshops, the decision was made to place wool fibre innovation at the cornerstone of Finisterre’s brand and product development. Envisioning a closed-loop UK supply chain of exceptional quality, their efforts led them to Lesley Prior, a Devon-based breeder who had rescued the last of a highly unique breed of Bowmont sheep form the abbatoir.
“It's definitely one of the most exciting stories within fashion and textiles,” Todd said when asked about Finisterre’s relationship with this most special of flocks. The partnership between the two has proven beneficial for both parties. Working with Finisterre has enabled Lesley to continue breeding her sheep in the manner she sees best, while in turn Finisterre benefits from an exceptional fibre, a super-close supply chain, and delivery on their promise of continued innovation. Deborah Luffman, Finisterre’s Production Director, was a key player in bringing the pioneering brand in touch with the enterprising breeder.
“We came across something online about Lesley Prior whilst trawling through textile press in our search to find a European source of merino,” said Deborah. “We arranged to meet Lesley at her beautiful farmhouse set into the Exmoor countryside in Devon, two hours up the road from the Finisterre headquarters, to chat. Her kitchen was covered in hand-dyed cashmere yarn, in the corner was her spinning wheel and on the table a pot of tea and fresh sandwiches for us. She explained how she was improving the quality and fineness of the wool fibre by line-breeding the Bowmont across generations and how she was protecting the breed by putting the rare Bowmont DNA on ice. Her passion is infectious and from that meeting we went on to start joining the dots together to develop a new supply chain which would support the Bowmont fibre by producing garments in this very special and very rare British merino.”
This spring the sheep will be sheared, and Finisterre will buy the clip. At present it is enough to fill a transit van, but not enough to make more than 500 knitted products. Too precious to be FedExed; the production and design team will instead set off in a van towards Lesley’s farm and make a whole weekend of the delivery. Camping en route,they will load up at the farm in Devon, heading on to a famed Yorkshire mill where the clip will be spun into yarn, and afterwards, the team will continue north to Scotland where the knitted garments will be produced, and here is where the discussion of new patterns and styles for the upcoming season will take place.
At present the yield of Bowmont wool may be small, but it is of exceptional quality. “At some point the wool will be better than Merino,” said Todd. “ We have taken cuttings to wool experts and they cannot believe it was produced here in the UK.”
Thus far, Finisterre's Bowmont products have taken the form of beanies, scarves, and my personal favorite; the Fair Isle sweater. Currently offered for men, this uber-classic garment is one Todd has been redesigning in order to offer to women next fall.
“Whilst I fully encourage women to buy from our mens range, I appreciate that things aren't so straight forward,” Todd said. “Over the last couple of years our female following has rapidly increased and we get constant requests for female versions of the mens product. We've already made big moves in redesigning our traditional fisherman's jumpers. Whilst some of these designs have been tailored for a better fit, others have been left more oversized with a little bit of extra attention to neck and shoulders to make the garment more flattering.”
Looking ahead to Fall 2014 Finisterre shows no signs of watering down their womenswear. The upcoming season promises waterproof woolen coats, fisherman’s rainmacs, further innovations in merino wool, loads of new accessories, hardgoods, a tiered collection of both classic core pieces along higher-end bits, and of course; fresh color-ways.
“Winter 2014 will be our biggest and strongest season to date,” said Todd. “We will be using new blends to harness the best of the natural world in terms of comfort and warmth combined with the durability of manmade fibers. We are pushing conventional notions and aesthetics of waterproofs and insulated garments into what we believe will be a very wearable and original way of keeping warm and dry.”
Tom Kay founded Finisterre with perhaps more conviction than he had experience. In its place he brought his passion for the sea and an idealistic vision. Founded upon the plight of the cold water surfer and apparel manufacturing integrity at a time when few were concerned with either, Finisterre has been a leader in the cold water surf category since its inception.
"Our ethic is simple," said Deborah Luffman. "Work with specialists in their craft, know them, visit them, understand the whole process, and finally, do not trust certifications over gut and first hand knowledge. There is no single 'eco' strategy or solution in what we do, but we aim to interrogate, understand, and improve. We do not pander to trend or heritage, we are inspired by our environment, our passion for the ocean and by good meaningful design. I trained in fashion design, but always had a need that what I designed would be useful, functional and have some level of intelligence or innovation. I am lucky enough to meet and work with inspirational people who believe we can design and make things differently."
Twelve years in; Finisterre remains a pioneering force in the surfwear category. They’ve made incredible products, built lasting and meaningful relationships, and tomorrow in their workshop; they will be showcasing their latest film. I won’t be there, but wish I could be. For all of us located farther away, I recommend visiting the Finisterre website instead, where the full film, 'Coming Up For Air' will be available for download later this week.