Kit for the Professionals
Dedicated to equipping outdoor and mountaineering professionals, Jöttnar is the highly technical, no compromise British brand founded by two ex-Royal Marines
Article by Rupert Watkins
Two self-confessed kit monsters when serving with the Royal Marines, Tommy Kelly and Steve Howarth have turned their obsession with gucci gear into a fast growing and thriving mountaineering clothing company Jöttnar, “we wanted to create a brand based on pure need, focused without compromise on equipping outdoor professionals with the very best” Tommy states.
Following a 10 year career in the Royal Marines including stints as a forward air controller and with the commando brigade reconnaissance troop, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq, Tommy started to look to the next stage of his career. “Like many of us, I knew it would be in business but wasn’t sure exactly where or what the next stage was” he recalls. Moving into leadership consultancy, Tommy did not though find the job satisfaction he wanted. At this point, still in touch with Steve, the pair caught up and thought, “shall we go for it and set something up..?”
The starting point of this idea had been a few years earlier, on exercise in Norway in 2006 when the pair had started to discuss kit and gaps in the market. Tommy and Steve now sat down and seriously analysed the marketplace, “we found the outdoor market to be incredibly congested, but we saw that no brand was catering exclusively for the professional and committed user. We wanted to completely focus on that end user, strip away non-essentials and offer the very highest technology, quality and manufacturing.” During this due diligence, the pair examined other brands and saw how too many had grown and sacrificed performance to profit slowly lowering the specifications of outer and technical layers to hit wider price points and audiences, “we never ever want to go down the “lumberjack shirt” route” Tommy says.
In 2011 the pair went full time on Jöttnar. They pooled their savings, began to source materials, research workshops and found a designer able to take their tentative sketches and ideas through to compete patterns. By 2013, Tommy and Steve begun to look for angel round investment to enable the first garments to go to market and managed to find a private investor. With this financial injection, the first four products were launched later that year, a shell jacket, down jacket, mid layer and salopette. All the garments went through numerous prototypes but the pair found their Vanir salopette to be the trickiest to get right, “we designed it from the ground up. Legwear is very, very different to upper body wear” Tommy explains, “there’s more dynamic movement, rub and pressure points and there’s a tricky balance to get right between robustness, warmth and light weight. We went through 11 prototype designs before we were happy.”
From these very precise but modest beginnings Jöttnar has grown. The brand launched to excellent feedback, both from the specialist climbing press and professional users such as some UK mountain rescue teams and the commando brigade reconnaissance troop the pair supplied. Though Tommy is a climber and Steve a skier, they reached out early to mountain sports professionals to create what they call the Pro Team, who also tested designs and suggested refinements. In their first trading year Jöttnar made £100,000 to prove their concept. It certainly though wasn’t plain sailing, “we used my garage at home as a logistics hub!” Tommy recalls laughing, “I was carrying everything, each order to the post office – we also included a hand-written note of thanks to all customers.”
Come 2018 and the brand now offers 31 products arranged round the four levels of base layer, mid layer, insulation and a shell. Male and female mid layers, shells and insulation are offered, the women’s range is eight strong. So what is different about Jöttnar? “We know gear” says Tommy simply, “everything is based off user requirement, we are constantly taking feedback from professional mountaineers, climbers and military users, everything is designed to be worn and work alongside harnesses, belts and rucksack straps. We will always look to improve and refine products – even the first four products we ever launched are subject to continuous examination and refinement. In some ways, there’s no definitive Jöttnar product; everything constantly evolves to remain the best available.”
Jöttnar is the first British brand to use hydrophobic down. Tommy and Steve partnered with US firm DownTek ™, each down filament is treated to make it water-repellent and able to dry faster and still offer insulation and protection when saturated. They pioneered yak wool base layers which make use of an especially long yarn length meaning when woven there are fewer microscopic spaces in the weave for bacteria to cluster and multiply. The layer can thus be worn for longer.
Having started searching for manufacturers in 2011, Steve and Tommy were soon drawn to the Far East. Prototype examples they had made in Europe just didn’t strike them as being as good as they wanted. After lengthy enquiries and testing, the pair found a joint Austrian/German owned workshop in China, “the manufacturing quality is extremely high, we benefit from the knowledge the factory owners have and the Chinese attention to detail. We were always driven by one question, ‘where makes the very best?’ and for us it’s the Far East, we use fabric mills in Japan as well.” Jöttnar is also introducing for Winter 2018/19 its own water proof membrane Skjoldr™. “We wanted to introduce our own waterproof fabric that had been designed and tested by us, we wanted to offer something that was completely ours” Tommy says.
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Only early in 2018 after five years have Tommy and Steve taken on extra staff, the full-time strength of Jöttnar now sits at four. Tommy explains the extra capacity has now allowed them to take that all-important small step back and look to the medium and long term, “we remain though a small company – we pride ourselves on our agility and innovation.” There’s also the very intense personal feeling of having taken a brand from initial idea through to market realisation and success, “it’s our baby” Tommy laughingly puts it. The brand has sold well abroad, he remarks 40 per cent of their output is for export and the US has been a constantly strong market.
Even in a digital world, Tommy doesn’t rule out a shop in the future, “it would be great to have a shop in one (or more) of the top US or European ski resorts, it would enable Jöttnar to have a physical face, allow people to try, touch and feel the difference in our kit.” However, for the immediate future, Tommy and Steve look to grow their digital sales and continuously hone their product.
So what of the name Jöttnar? The names harks back to the Norwegian genesis of the brand. In Norse myth, the jötnar were a race described as giants by many scribes. Tommy and Steve took Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, as their logo as the mythical Norse god used it to defeat giants. “we are about overcoming giants, being able to conquer fears and navigate obstacles; our strapline is ‘conquer giants’ which relates to this notion of surmounting barriers whether the obstacle is in front of you or in your head.”
Jöttnar is certainly at the expensive end of the spectrum but given the research, dedication, testing and manufacture, you will get a product that will protect you for many years against the worst of the mountain weather, for the enthusiastic amateur this gear is spec’ed well beyond average skier. Those searching for a British mountaineering and arctic brand should check out Jöttnar before heading out to slay their own giant – where ever that might be.