More than ever, people are concerned with origin and ethos of what they buy. The eggs are free-range, the produce local and organic, and the coffee fair-trade. It’s about doing what’s healthiest for them and the planet. Now, they’re becoming as concerned with what goes on them too. Icebreaker, the merino wool outdoor apparel company, has a devoted following among the adventurous set—a group notorious for its concern with responsible production. And as their clothing is now sold in 5,000 stores across 50 countries, it seems that the message is resonating. We caught up with Founder and CEO Jeremy Moon in his New Zealand home to find out how the company came to be, what makes merino so special and how to keep the memory of adventure with you long after the trip ended.
How did Icebreaker start?
When I was 24 years old, I met an American girl staying on a merino sheep ranch. She introduced me to the owner and he handed me a t-shirt made out of the merino wool he’d grown. When I put it on, that was my ‘wow’ moment. I was expecting old-fashioned, prickly wool and this was like silk. I didn’t want to take it off. I wore it running every morning through the hills, surrounded by this raw beauty, being in the environment where it was made. That’s when it really felt like I was linking this fiber to adventure. I didn’t take it off. The thing became a part of me. I wore it mountain biking, out to dinner, to bed at night, under my suit. I was mystified. So I quit my job as a researcher and bought the idea of making merino clothing from the farmer—and he became a shareholder. This was in 1996. The business was slow to take off because the whole outdoor and sports industry were extremely resistant to natural products. They’d told their customers that manmade fibers were the future. It took seven years to make people believe there was a natural alternative. At first, we didn’t have money for marketing or advertising. We started here in New Zealand, talking to people on the shop floors, telling them the story and giving them products to try. And they became passionate advocates. The next spring we achieved critical mass and in 2001 we started exporting to Canada and Europe, then the US.
What’s one of your biggest influences?
Travel and adventure have remained a core influence. I grew up traveling a lot with my family and it taught me that the world is a small and connected place. Every year I take my family somewhere random and we live like locals. Last year, we stayed in an ancient Trulli house built out of stone in Puglia, Italy, and the year before that we rented a 17th-century building in Bordeaux, France, and explored all the villages and ate like locals. Work trips become opportunities to explore our relationship to nature and to each other. We had a team meeting on an Island in New Zealand that’s a nature reserve; we were barefoot the whole time and we slept in tents for three days. In January, I’m traveling to Antarctica for a week —Icebreaker supplies the clothing for the scientists working there. It’s going to be an amazing experience, going from the hottest part of the New Zealand summer to an ice continent. I’m speaking at the first TEDx in Antarctica on how to build a nature-based company. Also, my home in New Zealand is a source of inspiration. It’s a land of raw, inspired beauty that’s disconnected from the world.
What’s it like, going from synthetic fabrics to Icebreaker merino wool?
For me, my epiphany came during a three-day hiking trip with a bunch of guys wearing manmade fabrics such as polyester. Day one was ok, day two the clothing was clingy and stinky and by the third day it was gross. It was because manmade fabrics are made with petrochemicals. The mission I’m on is shifting us away from manmade fibers by revealing what they are: melted plastic knitted together with added chemicals, which is not healthy for our skin. Merino wool is the perfect high-tech natural fiber. Unlike synthetic materials, it regulates temperature and doesn’t hold body odor, plus it’s soft, durable, lightweight and machine-washable. At Icebreaker we give the technology credit to nature. Merino wool is made of keratin, the same protein your skin and hair is built from. Merino wool is an adaptation that increases the insulation and breathability so the sheep can live in the mountains. Wearing merino wool clothes—a sort of second-skin—is a way of grounding ourselves. When we see ourselves as part of an ecosystem, we see nature as something to participate and connect to, and not exploit.
What is the message Icebreaker offers through its clothes?
The heart of Icebreaker is exploring our relationship to nature and to each other. We live in cities because there’s a creative and social payoff, and an intensity that excites us as humans. But it comes at a mental and spiritual cost, it’s exhausting. Getting into nature is a way of restoring ourselves and sharing adventures in nature with people we care about.
We get the fiber from nature and, by wearing Icebreaker, you embrace the belief that you’re a part of nature and you’re up for an adventure. Icebreaker transitions perfectly from nature to your everyday life and vice versa. My favorite piece is our t-shirt. I’ve been climbing at 12,000 feet in freezing conditions and it’s a base layer. And I wear it to the beach in summer, I sleep in it, I can wear it to out to dinner. Putting on this shirt helps me remember all the adventures. Our clothing resonates with people looking for products that speak to the symbiosis between humans and nature.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about Icebreaker?
A little fact I love is that each merino sheep produces five Icebreaker garments every year throughout their natural life. After the sheep’s been shorn at the start of spring, it goes back up to the mountain so it’s a natural cycle, it’s annually renewable. The animals live in a wild natural environment, and we have contracts with the farms for wool supply. A key part of the contracts ensures the animals and the environments are treated to the highest standard. And this natural ecosystem, covering about four million acres of New Zealand, generates a few million Icebreaker garments every year. If you think about it, we’ve now got close to a million employees and most of them have four legs.
Icebreaker merino clothing for the outdoors, technical sports and lifestyle includes underwear, mid layer garments, outerwear, socks and accessories for men, women and children. Icebreaker is based in Auckland, New Zealand, and is sold at Icebreaker retail stores in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States, wholesale partners around the world and online at icebreaker.com.
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