Words by Fiona McGowan
The dryrobe has received high praise since its launch, and has now become an essential piece of kit for any outdoor enthusiast.
From Finisterre to Fat Face and from Salt Rock to Stussy, beachy clothing brands can be a golden pathway to success. While the world of outdoor wear has sometimes slithered into fast fashion, it is the functional, high end, more durable items that have always been a strong point for many top brands. Think Patagonia, with its recycling ethos and wetsuit-fixing offering, or Cornwall-based Finisterre, whose small, stylish range of outdoor clothing focuses on functionality first. An entrepreneur could do a lot worse than to step into the world of beach related products, particularly if they hail from the south west and have a yen for surfing.
I met one such entrepreneur in his spacious offices in Braunton, north Devon. Gideon Bright spent his formative years in Cornwall, left the county, immersed himself in a distinctly non-beachy career, and ended up in north Devon with a glimmer of an idea of how to make a beach-related product. Now, his idea has turned into a £3m-a-year outdoor clothing brand whose roots might be based in the sand and salt of the beach, but which now reaches almost every aspect of outdoor life, from camping to triathlons, from wild swimming to rock climbing. His business has collaborations with the likes of Red Bull, Go Pro, PADI and Tough Mudder. His brand is seen at some of the world’s biggest endurance events and on the backs of Team GB athletes. And he’s still restless for expansion…
Back in the 80s, Gideon had a special changing robe that was the envy of his mates. A crowd of young surfers, they were out in all conditions, bunging their boards and kit in a van and chasing the waves up and down the Cornish coast. After a surf session, Gideon would pull on a hooded, floor length, poncho-like gown – elasticated at the neck, towelling on the inside and waterproof tent material on the outside.
Some 30 years later, in his cool open-plan mezzanine meeting room, Gideon takes a sip of coffee and glances at a screen whose rolling images show hooded figures on snowy beaches, leaning over camp fires and running on sunlit sands. He reminisces on his early days down in Cornwall, and his odd-looking robe. “You put it on, and it looked mental,” he says, “we’d go surfing and we’d share it to change under. We had that thing in the van for years and years…” His mum had made it for him one Christmas, he remembers. They were a resourceful family: “We lived on a small farm not far from Truro, and my parents made their own wetsuits. They used to buy neoprene and cut it out and glue it together. My first wetsuit was one of the ones that she built.”
Gideon’s journey took him far away from those beginnings, and he would never have guessed that his mum’s home-made poncho would one day form the basis of his multi-million-pound business. Surfing was one of the deepest drivers throughout Gideon’s life. He lived to surf. As a young man, he learned to do graphic design (his dad’s trade before starting the farm), and had a vague idea of becoming a builder (having helped his dad on building projects). But it was when he was living at his aunt’s house in Carbis Bay in the early 90s that a surfing film jettisoned him into a ‘proper’ career.
Blue Juice, starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Ewan McGregor, was filmed in west Cornwall. Like a lot of his friends, Gideon worked as an extra and hung around on the set. “I ended up helping the location manager,” he adds, “because I knew where a lot of things were...”
(Above: Gideon Bright)
From that small opportunity, Gideon built a career as a location manager in the film and TV industries, based in London. At first, his job was pretty low-key – “sorting out parking and police permissions and telling extras where to go,” but after progressing through jobs on various TV detective shows, he started working in commercials and pop videos. Living in a garden flat in Maida Vale, he was working on set with the likes of Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue, Sting and Craig David. His job was not at the glamorous end of film-making, he emphasises – the focus being on the logistics and planning: “I’ve always been a list writer and organiser.” When he wasn’t working, of course, he was surfing – taking at least a couple of months off every winter to travel the world to feed his passion.
Eventually, working in a high-pressured job in London took its toll, and Gideon retreated to north Devon. He had bought a place to live with his girlfriend and baby in Croyde, commuting to London to work. The logistics of living away from home didn’t work, though – the relationship broke down and to his devastation, his ex moved to Australia with their daughter. Not long afterwards, Gideon met someone else. Determined to keep his focus firmly on his new wife and family, he returned to Croyde, left the film industry and re-acquainted himself with graphic design; learned to build websites, and developed his skills in online marketing.
By 2010, Gideon owned a few properties in the south west, and supplemented his income with design work. But the numbers weren’t adding up to have the lifestyle he yearned for… the ability to make enough money while still focusing on his children. One particular self improvement book had a major impact: The Four-Hour Work Week suggested that charging for your time is a poor way to be financially successful. After all, explains Gideon, there are only so many hours in the day that you can charge for.
He set a challenge for himself and his wife, to each come up with an idea for a product: “We’ll bring those to the table next week and we’re going to make whatever it is that we come up with. I will build a website and build a logo for it.” He didn’t immediately come up with the idea for the dryrobe – there were plenty of changing robes on the market by this time, and his mum’s waterproof hoody didn’t resurface in his mind. The first idea was a towel with Velcro that you could wrap around yourself to change underneath. But soon afterwards, in Australia, he saw his daughter struggling to change under what was known as a ‘swim parka’ – a long, narrow coat with fleece lining – and he was reminded of his mum’s epic poncho.
Like all the best entrepreneurs, Gideon combines the elements of opportunism, determination and risk taking. Within months, he’d designed a changing robe (voluminous, covered in tough waterproofing; lined with thick fleece; wide, short arms and chunky zip), found suppliers of fabrics, built a website, designed the brand logo, and had got a local business to start knocking up the designs. He is also adaptive. The initial designs began to sell, but he was only making about a £5 markup on each robe. Raising his prices caused a bit of a furore in the surfing community, he says – he priced them at just shy of £100 – but they were still selling.
It was a giant learning curve. At first, he was importing the fabrics, managing the manufacturing and bagging up the robes with the help of his kids in the garden shed. Within three years, he had an office and a small staff. He was going to trade shows and marketing the brand. The designs have had a few minor changes over the years: they now have pockets, and you can buy long-sleeved versions. There are different patterned fabrics and choices of colourways. The ethos behind the business, though, has never changed. “I’ve always been a ‘come on, let’s get out, let’s do something’ kind of dad. And the core of dryrobe is enabling everyone to get outside.”
The priorities, though, are changing with the times: “I originally came at it from a purely product and marketing side,” admits Gideon. “But then you become aware of it and educate yourself about the impact of your product. So now, eco and environment is at the top of the agenda, whether it’s on the new product development front, on fabrics and sourcing, or it’s the supply chain, right through to the consumer using it.” dryrobes are built to last, Gideon points out, so they are not fast fashion. The focus today is on reducing the plastic packaging, and the current project is to source more sustainable fabrics.
Last year, the company sold nearly 40,000 robes and has twelve full time and four part time staff based in its offices in Braunton. His face lights up when he talks about the future: “The business is a lot of fun. The whole thing just oozes opportunity for me that I’m just desperate to access.” And, although there is a lot more at stake than in the garden shed days, he’s clearly not afraid of risk: “I just love pushing it out there and doing all the things we’re thinking about at the moment. It’s all internationalising. We’ve got a fantastic product that will work in so many different areas, in so many countries. And yet hardly anybody’s heard of it.”
With all this productivity, I wonder if Gideon has got close to that four-hour work week – has he achieved the nirvana of work-life balance? “Getting the weighting right has got its challenges,” he says, “but I’m fortunate that I can still have the time with the children, because of the team I’ve got around me. My personal focus is still where it has always been: the kids and the family.”