Rohan, Milton Keynes

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Milton Keynes – City of Dreams

Rohan is based on an industrial estate in Milton Keynes.

We overlook Monks Way, one of the main dual carriageways that cross town. In MK code, it’s called the H3. There’s only one good thing about the H3. The Aston Martin Works Service department is based in Newport Pagnell. And the H3 is the closest bit of fast road. So, when we hear a thunderous roar, it’s not a looming rain storm. It’s just a technician ‘road testing’ someone’s pride and joy – and our meeting room offers us a grandstand view.

We’ve got some nice neighbours too. Scania, the truck manufacturer, Daimler Chrysler, the car maker, and Coca-Cola Enterprises, the ‘world’s largest marketer, producer and distributor of Coca-Cola products’ are all in the same block. We don’t have loads in common with any of them, to be honest, but we all get along fine.

On the face of it, it’s a strange place for Rohan to be based. Our roots – and our inspiration – are in the outdoors. Rohan enthusiasts often ask us why we’re not based somewhere ‘nice’. In Kendal, maybe, or the Peak District. Or back in Yorkshire, where it all began.

They’re all great parts of the country. And it’s no surprise that so many outdoor clothing companies are based in there.

But Rohan’s not really like other British outdoor companies. And the more you know about MK and the more you get to know the culture of Rohan, the more you begin to understand that, far from being a strange choice, Milton Keynes is actually a perfect base – it is, perhaps, the only real choice.

The Birth of a City, the Birth of a Brand

In the 1960’s the government decided that a further generation of new towns in the South East was needed to relieve housing congestion in London, where thousands of people were still living in dilapidated Victorian terraces which lacked the most basic of amenities.

At around the same time, outdoor enthusiasts were wandering the hills in itchy wool jumpers, heavy gabardine jackets, thick tweed breeches and army surplus gear. OK, they did a job – but not very well. Surely there must be a better option…

For the government 40 odd years ago, the better option was a huge new town located equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge. The design of Milton Keynes was based on some pretty radical thinking. Californian urban theorist Melvin M Webber thought that telecommunications meant that the old idea of a city as a concentric cluster was out of date and that cities that enabled people to travel around them easily was the way forward. “Community without propinquity” was the future. And, in 2009, with the rise in car ownership and the spread of the internet that decision looks astonishingly far-sighted.

Early Rohan designs were equally radical. They represented a comprehensive break from tradition. The fabric, the design, the styling. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Jackets made from a lightweight blend of polyester and cotton? How could that keep the wind off? Well, it did. And it did it better than gabardine. It also dried more quickly and weighed far, far less. Breeches made from stretchy synthetics? They won’t work. Well, they did. And they still do. Rohan Superstriders and Striders are still selling – better than ever. Those futuristic early designs look, well, astonishingly far-sighted.

Simple is Complicated – the Agony and the Ecstasy

Milton Keynes is based on a grid system. The main roads are laid out at roughly 1km intervals. They run between communities rather than through them. The space between each road is known as a grid square. Each grid square contains a semi-autonomous community, many of which contain a Local Centre. Some of these squares contain offices and warehouses, some contain big posh houses, some contain blocks of apartments, some contain reasonably priced houses, some contain expensive ones, some contain parks or lakes. Many contain a mix of everything. Oh yeah, and one contains concrete cows. But the great thing is, they all sit together comfortably. And because all the main intersections are roundabouts, traveling between them is quick and easy. In a car, on the bus or, like many Rohan employees, by bike.

And – it just works. There’s no congestion. There’s loads of trees, tons of green space, some beautiful lakes and all the facilities you could need – all easily accessible and available to everyone.

It’s functional. And it’s oddly attractive. Simple, really.

But, as we know from designing clothing, simple is, in fact, extremely complicated. Behind the scenes at the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, there must have been an astonishing level of passion, planning, expertise and sheer hard graft. As Charlton Heston learnt when he was painting the Sistene Chapel, there’s no ecstasy without the agony.

It’s just the same with our clothing. We agonise over every detail. What’s the best fabric? What’s the best cut? Should it be more breathable? Or should it be more water-resistant? Does it need a hood – is it worth the extra weight? Or would it be better without?

With clothing, there’s always pressure to add more – there’s always the temptation to fiddle about. Over the years, though, we’ve learnt to know when something is right.

Form follows function. It’s easy to say, it’s much harder to do. And if you speak with the founders of Milton Keynes and the clothing designers at Rohan, they’ll probably tell you the same.

Don’t Knock It, Until You’ve Tried It

People who have never lived in Milton Keynes, and many people who’ve never visited, share a fairly consistent view of what it’s like.

They don’t like it.

They don’t even like the idea of it. They think it’s a sprawling, ugly, concrete industrial park. And when I first started working here, that preconception was lurking somewhere in my mind too. But the longer you spend in Milton Keynes, the more you appreciate just how good it is. The ease and convenience of living here, the wonderful parks and lakes all around the town, the comprehensive network of cycle ways, the mix of people. There’s all sorts of housing. All close together. There’s no gated communities and there’s no banlieues.

People have some funny preconceptions about Rohan too.

I guess, particularly in the early days, Rohan clothing looked and felt very, very different – a radical break from the commonly held convictions about what outdoor gear SHOULD be like.

And many of the early enthusiasts were ‘different’ too. Alternative, confident, long-term thinkers – not easily influenced by the crowd, and not scared by the shepherd’s dog.

The best way to appreciate Rohan clothing is to take the plunge. To try it, and to wear it – everyday. We often tell people how hard wearing and durable our clothes are. Some even believe us. But it’s only after twenty years of wearing the same pair of Bags that you fully understand just how well-designed and robust our designs really are.

It’s only by living with it, that it starts to make sense. And, if it doesn’t make sense to you, that’s fine too. We’re not a cult – we just make clothing.

Looking Back, I Only Wish We’d Looked Forward More…

One of my favorite anecdotes about the design of Milton Keynes concerns the single-carriageway grid roads. Alongside each of these main roads, there’s a wide open grassed reservation. They’re often landscaped and densely planted with trees. They look nice when you’re driving along and they help eliminate traffic noise for residents. Which is great. But that’s not the main reason they’re there.

They were included in the original design so that, as the city grows (and the traffic increases), any or all of these reservations can be converted into an extra carriageway. So, doubling the capacity of the roads – without the need for expensive redevelopment, demolishing buildings or uprooting residents.

In retrospect, it’s such an obvious thing to have done. So simple, really. But so typical of Milton Keynes. It’s actually happened. Usually, ideas like this are thought up after the event, when it’s too late…you know what, I’ve just thought, it would have been better if we’d…

The designers of Milton Keynes, of course, looked back – and probably all around and up and down too – but most of all, and most importantly, they looked forward.

And that’s the sort of thinking that’s valued at Rohan. Futuristic thinking.

Because without it, we’d still all be complaining about soggy pullovers, sweaty backs, and tweed trousers that never dry.

Next Stop – the Top

The original design guidance for Milton Keynes declared that “no building shall be taller than the highest tree.” That’s lead to a pleasant, green feeling around town – which is no bad thing.

Current thinking, however, is that Central MK needs more ‘landmark buildings’. Buildings that increase the density of development, clearly identify the centre of town and demonstrate the scale of the city’s ambition.

The most recent building under construction is called The Pinnacle MK. It’s the largest office building to be constructed in Milton Keynes in over 25 years and it’s going to form a key part of the city’s skyline in the 21st Century. Milton Keynes is clearly heading up more quickly than out.

Rohan is currently developing a new jacket. By a strange coincidence, it’s called the Pinnacle Jacket and it’s going to be available this autumn.

In a nutshell, it’s the most technical waterproof we’ve ever made. It’s not fussy, it’s not overcomplicated. It’s simple and light and made from the finest components currently available. Everything you need – nothing you don’t. But most importantly, it’s a landmark piece. It’s demonstrates where we’re going.

You may have read Sarah Howcroft’s piece on Rohantime, Windlord 2 Everest. Thirty years ago, Rohan clothing was worn on a significant milestone in the history of mountaineering. The first ascent, without oxygen, of Everest. And all those young alpinists, around at the time, had a significant impact on the design ethos at Rohan.

As Sarah writes:

The younger members of this group had a big influence on the design principles that I suspect are still embedded in the Rohan products today. It’s not surprising that the phrases such as ‘function dictates form’ and ‘fit for purpose’ become real and unimpeachable in all Rohan thinking around this time. Alpinists were hard task masters. Garment failure was not an option. Rohan learnt their trade in a hard school.”

And would the current generation of young alpinists choose our Pinnacle Jacket on a trip where ‘garment failure is not an option’. I think they probably would.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Milton Keynes is the largest and one of the last of the British New Towns. Plenty of people have moved here. Plenty of people live and work here. It’s proved flexible and adaptable. It works.

The original, radical concept may have been refined – times change – but, essentially, the blueprint remains.

It’s stood the great test that all design needs to meet. The test of use.

And we’d like to think the same is true for Rohan.

But is it? We’d love to hear what you think!

Phil Rothwell (from the marketing team at Rohan)

Phils Photostream City of Dreams

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