Last year, on this day, we published on Rohantime a post about the late Paul Howcroft the original Rohanist. Who died on 14th Jun 1993. The response to this post was fantastic. Given the day that’s in it, we have published a post from a close colleague that worked, laughed, and cried with us in the early pioneering days. Former journalist Jon Boston now running a PR consultancy recalls how Rohan first won its reputation as the enfant terrible of a – both literally and figuratively – dyed-in-the-wool industry. This is his memory of those days and Paul. It contains a lot of Rohan history and history of the Outdoor Trade in general. One for the archive. If this triggers memories of Paul and early Rohan, please add them in the comments at the end of this post. Sarah Howcroft Co Founder Rohan
When Rohan’s stand-off shocked show visitors
Supreme confidence or breathtaking arrogance? Opinion among visitors to the Harrogate outdoor trade fair in 1979 was divided. In the former camp were retailers who had received an invitation to visit Rohan’s stand at the show – and in the latter were those spitting blood because they hadn’t.
The reason was obvious as soon as you entered the exhibition hall. Aisle upon aisle of outdoor equipment suppliers had set out their stalls to woo would-be buyers. Clothing, tents, rucksacks and walking gear were all bathed under bright spotlights and flanked by eager reps with order pads at the ready.
Then there was the Rohan stand. Or rather, the Rohan fortress. No products, no spotlights, no signs. Instead, a totally enclosed and windowless module with just a single person guarding its door. Her job? To admit those bearing an invitation, and to politely but firmly turn away the rest.
Rohan’s total disregard for the conventions of trade show behaviour became the talk of the three-day event. For pity’s sake, went the murmurings, why were these people deliberately cutting themselves off from new trade buyers during the most critically important dates in the marketing calendar?
When it became known that the purchasing manager of a major national chain of outdoor shops was among those barred by the minder, bewilderment among exhibitors turned into stunned disbelief. What the hell were these guys thinking of?
In fact, Sarah and Paul’s thinking was based on a mixture of pragmatism and a determination to continue running Rohan according to their own rules.
Limiting exposure of their clothing to selected buyers was a logical way of ensuring that demand didn’t outstrip their capacity to supply. For by 1979, Rohan was being regularly celebrated in the outdoor press – and not just for its design flair and uninhibited colour combinations.
Gear tests by highly regarded reviewers such as Chris Townsend and Clive Tully proved that Rohan actually outperformed conventional walking clothing by some margin. Sure, they said, Rohan looked good – but hey, this stuff is actually way more comfortable and practical.
Increasingly, retailers were being asked for Rohan by customers. But Sarah and Paul were still funding the business largely from cash-flow. Fabric and manufacturing had to be paid for up front, and pay-back came only when retailers decided to settle their accounts.
In other words, a sudden deluge of orders at Harrogate could have exacted almost impossible financial pressures on the couple.
But Fortress Rohan also served another purpose. And the clue to that lay in Sarah and Paul’s historical relationships with the outdoor trade – a sector then typified by deeply conservative shop owners who felt troubled by anything less familiar than a mess tin or bobble hat.
For the most part, their reaction to Rohan was one of scepticism. As Sarah and Paul did the early rounds of retailers, they became used to sound of air being drawn in through clenched teeth as the samples were laid on the counter. That and shop door closing behind them as the owner returned to re-arranging his display of boot dubbin.
But occasionally, just occasionally, the couple’s energy, enthusiasm, and strong-rooted belief in their products succeeded in lighting a fire. The buyer caught the buzz, and bought-in not just to the clothing, but to the whole radical concept of outdoor gear designed for performance.
It was these retailers who became the most evangelical torch-bearers for Rohan – and who realised that they were spearheading a revolution in clothing design for a new generation of outdoor people.
It was a generation which wanted adventure, discovery and excitement from their pastime – not just a tick against another well-trod route.
And it was, of course, these – often younger – retail owners who were ushered into Fortress Rohan to preview the latest design collection. If others had chosen to shut Rohan out in the past, there was no way that Sarah and Paul would be opening the door to them now.
But Harrogate ’79 wasn’t the first and only time that Rohan would be the talking point of the show. The couple became used to being asked “What are you going to do this year?”, and receiving nothing but an enigmatic smile in return.
Future surprises brought to the gentile spa town of Harrogate by Rohan included an in-yer-face fashion show staged by professional cat-walk models against a sound wall of contemporary rock music.
On another occasion, Paul decided to respond to criticism that Rohan’s clothing was simply too avant garde by submitting himself to an on-stage grilling in the exhibition’s theatre hall – first by an interviewer, and then members of the audience. His explanation of the clothing’s design rationale and fierce defence of its integrity produced a bravura performance.
Then there were the robotic dancers who became the focus of attention one year as they moved silently and mechanically among visitors, kitted out in the latest designs. And the season when Rohan’s stand was decked with photographs of its gear worn by fragile but pretty young things, all shot against stark urban landscapes.
By this time, in the mid-Eighties, Rohan was coming to the attention of a wider public. It’s practicability as travel clothing (think zips, light weight, fast drying) found favour among a number of well-known names associated with exploration and adventure, including expedition leader John Blashford-Snell, the founder Operation Raleigh.
Botanist David Bellamy was often seen wearing Rohan in his ubiquitous TV appearances filmed around the world, and soon even high profile personalities with no outdoor credentials at all – such as confirmed metropolitan and humourist Miles Kington – were quietly dropping the name into newspaper articles.
It was also around this time that Sarah and Paul were finally beginning to resolve their constant battle to find consistently reliable UK clothing manufactures. The unfamiliar fabrics with which makers were asked to work, and the high quality standards set by the couple, meant that suppliers were constantly being chopped and changed.
Now, though, their manufacturing sources were more stable – and the increasing interest in Rohan from a wider market convinced them to try some higher-profile consumer advertising.
Rohan’s ads in the specialist outdoor press had been just as unconventional as their exhibition appearances – and they decided to carry the theme into their first foray in mainstream media. Rohan’s ad appeared as a full colour page in the Sunday Times magazine – and was, they both admitted, a very expensive gamble.
At the bottom of the ad was a small coupon inviting readers to send for a catalogue. By the end of the week after the Sunday Times was published, the pair had generated an incredible five thousand-plus catalogue requests – an almost unheard of volume, especially for a company unfamiliar to most readers.
The ad, by the way, was as simple as it was dramatic. To illustrate Rohan’s pack-small ability, it showed a tin of Coke, open one end, with a pair of Rohan Bags stuffed inside – and above it, the entertainingly ambiguous headline: “Rohan can”.
That was 25 years ago. And Rohan still does.