A swell may be an unusual reason to down tools, but for Finisterre, an independent surf-inspired clothing company in Cornwall, southwest England, it provides the perfect excuse. “If there’s surf on, we’ll just lock up and go,” says designer Thomas Podkolinski, beaming smugly. There’s no question that Finisterre does things differently.
Tom Kay, a surfing fanatic from Norfolk, founded the company in 2002 after spotting a gap in the market. While the international surf-affiliated brands have become increasingly fashion-orientated, Kay wanted to go back to basics and make a technical product for surfers.
“I wanted to create a brand that represented the real needs of the surfing community from an environmental and product point of view,” he says. He thinks there are too many companies selling “rubbish T-shirts made in China” that continue to call themselves surf brands. To turn back the tide, Kay quit his investment job in London, moved to surfing hotspot St Agnes and started building a business from his laptop in an attic office.
The company’s new – and expanded – HQ is a converted barn in a former tin-mine estate. It’s where the team of four who now run the brand are based: founder and co-owner Kay, designer Podkolinski, marketing director Ernest Capbert and sales and customer services director Stephen Davis. And then there’s Happy, the office dog.
Finisterre’s core range comprises just six garments. However, just how big the collection will become, as the brand inevitably grows, remains to be seen. The intention is to expand the collection to 10 garments in September. Currently the menswear and womenswear ranges run from hooded sweatshirts in merino wool, through to parkas featuring fabrics used by the British Special Forces and Mountain Rescue teams.
Around 80 per cent of the products are sold through the company’s website, with the remainder sold through surf shops in the UK, the Netherlands and Canada. “We’re very selective about our retailers; we don’t want the collection gathering dust. We’re feeling out foreign markets via our retail,” says Capbert. Finisterre sells around 3,500 garments a year. The clothes are manufactured in Devon, Portugal and Colombia. The Colombian factory in Bogotá is run by nuns as part of a scheme to help underprivileged women.
Finisterre puts a concerted effort into fulfilling its founding green and ethical principles. Around 18 months ago, Kay pulled Finisterre’s manufacturing from China because of his concerns over labour relations and environmental sustainability. It resulted in a doubling of manufacturing costs for Finisterre’s top-end garments, but this cost increase was absorbed by the business, thanks to its direct-selling model. Should others pull out of China? “Yes. Without a question,” says Kay firmly.
Finisterre’s work culture is intrinsically tied to its brand values. The team work from laptops while sitting at their desks or on sofas, wrapped up warm in their Finisterre garments. Surfing memorabilia decorates the walls, and the open-plan space has a cluttered and chaotic feel, more like a cosy living room than an office, with rows of surf boards stacked up, ready to be snatched when the surf’s up. “That’s why we’re down here. It fires us up, makes it easier to work and gets us reinvigorated and inspired,” says Kay.
The team is also increasingly being sought after to speak at ethical and green business conferences. Finisterre seems set to thrive in retail’s choppy waters. “At first people were saying we sounded like a bunch of hippies, but now the thinking has changed,” says Kay.
The decline of mining and fishing brought high levels of unemployment to Cornwall in the 1990s, but substantial investment, including a €600m cash injection from the EU, is helping to revitalise the economy. Unemployment levels in Cornwall halved from 3.7 per cent in 1999 to 1.8 per cent in August 2006. The picturesque county of Cornwall is in southwest England and is about a 45-minute flight or a five-hour train journey from London. Yes, it also needs some EU aid for a highspeed rail link.