How an independent jacket manufacturer took on the big brands

5 min read
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England isn’t well known for its stunning landscapes, but look hard enough and you’ll find some truly breathtaking terrain. The rolling hills of the Peak District, in the county of Derbyshire, are a fine example. And that’s where we find entrepreneurs Allen Holland and Will Parsons.

We’re at the foot of a 'clough' – a steep gritstone cliff face – which experienced rock climber Allen is about to scale (we’ve politely declined to risk life and limb). Seasoned climber Allen knows about outdoor pursuits. In 2018, he and his co-founders Will Parsons and Steve Crosby created Dark Peak, an outdoor apparel company with a very simple aim: to create the best outdoor clothing in the world and help society’s most vulnerable.  

Living in Sheffield, on the doorstep of the Peak District National Park, it’s hard not to have a passion for the great outdoors. Allen, Will and Steve already run a successful sports equipment company, QuickPlay, founded in 2008 – and from there Dark Peak was born. Will Parsons: "We both have a passion for outdoor activities – Allen is a big climber and I enjoy hiking. And we're both gear geeks: we spend a lot of time looking at, buying and trying outdoor gear. It's always been a market we've looked at from the outside and thought 'we'd like to try that'; we felt we had the right expertise to make great outerwear products of our own.”


Dark Peak's Allen Holland continues, "We've been running our existing company for over 10 years and have built up a lot of expertise in the design and manufacture of products. Given how much we love the outdoors: hiking, cycling, climbing etc., we felt this was a great market to apply our skills to."

Using their product development experience, Allen, Will and the Dark Peak team decided to create a jacket that provides insulation against the cold but also gives you the upper body flexibility to move and stretch. Allen and his team bought jackets from all the best outerwear manufacturers and laid them out on a table, with the express intention of working out the best features from each. "We wanted to gather all the best features and incorporate them into our own design." 

Woman in dark peak jacket

"China used to be like the Wild West"

"We drafted out early designs and sourced samples from China," continues Allen. "Things have changed so much in China. It truly is the world's manufacturing powerhouse. But things were very different only 15 years ago when we first began working with manufacturers there. A lack of regulation and language barriers were big problems, but these days platforms like Alibaba have reduced the barriers to finding good suppliers to work with." The team wanted to make sure they launched with the best product possible and so they took two years of samples, testing and revisions to make a performance down jacket they could be proud of.

The result was the NESSH jacket, a super-lightweight premium jacket packed with features. It has everything needed for outdoor exploring, from top-class down or synthetic insulation and water resistance to a two-way zipper and wrist-gaiters for added warmth and comfort. It can even fold up into its own pocket for easy transport, weighing just 340g. 

But how could Dark Peak differentiate itself against a crowded market?

"Aside from a great product that combines all the features you’d want from a top outdoor jacket, we knew that one advantage we had was our distribution model." The Dark Peak team could have taken the traditional route and sold its products through wholesale channels to bricks-and-mortar and online retailers. Instead they opted for a direct to consumer model and launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund its first production run. Allen says, "Pre-launch we created a landing page that helped us collect email addresses and then we ran an email campaign to get those people to back the project. We also advertised our Kickstarter campaign through Facebook to get the word out to people who’d never heard of us.”

It was a great success, raising nearly £110K in the 35 days that the campaign ran in late 2018. Post-Kickstarter campaign, they’ve moved onto the next phase of their selling strategy – direct to consumer via their e-commerce website DarkPeakGear.com. “Bypassing the retailers and cutting out the middlemen-distributors – common to the apparel market – we can communicate directly to a global audience and sell a premium performance down jacket for less than similar spec’d products from big retail brands – because we don’t have the distribution, staffing and marketing costs associated with traditional retail channels." Discover the range of ways your business can secure funding here.

Woman and man walking in the snow

One sold, one given

But it wasn’t enough for the Dark Peak team to build a business based solely on profit. Allen, Will and Steve had a strong desire to do something different and instead build a business that cares about helping others – so they settled on a simple idea. For every jacket bought, Dark Peak uses some of the money saved from cutting out retailers to donate another jacket to the homeless. Their slogan, and overarching business strategy, is: ‘One Sold, One Given’.

Allen says, "We felt it was important to build our new business from the ground up around the idea of giving back. The feedback we’ve received so far regarding our One Sold, One Given model has been overwhelmingly positive. I think it resonates with people, because they know that by buying our product, somebody else who is cold – and desperately needs warmth – gets a jacket as well. It's an issue close to our hearts and, as far as we know, it's unique to the outerwear market. We have been working with charities and shelters to design another jacket, fit for the needs of the homeless that will be donated in bulk to shelters and charities around the world.”

The first crowdfunded orders

Dark Peak secured over 700 backers during their Kickstarter campaign, pledging nearly £110k. Once the campaign concluded in December 2018, they placed their purchase order with their supplier for over 1000 jackets and then set about building their e-commerce website for future sales. "China manufacturing is not a quick process. The first order took three months to manufacture, and although we would normally ship them in bulk via sea container (which takes a month) we decided to airfreight the stock (which is faster, but more expensive) in order to get the jackets to our backers and customers as quickly as possible. Now, we have the stock on site in the UK, and we ship the jackets out individually from our base in Sheffield."

Demand for Dark Peak's NESSH jacket has been strong, with customers as far away as Japan and the US. However, the primary market is the EU, where Dark Peak uses DHL Express to safely and reliably ship its stock. DHL Express also handles Dark Peak's returns process. Allen says, "DHL is just a great partner for us as they’ve got this massive network. They can get products all the way around the world within days. You can be right on the other side of the world in Australia, and someone can get a jacket delivered straight to their door. And that’s just absolutely phenomenal." Read our article outlining what you need to know about logistics to make your startup successful.

Man and woman in dark peak jackets

DarkPeakGear.com and beyond

The Dark Peak Team is now focused on the future. They spent the early months of 2019 building their e-commerce website, which launched in February: “It was our aim to create a clean, easy-to-use website that customers can quickly navigate, find what they need and check out in multiple currencies – because international orders are a big focus for us.” The in-house team built their website from the ground up, looking at the best shopping experiences from other brands and e-commerce market leaders to create a great buying experience. “We made sure that we ticked all the boxes we could think of. When a customer on the other side of the world buys, they want to have the confidence their product is going to arrive. Integrating our website with DHL Express allows us to provide tracking and up-to-date shipment progress to customers as soon as the package leaves our warehouse.

Would they do Kickstarter again? “Definitely,” says Allen, “we intend to do all our major product launches on Kickstarter, it’s an amazing way to build excitement for a new product and it has a community of passionate backers who are willing to take a risk to help make ideas and dreams a reality – we wouldn’t be where we are now without it.” Can a startup be socially responsible and still be successful? Allen thinks so: "If you’re a new brand starting out, you really need to think about corporate social responsibility. It’s not enough to simply strive for profit, benefiting only a handful of shareholders – your customers care about the world they live in and so should you."

You can find out more about the Dark Peak brand and buy their NESSH Down Jacket at www.darkpeakgear.com.