I was fortunate enough last week to have the chance to interview Kate Giles. The first thing I learnt was that it’s not a good start to insult your interviewee. In my defence I honestly meant ‘tough cookie’ as a compliment.
To build a solid case for the defence I’m talking about a Team GB rower who caught pneumonia whilst training in foul weather, but who only found out when coughing and hearing a ‘pop’ that turned out to be three ribs cracking. This is a woman who, whilst taking a year to recover, comes up with the idea of creating performance sportswear so that no other athlete has to suffer the same fate as her. Anyone can come up with a good idea, but I’m talking about a woman who acts on it by forming a company and setting about revolutionising sportswear. As if that wasn’t enough, this ‘tough cookie’ is the sort of person who, when struggling to get people into her shop doesn’t give up but sets up a juice bar inside to tempt them in, and when that doesn’t work offers fried breakfasts instead. In my eyes that’s someone who’s a tough cookie, although Kate very politely suggested that ‘resilient’ was maybe a better word.
The company Kate set up with a friend became Crewroom, and she recently bought out her partner to become the sole CEO. She leads a company that designs performance sportswear that looks as good as it feels to wear. It’s not only the designs that are innovative, but the company has developed their own fabrics to ensure the products come up to their high standards. Kate said the main focus for her clothing has always been the materials, so much so that she became involved in developing her own fabrics. Their shirts made from “Vapour-X” fabric each contain about 10 recycled water bottles, as well as bamboo charcoal, which means they’re also nailing their colours to the environmental mast as well. I will be looking more at the fabrics in my next post where I review a couple of Crewroom shorts and vests.
Obviously the function of the clothing is very important, but looking at the Crewroom website they also look really stylish. I’m impressed with how they look good without any of the silly fripperies that some companies seem to think women need to have in their sportswear. I don’t want laces to dangle and annoy me, nor acres of loose flappy fabric to make me look huge and rub me raw when it’s hot, thank you very much. I am also impressed that the women’s specific clothing, whilst it does have some pink for those who want it, also has a wide range of other colours. Kate said she has to have pink in the women’s range – she had a group of six women who came into the shop and just said “Where’s the pink?!” However the designers have chosen a strong shade, and thought about how it will look when you’re hot and sweaty.
Crewroom use designers from the London School of Fashion who work on site, in the same building as the shop and the rest of the business by the river in Putney. How interactive is that? They get to see and interact with the customer base right at the point of sale. Kate said that as a smaller brand they have to listen to their customers, who in turn give them great feedback. The brand is growing by word of mouth with “people saying how much they like the product”.
I asked Kate what she thought was more important, the look or the function of her clothing. She said that all of her designs are fabric led. Once the fabric is right, then her team of designers look at the style of the clothing. “What happened to me, was because I was wearing inappropriate fabric. I am fabric led. My mind actually works towards when someone’s training, always making sure they’re well protected.”
The success of the Crewroom designs means that it is now a sought after brand for elite athletes, with Crewroom supplying kit for Team GB rowers and canoeists. Seeing as I felt a little star struck to be talking to Kate, I asked her if she got the same buzz out of seeing ordinary people wearing Crewroom products, as opposed to Elite athletes and famous people. “Way more!” she immediately and exuberently answered. “It’s my biggest excitement!”
Kate thinks the biggest change in the market is more people doing non competitive sport. “A big part of our target audience is people in their 30s and 40s, who’ve maybe had their children, maybe never done any sport, but who start with running and get a bit of a buzz.” (I was smiling at this, because this is *exactly* how I started!) We chatted about how it is now normal for people of all ages and abilities to get out and exercise. Growing up in a small Wiltshire village (not far from where I live, co-incidentally) it was unusual to see people out exercising. “If you’d seen a 60 year old woman running in the village you’d think she was Mad Alice. It just didn’t happen”. Kate also has a healthy attitude towards aging. “I don’t think middle age exists anymore. No one thinks of themselves as old at 30 or 40. It’s like saying it’s all downhill from here. You might not run faster but you can get happier and happier”. She believes getting older is just about being more relaxed and “growing into our own skin”. These days she likes nothing more than to meet up with a group of friends, go for a run and then go to the pub!
Her main sport now is running as it’s the easiest thing to do. Rowing takes a lot of time to get organised and she simply doesn’t have the luxury of time at the moment. As she is obviously a very hard worker I suggested that she didn’t sound like someone who could be happy just sitting around on holiday and doing nothing. However apparently she’s quite happy to do that on holiday, as long as there was the sea or a pool. Sounds ideal to me.
So is she really a ‘tough cookie’? I asked Kate if she thought taking part in sports taught people how to have strength and a ‘backbone’ or does it show you what’s already there. Kate replied with a story about a tough rowing coach who told the women’s rowing team “Just when you think you’re about to die, you’re only about 25% there”. This gave them the self confidence to carry on and push themselves further, and ultimately go on to win Olympic Gold. “You realise how capable you are, the more you push yourself” Kate added. This sounded to me like a good motto for life, as well as for sport, and I think it sums up how she’s living her life. I wonder if she’d prefer ‘inspirational, resilient cookie’ as a description?
* Catch up with Crewroom (www.crewroom.biz) at the London Triathlon Expo 2014, on Saturday & Sunday, August 2 & 3 at the ExCeL Centre, east London, where the team will be on stand 32 exhibiting their brand new ranges.