Sitting down in the Flare tent at Crankworx, I sat in a camping seat, dubbed "the princess chair," to catch up with Hannah Myers and Ben Skinner-Watts, the founders and couple behind Flare Clothing Co
. Getting settled and chatting amongst ourselves, the sun was finally shining down through the grey clouds that had plagued Les Gets during Crankworx, and for the first time, the crowds had begun to wander around the event area to see what the brands had on offer. Hannah and Ben almost feel like old friends, but it was only three years ago that their journey began and I, like many others have followed along
. A small fish in a relatively crowded pond, Flare Clothing Co have gone from strength to strength, developing their range, supporting riders from all over the world and branching out with new ideas. I caught up with them to see what was next, what challenges they had faced and how things had changed over the years.
|We try not to do things just for the sake of it, we want to have something that we can build on, be proud of and maintain that standard. - Hannah Myers.|
As quite often the story goes, from small beginnings, Flare was created by Hannah, who at the time of finishing her master's degree in product design, decided that her idea could become reality. Unsatisfied and frustrated with the options available for female riders, Flare's unique selling point is the fact they started with women's kit
first, rather than an afterthought or addition to their men's line. Initially, it was Hannah who owned 100% of the business, but as things grew Ben came on board to help, "Because I was just doing everything, Ben was just picking up stuff that I couldn’t do or didn’t have time to do, filling in and just doing extra stuff but now that Ben’s taken a bigger role and we’re looking at what I do in a day, look at what I like doing, look at what Ben likes doing and what we’re both good at and dividing it up," Hannah explained. For once, the focus isn't just on Hannah, Ben is no longer on the sidelines and is adding his knowledge and experience to pushing the brand, "I’ve been taking on more of the logistics so that Hannah can concentrate on being creative and developing products. Now that we’re doing things like custom jerseys, that’s what Hannah does - designing, so I’ve taken on more of an operational role to keep the rest of the business running smoothly. So that’s how things have changed."
The mountain bike industry isn't exactly known for its size and although there's no denying the growth, things aren't always easy sailing, as the small fish in a somewhat crowded pond, Hannah told me about the changes and the ups and downs, "I would say it changes all the time, there’s not much consistency - really awesome moments and then intensely stressful moments. The peaks make it incredibly exciting but mean that we have to keep thinking about the next thing and next after that. We’re never just resting and even from our plan at the start of this year it has already changed hugely from what we thought - we didn’t think we’d be coming to the Alps in 2016 but here we are!”
There have been a lot of challenges, there always are when it comes to business, there are so many things to consider, including how to stay current and adapting as the market does. Flare offers something different, and like many other brands, the input from their team riders is invaluable and when it comes to the creative side of Flare, Hannah is at the forefront, “When we’re designing the new collections we try not to come from a negative place, rather, we try to introduce colours, graphics, and features that we and the riders want to wear. This is always nerve-wracking because it’s all subjective, one person loves a certain colour combination and another doesn’t, so the ‘first look’ of a new product to the market is daunting, to say the least!"
|We're more likely to think about, well what do we want? What colours are inspiring, or what landscapes have a stunning palette of colours we could use? I think coming from a different, positive place and coming from a place that's about what we like and what we want to wear and what the riders want to wear has just naturally made something different. - Hannah Myers.|
Flare now sponsor 25 riders from all over the world, from the UK, all over Europe and even Canada. For a small, UK brand, having ambassadors from all walks of life has been one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences when it comes to the business. "Yeah that’s been really cool here (Crankworx Les Gets) we’ve been able to see some of the riders that we wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to," Hannah told me as she talked about Team Flare. The great thing about having riders on hand in the UK is the fact that both Ben and Hannah get to ride with them often, which is always great when they've just brought out new kit, "When we’re out riding with them and they’ll say, 'well this works really well," Ben said. "But maybe if it changed in such a way it could work better’ which may not have been anything we had previously thought about, so it’s really important to get feedback from them."
|Meggie Bichard and Ben Moore are both riding with a different mindset in the way that it's a bit more of a career for them, rather than many of the others who we really love because they act as ambassadors within their riding groups or within their communities, Ben and Meggie are coming from a professional angle. It's nice to have riders over a whole spectrum - Hannah Myers.|
Although Ben comes from a racing background in the industry, his experience elsewhere has seen him in a range of jobs from barman to carpenter, in fact, his main job is a cabinet maker, something he focused on amidst phone calls from Hannah, calling for his advice or feedback on an idea, "I’ve always had my hands in lots of different pies in my working life, whether it’s been a chef and the same time I’ve been cabinet making, I only ever seem to have more than ten jobs at a time so from the very outset I’ve been on the sidelines helping. I know about downhill so that’s where we started at, going to races because I know about it, so in that respect, I had an influence. So very much from that start I’ve been involved and then with the men’s line I came in financially as well so I actually have a stake in it."
From the very beginning the aim of Flare was to produce kit for women, and although the company knew that they would eventually branch out into other areas, they didn't expect men's kit and Flare Rider to happen so soon. In fact, once the women's kit hit the shelves, riders started asking where the men's line was and although they now offer both men's and women's kit, Flare have stayed true to their roots and their background in producing kit for women means a lot to them, especially to Hannah, “having a reputation for making quality women’s clothing is really important to us, since there are fewer options out there it’s always going to be a major part of this business - it’ll never be pushed to the sidelines by the men’s range”
|We are doing it the other way around for a change, and that's our unique selling point. - Ben Skinner-Watts.|
As far as being a small company goes, Flare are able to make changes almost instantly, they are in complete control and this means that they have the freedom to be creative and implement ideas as and when they want to, providing it makes sense for their business, even if that means giving the ok for things whilst driving home from an event, "It kind of happened (the men's collection) coming back from Red Bull Fox Hunt in 2014, we were driving home and talking about it and we started from there," Ben explained, laughing, before looking at Hannah who seemed to know exactly what he meant. It's hard to deny the connection between the two of them, as business partners and a couple. They are both on the same page.
|That's how most things start, either driving home from an event or during breakfast - Hannah Myers.|
In regards to the future both Ben and Hannah have clear ideas as to where the business needs to grow, it's interesting to see how things have developed as they've gone on, got more involved in the industry. There have been struggles and growing pains and although Flare are becoming bigger every year, running a business in a small industry comes with many ups and downs. The brand is mostly sold online and through a few small dealers throughout the UK, but as a small business, run by only two people, getting the product out there can be one of the biggest hurdles, and is something that Hannah highlighted as one of the limitations of the business, "I don’t really think we’ve even cracked the UK yet. We don’t really have very many retail locations, so although we sell online we are looking for new dealers because we physically can’t get to all the different places in the country. With the women’s stuff especially and people really like to be able to try it on and feel it and though we try to make it really easy it’s always a hassle to return things that you’ve bought online." For the first few years of trading Flare was manufactured in the UK, and whilst this meant a lot to the business in regards to sustainability and supporting British industry it didn't come without hiccups, "This year everything is being made in Portugal but you never know what may happen in the future," Hannah explained as we talked about the recent EU Referendum and their change of manufacturer.
|Reliability was really the biggest issue with the UK, getting things on time and letting down our customers and our riders when they'd ordered something. If our riders need something for racing and they are sponsored by us and they are wearing other people's kit, that's not good. So reliability and the quality has massively stepped up and so has the attention to detail. Last year the detail was inconsistent and in some instances a little bit crude so I think a lot of people gave us the benefit of the doubt in that we were always improving and now I think things have definitely stepped up. - Hannah Myers.|
It's interesting to talk about what comes next, from their racing background there's a definite shift, a revelation of sorts that mountain biking is so much more than racing, something both Hannah and Ben realised during the events they've attended, through talking to customers and seeing how their rider's goals have also changed. Their main focus is to get things right overall, encapsulating the market as a whole and offering people a range of things that work hand in hand with what it means to be a rider, "We’re trialling a road kit at the moment, men’s and women’s in one colourway of each so a simple range in a really nice quality, we wanted to get a small amount of road kit in for the riders because a lot of them train on the road, or race cyclocross or just need bib shorts to wear under their baggies and we didn’t have anything," Hannah tells me as we discuss what's next in.
|We want to make things well rather than making everything all at once. We're going to be kind of drip feeding new products, even before any of these new ranges for kids or anything else happens, in the mountain bike range we're going to introduce more waterproofs, more base layers, a lighter weight jacket, so more clothes than you can build a whole wardrobe with because there are gaps in the range so even if it's a sock, we want people to be wearing head to toe Flare, whatever the weather. - Hannah Myers.|
Ultimately, Ben and Hannah are mountain bikers, riding is still important to them, but so is the business, finding a balance to that and to how they run things and want to be perceived has been all part of the journey for them. Riding bikes is what it's all about, working in this industry can sometimes mean sacrificing that, but finding the sweet spot and being able to do both is something many aspire to but now, three years on, Flare have managed to make more time for the things they love, "I think that we always want to ride, I mean if we didn’t then what would we be doing this for? I mean it all started because I couldn’t find any clothes I wanted to ride in so it came from a really authentic place," Hannah told me when I asked if Flare had an ethos, something they wanted to stay true to, and Ben agreed that it's not been easy, "It felt like that got a bit lost last year, we didn’t do a lot of riding, we spent a lot of time just working." For Hannah this is something they've had to manage and are only now getting right, "we’ve not had any less to do but I think we’ve given ourselves the space to say this is really important that we actually go and do this."
|It's easy to not ride, it's easy to get stuck and say 'oh it's late, I'm tired, I should be doing this, I've got this place to go to.' But when we've been at races this year we've sort of said, well we're here in this awesome place, let's close up for two hours and go for a ride, people are still going to be here two hours from now and they are off riding anyway. We've given ourselves a lot more flexibility to do that. - Hannah Myers.|
It's exciting to see what will happen next as both Ben and Hannah are passionate individuals, their brand is an extension of who they are and what they love to do. As they've grown the adventure side of mountain biking has become a prevalent theme for them and with their plans to include more to their range, children's kit and even road kit, the sky is the limit, especially if they stay true to what they want along the way. In terms of the next few years, they've got plans to grow the brand's presence and continue to branch out, "The business was quite race orientated to start with because that’s kind of what we knew." Ben said, "Now we’re kind of steering towards the more adventure side of life because ultimately only a very small section of the market actually race mountain bikes and most people (us included) go and ride their bike on the weekends and have adventures, hang out with their friends, go on riding holidays and I think it’s more important as we get older that it goes in that direction because there’s more to life than racing."
|Hopefully in five years time we will have more than just a UK presence, you'll be able to go anywhere in the world and find Flare, fingers crossed that's the plan. - Ben Skinner-Watts.|