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July 4th 2013

Tony O’Donnell looks at up-and-coming cyclewear brand Torm, and talks to  co-owner Paul Higginson.

In his book Primal Branding, marketing sage Patrick Conlan proposes that the “creation story” is one of seven factors that help to create “zealots” for a brand; not simply customers, but adherents to (and evangelists for) its values and principles. Take the creation story of Apple: the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, build their first computer in the latter's garage.  Or Nike: cofounder Bill Bowerman wrecks his wife's waffle iron creating the company's first athletic shoe sole in his basement.  While only a few years into its life, cyclewear brand Torm (the slashed "o" in their logo is a nod in the direction of their Scandinavian fabric supplier) is already finding champions of its own.  Let's have a look at its creation story.

To say that Torm exploded onto the scene would be an exaggeration.  Towards the end of 2010, reports began to surface on internet cycling forums of a new cyclewear manufacturer offering classy-looking, wool-mix cycling jerseys.  The trouble was, this new company's jerseys were more than a little akin to those of an established high-end cyclewear company, Rapha; not only that, the newcomer's website was strikingly similar to Rapha's in style and layout - not just a cheeky homage, but litigiously alike.  The big difference?  The asking price.  Where a Rapha short-sleeved jersey would set you back over a hundred quid, Torm appeared to offer something comparable in design and quality for less than fifty.

It didn't take long for Torm to come to the attention of Rapha.  Even if you're not a cyclist, you are likely to have seen Rapha's products, as they are official kit suppliers to Team Sky.  The London company is one of the world's best known suppliers of high-quality cycling apparel.  But the Rapha brand (which has plenty zealots of its own) extends well beyond the garments it sells, which are beautifully designed and of the highest quality; Rapha markets itself very successfully as an aspirational cycling lifestyle brand.  Rapha's world is populated by unfeasibly cool types with hipsterish tattoos and facial hair, artfully photographed in grainy monochrome as they fix their thousand yard stares on the next col.  I exaggerate (a little), of course, but the brand's studied cool naturally makes it a soft target for parody.  But you, the humble weekend wheeler, can be part of Rapha's world too - if you can afford it. The carefully cultivated air of exclusivity is the result of not only sharp marketing, but also cannily controlled distribution and premium pricing.

When Torm appeared with their offer of a cycling jersey comparable with Rapha's equivalent in style and quality, but at a fraction of the price, it was inevitable that swords would be crossed sooner or later.  "Sigh… can everyone stop ripping off my shit please?" tweeted Rapha co-founder Luke Scheybeyer wearily, adding a link to Torm's website for the sake of clarity.  The cycling community sat up and took notice.  Broadly speaking, observers were divided into two camps: those who, like Rapha themselves, felt that their design identity was being shamelessly ripped off (although enough examples were trotted out to suggest the possibility of the pot calling the kettle black); and those who saw Torm as a plucky upstart, showing the world that premium brand pricing was little more than a case of the emperor's new clothes, and becoming a victim of corporate bullying for their sins.

What Torm and Rapha had, and continue to have, in common is their use of Sportwool fabric, a blend of polyester and merino wool developed by the Australian company CSIRO.  What is this magical merino stuff, anyway?  Exhaustive research (alright, a show of hands on Twitter) revealed just how little people know about the origins of the voguish wonder fibre.  In response to the question "What does the word 'merino' mean to you?" most respondents recognised that merino is a kind of wool, and that garments made from it are warm and comfortable, even when wet.  Several mentioned its ability to stay fresh-smelling during use.  More than a few referred to its cost.  Someone asked if it was Chelsea's manager.  But only one person correctly identified the precise source of the fibre.

Merino wool, as the name suggests, comes from the merino sheep, a variety of woollyback found almost exclusively in Australia.  It is one of the finest of wools available - the fibres are, on average, between 19 and 24 micrometres (that's thousands of a millimetre) thick, hence the softness against the skin.  The fibre's thermal qualities come from millions of tiny pockets of air inside the fibres, which are heated by the wearer's bodily warmth; even when the wool gets wet, these air pockets retain heat.  Furthermore, merino has natural odour-eating properties.  “But why,” the cyclist conscious of his kit's effect on the environment (or possibly his wallet), “must we drag this stuff halfway round the world?  Why can't we just have the sheep here?”  Sorry, can't be done.  Some years ago a flock of merino sheep were brought to the UK to see if they could be successfully reared in the damp British climate (our native sheep have very coarse fleeces, best suited to weaving carpets and so on).  Within months, the sheep's fleeces coarsened in response to their new environment and they were packed off back down under.  

By blending the qualities of merino with the durability and ease of care of polyester, you get Sportwool, the fabric from which all Torm jerseys and base layers are made. I looked at Torm's T12 short sleeved jersey, which comes in a striking Italian tricolore and caters perfectly to my chronic italophilia.  I road tested the jersey on a cool June evening, with the temperature hovering in the low teens.  I should mention that previously my experience of cycling jerseys has been confined to polyester/lycra blends, and that Sportwool, therefore, was new to me.  The first sensation on pulling on the jersey was the pleasant warmth of the fabric against my skin.  The fit of the jersey is close, tailored even, with the sleeves feeling high and tight when I reach for the hoods.  It's worth mentioning that sizing is on the small side, though the website gives advice for customers looking for an athletic "race" look, as well as those preferring a more relaxed fit.  The drop back is of perfect length, with no tendency to ride up - a silicon gripper tape, as well as an adjustable internal draw cord, insure against that.  The high-cut, double layered collar offers a reassuring snugness; the dependable YKK zip is backed with an accented plaquette to prevent draughtiness, and is held in place when zipped up by an overlapping flap (the limited ventilation offered by the quarter-zip, as well as the wool content, suggest this might not be the jersey for hot days.)  In the rear pockets I carried a spare tube, mini-pump, two CO2 canisters, puncture kit, levers and arm warmers, with plenty room to spare.  My mobile phone went in one of the two zipped pockets (just); both are lined with a rubberised material, which might not keep your phone dry in a downpour, but will at least protect it from sweat.  The jersey was pleasantly comfortable throughout the brisk 30 mile ride.  Even as the sun dropped behind the trees, and the temperature with it, I stayed if not exactly warm, at least not unpleasantly cold.  But the most noticeable difference between this jersey and my usual poly/lycra kit was the absence of the chilly clamminess when I paused for route finding, Strava faffing and so on.  The jersey certainly lived up to every promise in terms of comfort during use.

When I spoke to Paul Higginson, one of the two co-owners of Torm, it seemed reasonable to start with the elephant in the room.

The Outdoor Times: So, can we talk about Rapha?

Paul Higginson: Well, to give you the potted history… when Charlie started the company he saw a gap in the market.  He was aware of Rapha and Shutt at the time, and what he tried to do was come up with something with the best features of all the jerseys out there.  I think Rapha got slightly upset with it, so Charlie just stopped trading for a week or so to talk to the lawyers, who basically told him, “You can't copyright a fashion”.  But Charlie took the pragmatic approach, he sat down with Simon [Mottram, Rapha MD] and talked about it, and agreed to make some adjustments.  We haven't heard from them since but in any case by now we've started to differentiate our jerseys with different zip pullers, different designs and so on.  But anyway, that's before my and Alan's time.

OT: I understand that recently you've had an issue with your supply of fabric?

PH: If you're a manufacturer of [Sportwool] fabrics you have to license it through CSIRO, so it's not proprietary to any one firm.  But the mill that supplies us has said that due to certain other supply agreements they have had to restrict the specific composition of the fabric supplied to us.  But we've come up with an alternative specification that we're happy with, and we think our customers will be too.

Paul and his business partner Alan Parkinson are the self-styled “custodians of the Torm”.  They have been at the helm of the company since they bought it from founder Charlie, with whom they remain good friends, in 2010.  Paul and Al, who both spent the early part of their careers in corporate jobs, are partners in an independent bike shop in Broadstairs, Kent, SP Cycles, which serves as Torm HQ. After discussing a little of Torm's past, we talked about its present and future.

OT: What's remarkable about Torm is the price point.  Even the long-sleeve jersey, at £55, costs about the same as decent short-sleeved poly/lycra jersey.  Do you feel you're underselling yourself?

PH: We've considered that over the last two years and decided we could do one of two things: either maintain the margin we've got now by whatever means, or jump up the [retail] price and get third-party retailers and distributors involved.  Every week we're asked by people if they can retail our stuff, and the conclusion we've reached is that if we were just interested in making money, we'd have stuck with our old jobs.  That doesn't matter to us, so we would only increase the price of the jersey if the cost to us goes up.  Anyway, one of the things we love about working with the public, after coming from corporate backgrounds, is the connection with people.  If you let your product go through third parties all of a sudden you don't have that connection.  Other people might do it differently.

OT: But is it difficult to keep it small?  Surely the temptation is always there to tweak a few things and go for the volume?

PH: Well Alan and I have a wonderful partnership.  He's very pragmatic, whereas I'm used to building things.  We both have the same view and that is, it has got to be small, otherwise it starts to dictate what we want from life.  Our passion is cycling, our passion is running the local bike shop.  If we can, we'll open a second bike shop in the next town over, those are the kind of things we want.  At first we worried that [by staying small] we'd run out of stock on things - stock management is a bit like the chicken and the egg.  But now we're comfortable that from time to time we will run out of stock on an item.  Because the product is what it is, we find that people will happily wait for it.

OT: Do you go overseas to your suppliers for sourcing and quality assurance?  Am I right in assuming you have the jerseys made abroad?

PH: You're spot on with that.  Charlie set everything up.  The fabric's manufactured in Denmark; we've never had any problems with the quality, or the colour work they've done, so we've never felt the need to go to them.  I've thought a couple of times about going to Vietnam to see the factory [where the jerseys are made] and talk to the people, but every time I've got close something has come up.  We have a series of patterns in the works with them at the moment, and when you start to develop a new jersey there are so many variables, be they colours or trims.  There'll come a point where I go to see them, but at the moment I'm speaking to them at least twice a week.

OT: I never see any Torm advertising anywhere - how do you build awareness of the brand?

PH: So it is.  We talked about the possibilities for marketing, advertising or whatever and we decided that we'd do no paid advertising, and that we'd let the quality of the product get out through word of mouth,  riders speaking to each other, forums.  I have this aversion to paying to announce your presence.  We've got a lot of local riders who wear our stuff, and we get so much positive feedback via emails and on Twitter saying that other riders had asked them about their jersey.  Again, we're comfortable with that because it allows us to grow at a rate where we won't disappoint too many people.  

OT: Do you export any of your products?

PH: Oh, every day a package goes over the water.  You get patches of interest arising from blogs out there… I'd guess 30 to 40% of our sales are overseas.

OT: And that's without any kind of formal export strategy?

PH: Most of our overseas sales are in the US and Australia, with quite a bit to Scandinavia, Belgium, France… it comes in patches.  Where I have to work hardest is to help those customers work out their sizes and so on.  If a customer from abroad sends a jersey back because it's the wrong size, I feel obliged to pay the postage when replacing it.  Anyway, we're comfortable with that from an environmental perspective because we believe that the quality and longevity of the garment offset the effects of the transportation.

OT: Do you have a sustainability policy?

PH: We don't have many policies, to be honest!  Al and I have our board meetings in the pub, we chat about things and think, okay, that'll be fine.  As far as it goes, our policy is this: while I'm aware of the environmental benefits of manufacturing in the UK, I also know how much we'd have to be able to sell the jersey at to be able to so. In terms of the carbon footprint of the garment, the laundering of the garment during its lifetime far outweighs any environmental cost of transport, so I'm comfortable with that.  In any case, with the merino it doesn't need washing as often.  The paradox is that if we don't use natural fibres the climate will change and we won't be able to grow it any more.  So  no, we don’t have a policy, but we’re very aware of it.

OT: Do you have any plans to expand Torm into other product areas?

PH: No, we don't want to rip the brand apart by offering things we're not passionate about for the sake of making money.  So there will be no cufflinks, no cups, no caps, no socks!   Actually, we take our inspiration from [jeans manufacturer] Hiut Denim - their motto is “Do one thing well”.  That suits us.

Three years into Torm's lifetime, the brand seems set to thrive.  After a slightly dubious foundation, it has differentiated itself under the stewardship of its new owners, and now offers its own range of attractive design and colour options through a smart website.  The brand has established its own identity, and seems very comfortable in its own Sportwool-clad skin.  With a combination of quality, value for money and exceptional customer service (on which there are plenty reports on the cycling forums), Torm is by now finding zealots of its own.  The typical Tormite will be appreciative of Torm's laid-back, unpretentious approach; they would probably never shell out for a Rapha jersey, and might be bemused that anyone would pay so much for one.  To them Torm stands for comfort, quality and value, and the kit doesn't look too shabby either.  There will always be those for whom only Rapha will do, of course, and they will be happy to pay for the name as well as the quality.  Isn't there room for everyone, then?  Sure.   But there will be the cyclists who figure out that for the price of one Rapha jersey, they can get two from Torm, and who cares that much about the name?  Presumably, these are the customers Rapha will be eager to retain.  

As a creation story, it's not bad: cycling enthusiast founds derivative cyclewear company, gets his wrists slapped; under enlightened new management, the brand begins to find its own identity and niche, and the makings of a loyal customer base. The irony is that if Torm had been allowed to follow its original path as a Raphalike, it might have quickly faded into obscurity.  So, next time you're out on the tarmac, keep an eye out for Torm; if you haven't seen one of their jerseys yet, you soon will.

You can find out more about Torm at their website,


Copyright © 2013 The Outdoor Times Ltd.