When I bumped into a guy walking out of a mountaineering route who mentioned that he knew Jane Ellis, I thought meeting the earth sea sky owner was an opportunity not to be missed. A couple of conversations later and Jane had kindly invited me to meet her in her shop, warehouse and factory based in Christchurch.
For those who’ve never come across the brand, the company originated in the 1920s when Roland Ellis developed and made the first down filled sleeping bags in the Southern Hemisphere (bags which was later used by Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary). In 1990, the company we know today was formed by David Ellis to meet the growing need for outdoor clothing in New Zealand. Keen to understand how the brand has developed since then, I grilled Jane about her experiences and the challenges and opportunities in the outdoor market today.
Jane’s belief that “As an owner I have a responsibility, to my customers and to the team” is integral for the business. For Jane, responsibility primarily means developing durable clothing which will perform reliably in New Zealand’s tough climate. Clothes which do not necessarily replicate Europe’s current love of all things fast, light, and (in some cases) disposable. Responsibility also means that continuing to make clothes in New Zealand factories. Of course, responsibility also building an economically sustainable business, no small feat for a family company with around ten employees.
It’s somewhat surprising therefore, that the company manages. And perhaps it would not do, were it to be based in Europe where there are far more outdoor brands to compete with. As Jane will willingly admit, the disappearance of the independent outdoor retail shop from the New Zealand high street has had a significant impact on the business. Mass market competitors are able to produce copycat garments more cheaply albeit in reduced-spec versions, thereby putting significant pressure on the price customers are willing to pay.
But earth sea sky does manage, and like Patagonia, the reason for its endurance is woven into the way it has developed.
The choice to base manufacturing in New Zealand makes a clear community statement, but it also helps the brand operate efficiently. Machinists are paid a far wage in line with kiwi employment laws (eliminating the potential for nasty social responsibility repercussions). Rework and returns are reduced as it’s easier for the pattern cutter to pick up the phone and have a quick chat when something hasn’t quite worked.
Patterns are not updated every season, though tweaks are made as needed. There is always an injection of new designs after the pilgrimage to the Salt Lake City Trade Fair where new fabrics and technology are found. A clear reason for customers to buy some new kit.
But like Patagonia, probably the company’s strongest card is having their customers’ trust. Trust not based on expensive marketing campaigns, but instead based on the personal relationship they have with Jane, the family and the team. The value of this should not be underestimated, particularly within New Zealand’s close knit outdoor community.
Running a small business is clearly never easy, but at earth sea sky its clearly a labour of love. My favourite from the catalogue is this superfine merino hoody – a truly kiwi classic.