The past decade has witnessed a revolution in cycling apparel. Reflecting a general shift from sportswear – utilitarian, garish and often poorly designed – to the fashionable ’activewear’, cycle clothing brands like Rapha have brought style as well as function to the bike. As well as reviving the mid-century heyday of jersey design, a more scientific approach has been taken to fit and function.
And yet the scope of Rapha and other mainstream brands is limited. Designed to fit a particular price point, their success may confirm the presence of a new, dedicated and affluent customer, but they do little to encourage true innovation, to really explore the possibilities of the latest technologies.
ashmei, a relatively new British brand, has taken a different approach. Inspired by frustration at the deficiency of existing products, the brand launched in 2010 with the aim of producing the best sportswear with the means available, unhampered by considerations of price.
“I had got into running about seven years ago,” founder Stuart Brooke tells me when I meet him at the ashmei headquarters – a converted farmhouse set in the gently rolling hills of rural Hertfordshire. “I’m a technical guy – I love gear – so I bought all the best running clothes on the market. Then, about three months later, I got back from a run and noticed I had absent-mindedly worn some of my ski base layers because I knew I’d feel better wearing them than I would in my running gear.”
Brooke was in a unique place to take advantage of the failings of the market. Having studied art and then fashion at university, and finding the focus of high-fashion too much on appearance and not enough on technical details, Brooke decided to pursue sportswear design. Following work for Pentland, the parent company for brands like Berghaus, Speedo and Canterbury, Brooke decided to set up his own design business – “It was a great job, it really sharpened my teeth, but it was very corporate – we ended up having meetings about meetings, and so 19 years ago I set up my own company.”
It is from this first-hand experience, across every aspect of sportswear design, that ashmei has been developed. And yet, in making a break from the prescriptive nature of designing to a particular price, it is a breath of fresh air for Brooke as much as it is for the consumer. “When a price point is specified you are locked into what you can do with the design,” Brooke tells me. “You have to use a certain yarn, a certain fabric, a certain performance and labour skill.”
“On the other hand, when we start to design,” he continues, “we start with a completely blank sheet of paper and build a piece to suit a particular need, like running in the rain or the snow. It’s thinking about it completely differently, working out what the ideal fibre is, how we mix those fibres and their weight.”
So, if money was no object, you could make a pair of cycling shorts that sell for £1,000, I ask.
Brooke laughs. “Yeah there’s a bit of that attitude but if they were amazing and made you perform better, we’d do it.”
ashmei launched first with running apparel – “running is the most aerobic sport, there’s no off, and if we get the performance right for the runner we can transfer it over into other sports” – but it was soon followed by clothing for swimming and cycling, in 2015, all of which have been subject to the same high design standards, each with its own specific innovations.
The bib shorts, for example, are a microfiber weave, rather than being knitted. This makes them incredibly close fitting without being restrictive and wind and waterproof, and yet breathable, without the need for waterproof treatments that will eventually wash off. “Then everything is laser cut,” Elliot Welland, the head of product development tells me. “And the seams are ultrasonically welded, there’s no stitching here whatsoever.”
On the bike these are features that are easy to overlook – though the seams are conspicuous by their absence, and the fit is tight but not uncomfortable. Without pinching or chafing, not too hot or too cold, there is nothing nagging at the back of your mind and instead you are free to concentrate on your ride.
Using many of the same innovative processes and techniques, the cycling range has recently expanded from three to twenty pieces. It’s a tiny collection when compared to other brands but ashmei’s ethos – to produce the best product possible – pervades through everything they do. It may be a proven technique in the industry, but to produce a cheaper version of a product with cheaper materials and processes, it would no longer be the best possible. “The current range is enough for all the cyclists around the world to get out and cycle twelve months of the year. It will grow slightly as we engineer the products, but that’s all we need,” Brooke explains.
It’s an approach that is working well with consumers and critics alike. Though some have been put off by the price (the downside of a money-is-no-object approach is that it’s not cheap – the bib shorts currently sell for £235), the simplicity of offering the best resonates with consumers tired of being aggressively targeted through elaborate marketing campaigns. With ashmei, it is the product – and the innovations in fabric technology and expertise so evident throughout – that marks the brand out.
“It’s all about being proactive rather than reactive towards the market,” Welland tells me as I’m leaving. “Whether it’s in the lab or with our ambassadors, we’re always trying to get our hands on something new, even if it won’t be released for another two or three years. We like to experiment. We plant a seed and see how it grows.”