High quality, made-in-America, Ibex Outdoor Clothing fills its niche
PAWLET — Peter Helmetag works hard, and he plays even harder.
Helmetag of Pawlet is the co-owner and co-founder of Ibex Outdoor Clothing, Inc. Ibex designs, manufactures, markets and sells performance wool and casual clothing designed for outdoor enthusiasts. Ibex boasts $1.5 million in sales for the year 2001, with the majority of their sales in the Northeast, the Rockies, and Japan.
The Japanese “buy a lot of our product because to them it’s high quality, made in America, and it’s wool,” Helmetag said.
Ibex is an American-made product, with offices in Manchester and a 6,000-square-foot headquarters building in Woodstock. They use recyclable, renewable materials, and construct their products in a California plant.
Helmetag is an outdoor enthusiast himself, so he intimately knows what his customers are looking for in clothing that needs to work as hard as the person wearing it. When adventuring in some of the most unfriendly places on the planet, staying warm and dry is not only a matter of comfort, it becomes a matter of life and death.
A veteran climber, Helmetag has summited some of the biggest peaks on the North American continent, such as Mt. Fairweather in Alaska, and spent days climbing the big walls of Yosemite. He’s traveled around the world, trekking and climbing at choice locations in Europe, North Africa and in the Far East.
Five years ago, Helmetag and then-partner Robert Deeley began their little upstart clothing venture, Ibex Outdoor Clothing. One of the major reasons they began Ibex was in response to the giant synthetic wave of polar-fleece that had swept over America. Ibex started down three roads with their product, Helmetag said, with traditional jackets and vests, soft shells, and base layers, all either 100-percent wool or a combination with the best of synthetics.
Ibex has witnessed growth of at least 25 percent since its inception, even in years that are considered “bad” for most businesses.
Helmetag said Internet sales at their website, www.ibexwear.com, are very good, which he attributes to the origins of the business itself smack in the middle of the Internet age.
“What are you going to do, drive to Boulder to get a sweater? Forget about it,” Helmetag said. He said that it’s a heck of a lot easier for customers who don’t live near an Ibex retailer to get their product right on-line.
Their best selling products this past year are divided right down the middle between three casual items for both men and women, and three performance items for both men and women.
“We’ve got our feet in two doors here and they’re about equal in sales,” Helmetag said.
Helmetag said his customers come from two schools: There’s the casual group that wants a jacket to wear outdoors and look good, and there’s the “gnarly” guy or gal who is going to summit the high peaks of planet Earth.
Ibex’s customers are typically aged from 25 to 50, outdoor enthusiasts who can afford the quality product that carries a relatively high price tag.
“Compared to Marmot, Mamut, we’re competitive,” Helmetag said. “We have to be expensive because the fabric is very high-priced stuff.”
Ibex has grown from just two men with an idea to a corporation with seven employees, six in Vermont and one production manager in California.
“We’re not building in the Orient. We know our factories. We’re seeing what is being made where,” said Helmetag.
The men agreed on the name of Ibex, a rugged mountain goat of sorts from the middle-east. Helmetag’s brother designed the “zen-like” brush and ink drawing of the ibex for their logo. Helmetag said that a lot of Japanese folks buy the product just for the logo.
Circulating out-of-state dollars in state, Ibex uses Vermont businesses for his production and design, such as Advanced Imaging in Manchester and a print shop in Burlington.
At least 100 outdoor specialty stores sell Ibex products worldwide, and Helmetag said Ibex picks and chooses carefully where they market their product, so as not to slip into the mass market, where quality often takes a downturn for the sake of profitability. They also employ about 10 sales reps to push the product nationwide.
Helmetag said that Ibex’s sales are very solid at the Mountain Goat in Manchester, because they know the Ibex story and because it’s a Vermont product.
The next major step for Ibex is marketing, to get brand recognition in order to best compete with the other cutting edge outdoor clothing companies. Another step in the near future, Ibex is also looking to break into the realm of technical bike wear, for both mountain-bikers and for road riders.
Helmetag said that even with Ibex’s profound growth, all the money that they make is going back into the company for research, design and expansion.
“Profitability is harder because you’ve got all this growth going on,” said Helmetag.
Their product has received favorable reviews in such periodicals as “Outside Magazine,” “Shape,” “Backpacking,” “Walking” and many others.
While climbing in Europe, Helmetag noticed that the Europeans were still perfecting their use of wool in rugged outdoor wear, while in the Americas, fleece was the fabric of choice.
Helmetag knew that one of the big hurdles for Ibex would be to overcome the popular misconceptions about wool, namely its labels of being itchy or its difficulty in being washed.
But Ibex was using Merino wool, and Merino/synthetic blends, which can be as soft and as high functioning as any fabric on the market.
Wool will hold up to 30 percent of its weight in water, and will still keep you warm It also moves moisture away from the body better than fleece, by repelling and absorbing water molecules. Also, whereas fleece can break down rather quickly, wool will maintain its appearance. Wool is also flameproof, when fleece goes up in a puff of smoke.
“We loved wool for outdoor stuff,” said Helmetag. “We had been using old surplus clothing for years. You need fewer items of wool than fleece, in our opinion, to stay comfortable. So it’s slightly heavier, but you need less pieces.”
When one is carrying their lives on their backs as the approach of a peak like Mount Athabaska in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, like Helmetag has done, every layer counts. Helmetag said that Gary Neptune, owner of Neptune Mountaineering, has even climbed Mount Everest while wearing Ibex clothing.
In its formative stages, the Ibex men then decided to blend some of the cutting-edge outdoor clothing designs with traditional materials, like wool.
“The first year was a ‘no’ year, because we made some of the world’s worst garments,” said Helmetag. They functioned, but the garments weren’t cut properly and customers complained of poor fit.
Five years ago, Ibex had no corporate infrastructure, and could only manage to sell to friends. Helmetag said the product was “amateur stuff, but the concept was good.”
These were the hard times for Ibex. In fact Deeley stepped out of the business, but not without Deeley first bringing on a financial expert, John Fernsell.
Ibex persisted, believing that wool was superior to fleece in many ways. Wool was more durable, more comfortable, has a better temperature range, and it was better looking, Helmetag said.
When Ibex went to their first giant outdoor retailer trade show in Salt Lake City in 1998, they got their first glimpse of what the business was really about.
From their small booth, with their small product line, they found approximately a half-dozen supporters, including Neptune Mountaineering in Colorado and our own Mountain Goat here in Manchester Center. “Our core market when we started was backcountry skiers and climbers, because they more than anybody knew the virtues of it,” said Helmetag.
Soon after, Ibex hired their first employee, Jinesse Reynolds, a clothing designer and materials sourcer.
Ibex grew more conscious of sourcing materials, and began building more economically. As such, their new ideals demanded a move from their manufacturing facility in St. Johnsbury in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to San Francisco, where such outdoor monoliths as Patagonia and The North Face were constructing their clothing.
“Then the line started to take off,” Helmetag said. He said Ibex then expanded their product line. “Life got more complicated, but the product got better.”
Helmetag was trained in the fine arts, as a landscape designer at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He’s been a climber since childhood, and has climbed, both with and without ice-axes, in the Tetons, French Alps, the Dolomites, and many other places worldwide.
His partner, Fernsell, was educated at St. Lawrence University, N.Y., and has been an investment banker and was the one-time owner of the Arcadian Shop in Lennox, Mass.