An American publication recently described Jöttnar as “a small British company making some of the finest technical outerwear on the planet”. Here Jöttnar’s co-founder and product lead, Steve Howarth, discusses the design philosophy behind the brand, and its successful collaboration with manufacturing partner, KTC.
What’s the first thing you need to do when you develop a piece of clothing designed to work in the worst weather in the world?
Sit quietly and recollect. Think back to those outdoor epics and remember that gruesome feeling of exposure to the elements.
When working on a new piece of performance clothing, how do you set your key priorities for functionality and design?
We ask: “What's the purpose of this tool?” Everything then flows from there.
Laser-cutting cuff tabs at KTC
During the development process, does form follow function, or vice versa?
Function comes first, but we try to make it look good too.
Jöttnar's first hardshell jacket, the Bergelmir, has gained quite a following in the community of hardcore winter climbers and skiers. What do you feel was the key to its success?
Minimalism, simplicity and streamlining the design. Attention to the very small details.
Jöttnar has gained a reputation for some particularly innovative product features. What’s the secret to turning a traditional problem in a piece of technical clothing into a great product feature?
If you start by looking for product features for their own sake, you will likely fail through over-designing and over-engineering. If you start by trying to solve a problem and have the discipline to not create another problem whilst doing so, then you will end up with good design and useful features. To me, it’s about discipline, about not being satisfied, but also about knowing when to turn back if new design incorporations are just gimmicky.
Working on product development at Jöttnar HQ in Cardiff, Wales
Successful military operations are often defined by their extreme attention to detail and logistical rigour. What aspects of your previous role as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines helps you in your current role?
Discipline, clarity of communication, focus on a critical path enable good development processes. Remembering the experience of suffering out there, in all weathers and environments, also helps us focus on producing good products.
Jöttnar sells direct, without using any international distributors or trade retailers. The commercial advantages of this system are pretty obvious, but what are the advantages in terms of product excellence?
We produce for the user’s needs and can focus entirely on those in a well-informed manner. We know what these needs are, as we have a one-to-one relationship with our customers. And they really do tell us what matters to them!
You’ve been working closely with the highly regarded Austrian-owned KTC Manufaktur based in China for the past few years. What are the benefits of working with KTC?
Craftsmanship. Really high levels of craftsmanship and finish. They call it ‘the art of performance manufacture’. I would encourage you to read their online magazine, Manufaktur, to learn more about their approach. We use them as an extension of our development workbench and can draw on their experience of what is likely to be viable technically.
KTC also have a strong social responsibility policy. How important is it for Jöttnar to work with a production facility with this kind of moral compass?
It’s essential for me personally, and essential for Jöttnar’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach. The fact that KTC were a member of the Fair Wear Foundation was part of our decision to go with them as our manufacturing partner.
KTC also makes the responsible sourcing of down one of its priorities. Was this another important factor in your decision to work with them?
Yes. Our down suppliers must adhere to the Responsible Down Standard.
What will be the biggest changes in terms of materials technology in technical outdoor clothing over the next few years? Graphene, perhaps?
It’s traditional here to launch into waxing about wearable tech and other gravity defying vapourware type promises. Graphene is more suitable for body-armour type protective applications (I’m still waiting for the subdermal titanium liquid body armour we were all promised…). I’ve seen some promising ceramic component fabrics which might work well in delivering a cooling effect in base layers, but nothing that blows me away yet.
"Never being quite satisfied is a necessary part of building good products"
You've said that you consider excellence as a journey, rather than a destination. How does this philosophy of ‘the pursuit of excellence’ help you to constantly fine tune the Jöttnar collection?
Yes, I do subscribe to the notion that the pursuit of excellence is just that; a pursuit. Life is a pursuit anyway - that’s where the dopamine and happiness lies I think, and that’s tied to just wanting to do good things and make good things. With regards to the latter, making good things – well, never being quite satisfied is not a pathological problem; it’s a necessary part of building good products.