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A cut above: Inside clothing brand Ashmei

13 Nov 2018

This article first appeared in Issue 75 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Joseph Delves Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades 

Take a look at enough items of cycle clothing and you’ll start to see the same details cropping up again and again. It could be a particular way of fixing a zip, the shape of a collar, the cut of a sleeve.

These little flourishes and expressions of personality are the calling cards of the product’s creator.

They’re also emblematic of the way modern manufacturing works. Just as with the bikes we ride, the products we wear are designed by an increasingly limited number of people.

Brought in as consultants by the headline brand, they invariably go uncredited, although the best of them certainly don’t go without financial reward.

This isn’t the story that brands like to tell about themselves. Marketers tend to present the companies they work for as close-knit teams, working together to create unique designs that go from the studio straight to the factory floor.

Except modern production generally doesn’t work like that.

Companies are as diffuse as their globalised supply chains, and products are often created as much to compete with those offered by rival firms as to fulfil a specific need on their own.

Many of the most popular aren’t now designed directly by the company that sells them, but are farmed out to external designers courtesy of a well-fulfilled brief.

Of these consultants, Stuart Brooke is one of the most successful. Before setting up his own label he produced products for The North Face, Barbour and Pringle, and he’s still the man brands call when they need a new garment creating.

The industry spin cycle

Having studied menswear at the Royal College of Arts, and after spending five years working across a portfolio of high-end brands, Brooke set up a sportswear design consultancy in 1997.

Creating products for giants such as Berghaus and small start-ups such as (at the time) Rapha, it’s likely there’s at least one of his designs in your wardrobe.

‘While running my consultancy I’d seen companies succeed and fail,’ says Brooke.

‘I wanted to set up my own, but I needed a USP. There’s no marketing story. I’m not some ex-pro, and I wasn’t willing to spend money to have athletes endorse us.’

Instead, for Brooke it had to be about the product itself. ‘Over two decades every product I’d worked on had begun with a brief.

‘This would always say, “Make me a product. It needs to compete with A, B and C, and will retail for this specific price to slightly undercut them.”

‘Because of this way of working, if you cover the logo, most brands’ products are indistinguishable,’ he adds.

‘They’re all built to the same price points, using the same technology. No one has ever given me a brief that just says, “Make the best product you can.”’

This elusive dream brief was the starting point for his own company, Ashmei.

A lot of hard work later, the result is a small range of deceptively simple-looking products made using natural fibres.

Each is designed without regard to final cost, then priced using a set formula with a standard margin.

The brief

The claim that a company aims only to produce the best products possible is one we’ve heard many times before, but given his encyclopedic knowledge of the sportswear market, Brooke makes a convincing argument.

And it starts with what Ashmei’s products are made of.

‘Take today – it’s cold and icy,’ says Brooke. ‘We’d want a fibre that will keep the rider warm, but also regulates temperature so they don’t overheat and start to sweat.’

Ashmei tends to employ a lot of merino wool (‘as did everyone until some bright spark invented polyester,’ says Brooke).

Ten times more expensive than oil-derived alternatives, it’s only cost that has caused merino to fall out of favour, given that it has superior thermo-regulating properties.

According to Brooke, fabric has the biggest effect on performance, so it’s worth spending money on.

At Ashmei it’s the job of Lucy Smith to source fabrics to create custom materials as needed.

‘Sometimes the mills have what we want, sometimes it will need developing a bit,’ she says.

‘We end up stashing tons of fabrics, there are cupboards and cupboards of it here.’

Next comes creating the shape of the garment. Brooke says, ‘I don’t pen loads of sketches and then pick one.

I think about the brief, letting it run in the back of my mind, then make one design.’

That might go some way to explaining why the Ashmei office is so immaculately tidy, but apparently not every product the company produces comes into the world without mess.

Somewhere in Italy there is a plaster cast of product manager Elliot Welland’s rear.

The exercise of slopping around plaster of Paris was in order to better understand how the rider interacts with the saddle, which led to the realisation that the amount of curvature needed for the pad in bibshorts is quite severe.

The response was to slim down the chamois’ construction, using high-density shock-absorbing urethane instead of traditional open cell foam.

‘Even before it’s put into the short we’re 3D-forming the chamois to reduce creasing,’ says Welland.

The result is a closer fit, and padding that, although thin, is claimed to withstand hours of prolonged pressure without being in danger of collapsing.

The racing line

For any product the final element is the branding. Perhaps as a result of seeing other people’s logos plastered all over his work, Brooke keeps this to a minimum.

‘I wanted something classic that wasn’t going to date, something that meant speed,’ he says.

‘The racing stripe is instantly recognisable. It’s a line that runs through competition, whether it’s cycling, motor racing or even sailing.’

It’s a small touch of design flair on a range that owes more to Brooke’s technical knowledge and global networking skills than origin stories or pro sponsorship.

‘We see products all the time that we’ve designed but that a brand has put their name to, or that of a sponsored athlete,’ Brooke says.

‘It’s all fake. It’s just because they’ve paid or are being paid.’

Unlike the companies he designs for, Brooke prefers not to spend a fortune constructing a brand narrative, instead leaving his clothes to sell themselves.

After two decades as one of the industry’s choice consultants, Brooke is happy to let them do the talking for him.

Cleaning up

Ashmei founder Stuart Brooke explains how he takes inspiration from a vacuum cleaner inventor

‘One of my design heroes is James Dyson,’ says Brooke. ‘When Dyson launched his vacuum the leading brand was Hoover.

‘A Hoover sells for a hundred pounds, a Dyson three times that. Now look where the two brands are.’

While Dyson’s products sell on the strength of their design, material technology and objective testing, the personality of their creator is evident in each piece the firm produces.

‘That’s what I wanted to do with Ashmei,’ says Brooke.

Test of time

Ashmei’s Elliot Welland explains why it can take years to get product right

Ashmei’s winter bibshort has been in the works for three years and is only just edging towards release.

‘If we’re not happy with something we’re free to go back to the drawing board,’ says product manager Elliot Welland.

To get objective feedback on its designs, Ashmei will even splice together products. Welland produces a jersey split down the middle, with each half made of subtly different material.

This goes to a tester who’s left in the dark as to the supposed qualities of each. ‘It eliminates bias,’ he says.