wanderout meets Rab
functionality and the unique philosophy
Rab is regarded by industry insiders as one of the world’s leading outdoor brands.
The England-based brand is renowned for its functional designs, innovative materials, and sustainable approach.
Hiroaki Kawanami from Tokyo-based ‘outdoor x design’ projectwanderout,who aim to be “society’s compass for the coexistence of humans and nature”, spoke at length with Rab’s Marketing Director James Evans about the brand’s history, core philosophy, and cutting-edge products.
What is Rab?
Kawanami: It’s great to meet you, I’m Kawanami from wanderout. I’ve actually been using a Rab sleeping bag since the end of last year, and it is great in terms of both functionality and design. I really love it, so I decided to introduce it in wanderout.
To be honest, until recently, although I’d heard of Rab, I didn’t really know much about the brand. But I got the sense Rab has its own unique philosophy, which makes it stand out from other outdoor brands. First of all, could you tell us about how Rab started?
Evans Rab was founded in 1981 by Rab Carrington. He was a Scottish climber who traveled the world and couldn't find the equipment that he wanted to use. He learned about the properties of down and how to sew sleeping bags when he was in South America on an expedition and waiting for the right weather. When Rab came back from his climbing expeditions he needed a job, but the financial climate in the UK wasn't very good. He knew a lot about climbing though, and a lot about what climbers wanted. So from those pieces of knowledge, he created Rab Company and started producing products, mainly for himself and his friends and people that he knew. They were specifically designed for the mountains and to function well in that environment.
Kawanami: I see, so Rab was set up by someone who was a mountain climber himself.
Evans Rab always wanted to produce clothing for climbers, and always had an interest in the climbing world. He also had a real interest in the development of new fabrics and how they could be used in the mountains. One of these was a fabric manufacturer called ‘PERTEX’, who Rab partnered with early on, helping the brand specialize in lightweight down products. At the time, insulative garments were very heavy. They were either wool-based, cotton-based, or early synthetic fabrics that were starting to come through. But they were very bulky and very heavy. Using down allowed Rab to create products that were was much lighter weight than anything on the market and also much more compressible. Because it's a natural fiber, it also breathes with the body and manages moisture much better. However, down has a weakness in that it is vulnerable to water damage, so PERTEX, with its excellent water repellency and lightweight, made up for this weakness.
Kawanami:Because he knew the mountain environment so well, he understood what people wanted when going mountain climbing.
Evans That’s right, Rab is now retired but we still speak to him regularly about new fabrics. He was particularly interested in a waterproof stretch knit fabric called ‘Proflex’, which we use to make the ‘Kinetic Alpine 2.0 Jacket’. This is now one of his favorite products.
The symbols on the Rab logo
look like they could represent down feathers,
but are actually Himalayan prayer flags.
Design and details that prioritize functionality
- Products that Rab staff themselves would want to use.
Kawanami:I think that when Rab was founded, down products were its signature items, but now you have a wide range of products, not just targeting alpinists or mountaineers, but covering all sorts of outdoor activities. Which model would you say is representative of the Rab brand today in 2021?
Evans That's a really hard question because we have such a large and varied collection now, but the ‘Microlight Alpine Jacket’ is probably the most iconic product. We were able to transform that product to reflect our current philosophy around sustainability and climate change by using all recycled materials, from the inner and outer fabrics to the down filling. It also has a C-0 DWR (Fluorpolymer Free Durable Water Repellent) which doesn't leach chemicals into the water system. It was originally designed as a lightweight alpinist piece, but it is now one of our most popular products, so it was nice to be able to take that product and reflect our sustainable beliefs.
Kawanami:Even as Rab’s product lineup has expanded, your core products remain focused on what functions in a mountain environment. That you then chose a sustainably developed item speaks to me about the brand’s current stance. The ‘Phantom Pull-On’ ultralight rain jacket was selected as the ‘Backpacker Editor’s Choice 2020’ by American Backpacker magazine, which is an authority on outdoor products. How did this revolutionary product come about?
The Phantom Pull-On uses ‘Pertex Shield 2.5’ fabric which is made from very thin 7-denier nylon fiber, making it compact and weighs just 90g.
It is ideal not only for mountain runners but also as the ultimate stuff-and-forget waterproof layer for mountain climbing or day-to-day use.
Evans When we develop a product, we listen to the needs of our customers. We also listen to our employees, a lot of whom are climbers, and what we have found is that people who like to climb mountains are not just mountain climbers. Climbers run, climbers cycle, climbers swim, they are not just single-sport athletes.
So we decided to take what we've learned from mountaineering, in terms of protection, and apply that to a garment for running. We knew, for example, a running item doesn't need to be as durable as a mountaineering piece. You don't carry a heavy rucksack and you're not bashing up against rocks. So that meant we could look at much much lighter weight fabrics. However, we didn’t want to compromise on breathability and waterproofness.
That's effectively where the Phantom Pull-On came from. Although we didn't realize it at first, it met the needs of backpackers, hikers, and walkers as well as runners. They also wanted a lightweight, really compressible waterproof jacket that they can pull out and put on when the conditions get bad. That's why I feel we won the USA backpackers award for that product because it allowed the lightweightness and compressible nature that a runner needs but it still had the protection that a hiker/walker/backpacker needs.
Kawanami:The first time I saw it I was really surprised at how compact it was. This level of compactability makes it more than just another type of rainwear. You could even say it’s a brand-new kind of outdoor equipment. Also, it’s not just light and thin, but there’s great attention to detail as well. The wire in the hood ensures the wearer’s vision is not obstructed when the hood is up, and the hems and cuffs are micro elasticated. You can tell it’s been made to be used.
Evans Functionality is built into Rab's DNA. We always strive to create a product that is fit for a purpose first and then look to reduce weight and include details that add to the product. We feel some of our competitors work in the reverse, but that's not the case with us, we are all about functionality first. 。
Maybe it's British culture, or the nature of the British people, but we look at things quite simply, and in a straightforward, functional way. I think that's one of the biggest developments of us as a brand is how we have been able to keep that functionality, so it offers the core protection our users need, but we also introduce some finer details. Those finer details can often help make the product lighter. So if we can make the seams smaller, it reduces weight, or if we can make the cut narrower or tighter, we can reduce weight, but we can still offer the protection. It is then essential that when all this stuff happens, we test the product and it still comes back to our key principles, and does it perform in the elements?
To do that we have partnerships with several athletes who test products. We also have a partnership with the UK Association of Mountain Instructors, which has a test team. But I think the most important thing is that we employ climbers and runners and cyclists and mountaineers within the business. So it makes it very easy to create a product that works when you're designing for your own needs.
Kawanami:In the same way that founder Rab Carrington was a mountain climber himself, the staff at Rab are themselves outdoors people, and are developing products that first and foremost they would want to use. This is why Rab has succeeded in creating such reliable and revolutionary gear. I think that this approach is relevant not only to the Phantom Pull-On but also to the revolutionary sleeping bag, the ‘Mythic Ultra’ that uses titanium ‘Thermo Ionic Lining Technology’ (TILT), which reduces heat loss by reflecting heat towards the body for increased warmth.
Evans I think the TILT that we have in the Mythic Ultra is a good example of how we work with a lot of our suppliers. We have regular meetings with suppliers, where we talk through what we'd like to achieve. And then we work very closely together to create new materials or new combinations of materials that allow us to create these new products.
We have created a new variant of TILT with the same supplier for the Mythic Ultra and that's coming in the new sleeping bags for summer 2022. Working with suppliers to create new fabrics from the development stage is important for us. A lot of brands simply purchase existing fabrics, but we want to be working in close partnership with suppliers to create new materials.
Kawanami:Rab originally developed products for alpinists, but has now expanded its range to also include gear for mountain runners and campers, as well as some more general outdoor lifestyle items.
Evans All of our products are created within collections that help us define how they're going to be used. For example the Accent, Mountain, and Skyline collections. That then helps inform how we'll design each product, and choose the fabric, down or insulation we might use. In terms of construction, there is not much difference between our basic sleeping bags and our top-level sleeping bags. The only difference is the fabric or material used, and the cheaper product is by no means inferior in terms of construction.
Outpost - the rectangular sleeping bag ideal for car camping
The Outpost can be used as a quilt when fully unzipped.
Bags of different warmth levels, such as the 300 and 500, can be connected, allowing for temperature adjustment according to the environment.
Kawanami:That you have a specific user and situation in mind when designing each collection makes the manufacturing process that much more focused. I think that’s why the rectangular ‘Outpost’ sleeping bag stands out. Car camping is popular in Japan now, and this sleeping bag’s versatile nature makes it great for casual campers, as well as more serious climbers.
Evans Van life’ or ‘van camping’ is very big across the UK now. Many climbers do it. Traditionally, people would have planned their two-week climbing trip and maybe a couple of other climbing trips, whereas now people will drive to the mountains for one night during the week, climb at night and then come into work the next day.
In Europe, if you're sleeping in a van people have always bought cheap, bulky, synthetic sleeping bags because they didn't think they needed the space. But with car camping, everything has to have a place and this is where the Outpost was designed to fulfill. You still have the comfort of a square sleeping bag, but now you have a sleeping bag that takes up much less space for the warmth that it gives.
It's still targeted at the climbers and mountaineers that are living that life, but it may be not in campsites, now they may be sleeping in vans.
The neck baffle and drawcord keep warm air in.
Details such as the stash pocket for mobile devices or keys enhance practical functionality.
The Outpost comes with a stuff sack for easy packing and transportation, and a breathable cotton storage bag for storing at home.
Kawanami:I understand that another important element behind the creation of Rab’s functional and innovative products is the product testing department, ‘Rab Lab’.
Evans Rab Lab is slightly different actually. Rab Lab is kind of our marketing campaign to explain the technology to consumers. We have a lab here with numerous machines in it to test abrasion tear strength or colorfastness, we have washing machines and tumble dryers to test products, and we send many products out to other labs for further testing too.
For sleeping bags, they are tested externally because we can't do insulation checks internally. Rab Lab is our consumer campaign to demystify the science behind outdoor products.
Kawanami:I see. Regarding the tests you do for your down sleeping bags, Rab has its unique temperature standards, such as ‘comfort’ or ‘limit’, which are different from the European Norm. What’s the reason for having these?
Evans The European Norm test that you refer to doesn't test mountaineering sleeping bags very well. It's one test that has to cover cheap supermarket sleeping bags, caravan sleeping bags, and mountaineering sleeping bags. So, particularly for high-performance mountain sleeping bags, the results you get from that test are not very accurate.
There was a British Standard that ran alongside the European Norm that involved soldiers testing the limits of their comfort in mountaineering, sleeping bags. This test is no longer possible but it did provide knowledge of how someone could survive in a sleeping bag if we gave it certain design features and a certain amount of insulation. Since then we have used our knowledge of 40 years of making sleeping bags to create our Rab sleep limit and that's more representative of how a sleeping bag will perform in the mountains than the European Norm.
Kawanami:So you don’t simply rely on general indicators, but pursue an even higher level of reliability by making sure Rab’s guidelines are based on how the gear functions in the real environment.
Kawanami:I’d like to finish off the interview by asking you about Rab’s sustainability initiatives. The website showcases Rab’s environmental initiatives and sustainability goals, declaring the company’s target to be “Carbon Neutral by 2030”. You could say that the British desire to conquer new peaks, as was seen in the Everest climbing missions, is what fueled the development of alpinism and mountaineering gear in the UK. With this history in mind, Rab’s ascent towards this Net Zero target could be seen as Rab taking the lead in humanity’s climb towards a new unattained peak, and that this is, in a way, the modern-day equivalent of what those mountaineers were doing so many years ago.
Evans It's a huge challenge, and if you go to the Rab website, you'll see a lot of the specific things we're doing to reach that goal, from the percentage of recycled materials we're using to how many repairs we're doing, or how much renewable energy we're using. This is because we are not just a brand, but also nature lovers, and we perhaps see and feel the effects of climate change more acutely than others.
On the other hand, people who enjoy the outdoors, including myself, may have more of an impact on climate change than we think we do. We get in our cars, drive across the country, and climb up a mountain covered in plastic. The outdoor industry and its consumers need to acknowledge that reality and responsibility. In all honesty, I think many of us started too late, but we should ask ourselves, what can we do tomorrow?
We've been very vocal about what we do, to challenge, but to also help educate other businesses so they can make an informed choice about what they could do differently. We see our ascent to net zero as much about bringing our customers, and our partners along with us. Challenging them and ourselves as to how we can continue to live in this world more sustainably.
Kawanami:I sense a dedication and strong sense of responsibility that is fundamentally different from someone just talking about sustainability because it’s the fashionable thing to do, or companies that engage in greenwashing. I also sense that each member of staff who works at Rab sees the need to protect nature as their challenge, and is continually engaged in that challenge. I believe this is also a part of the philosophy upon which the brand is founded. It was great to have this opportunity to not only hear from you about what’s behind Rab’s amazing products but also think about what our society needs to be doing for the future. Thank you very much for your time.
Outdoor brand Rab was founded in 1981 by one of Britain's top alpine climbers, Rab Carrington. Carrington made use of his own experiences as a climber to make high-quality and functional down clothing and sleeping bags from his home in Sheffield, UK. Since its foundation, Rab has always focused on product development based on the real experiences of climbers themselves and strived to design products that are perfect for their purpose and possess all the necessary functions.
Rab uses only the designs and materials that have passed numerous field tests for functionality and eliminates all unnecessary elements. Rab takes craftsmanship seriously as a manufacturer of mountain gear. Placing importance on “Repair” over “Replace”, Rab reexamines what a piece of equipment should truly achieve and places great importance on making quality items that last. Recently,
Rab has proactively adopted new environmentally friendly materials, striving to combine high functionality and sustainability in its product development.
Product Designer and Design Director Worked at Japan’s Hara Design Centre before going on to found ‘wanderout’ along with Kaie Murakami from SIMONE, and buying specialist, Hiroshi Oppata. Aims to be “society’s compass for the coexistence of humans and nature” through his work in corporate consultancy and design.