I would like to introduce the hottest up and coming surf/skate/snow brand to hit the market in years: SUTSU. The brand is environmentally conscious, uber ethical and boasts awesome graphic and logo tees that have already begun to carve out an individual visual niche for SUTSU. I was lucky enough to speak to the founder and owner Jon Wallhouse recently and the following in-depth and rather fascinating interview is the result. Enjoy!
TH: What is your background and how did it lead you to founding and designing for SUTSU?
JW: My working life has been fairly varied. I was a windsurf instructor & a kayak instructor for a couple of years both in Europe and the Caribbean. After that I ran a couple of bars in London as well as working for a Fashion House and being an in house music engineer (Not all at the same time obviously). After the last stint at running a bar I found myself at a turning point in my career. I had always been frustrated with the lack of good British boardwear brands and I thought it was about time I took the risk I had always talked about.
TH: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to start the surf brand?
JW: Ever since I was at school I wanted to set up a Surf Brand. I did my first screen print when I was 15. I even came up with the brand name Scarecrow Surfwear, don’t ask me why but aged 15 it sounded good… I sold a couple of T-shirts to my mates but then got involved in a rock band and Scarecrow was permanently shelved. Although growing up I was landlocked I always had an obsession with the sea and being on it or in it and so I guess my want to create a brand around that seemed a natural progression.
TH: How did you approach starting a surf / lifestyle brand and what did you want to do differently when compared to brands before you and your competitors? (Especially baring in mind this is a big industry with some major players already established)
JW: As with any business you need to find your USP (Unique Selling Point) and for me it became apparent that there was an opportunity to provide a design led boardwear brand that was environmentally & ethically conscious from the ground root up. Many of the larger brands are either producing Eco lines or having to work hard to go down this route but for a small brand it is much easier to implement. The bigger US & Australian brands dominate the UK market so it is nice to get in amongst the mix. My friends & family have always said that if there is a hard road to take I would be first in line to have a go…
TH: Your company is Carbon Neutral and has some really strong eco ethics, do you feel this is something all companies have to do these days or is this an issue that is particularly important to you and why is that?
JW: Much of what we do to be environmentally conscious has been fairly easy to implement. Changing the power supplies to sustainable resources was just one phone call. Packaging for the product was fairly easy to source, (it’s now 100% biodegradable) and we are lucky enough to have a factory, that does 90% of our production, being actively concerned about their impact as well. They have Wind Turbines and renewable resources to help run the factory. Being conscious of the impact we are having on the earth is fundamentally important to our way of life. We are all directly accountable for the damage we are doing to the earth and I think it is the responsibility of all business’ to implement change. It’s not difficult to do, even small changes will help along the way.
TH: You are aiming to provide all of your garments as either organic cotton or bamboo by the end of this year what are the difficulties in achieving this?
JW: In respect of our T-shirts it has been a fairly painless process. As awareness in Organic alternatives is written about in the press so industry / factories produce. It is much easier now to source Organic Cotton than it was, say 3 years ago. Bamboo as a product is amazing; we use it as worktops, flooring not to mention clothes & soon to be skateboards as well. Currently the difficulty is getting Bamboo to the same style and weight of fit as Cotton. As a brand we are expanding the collection and so in respect of Hoodies and Hats we are back about a year from getting them to fully organic status but our T-shirts are now 100% Organic Cotton.
TH: How did you approach the marketing and promotion of your brand, did you think outside the box, advertise, go for buzz or sponsor individuals that reflected the lifestyle you are catering for?
JW: A bit of both really. We are lucky to have a very good PR agency (Worn-Out) who have done a great job with the press in the UK and that has been a progressive position in such that as the brand has grown so has the exposure increased. We have also been lucky enough to be approached by some great riders who we are happy to have on our team. Other than that it has come down to writing lots of emails to various sources from magazines to online blogs trying to the word out and hoping some will catch…
TH: Can you tell us a little about your Projekts and what you hope to achieve with them – perhaps giving us some insight into your most recent one BMX recycle?
JW: Projekts was a Sunday afternoon idea… I was keen to rebuild a BMX but put an environmental twist on it(reminiscing over a lost youth) and the Re-Cycle idea just popped into my head. Really was one of those too good to be true moments… It kind of gave a reason to build the BMX and so the 1st BMX Re-Cycle was born. We needed a way to categorize the concepts so therefore the Projekts name was born. We currently have another BMX in the pipeline along with a wake skate and some Bamboo skateboards as well…
TH: What are your tools of the trade when it comes to designing?
JW: Pentax V-Ball 0.5 pen & A5 drawing book to pen the ideas. Then they get transferred over to the MAC where Adobe Illustrator and the Wacom Tablet take most of the punishment.
TH: What inspires your designs?
JW: It can be anything really, but much of it comes from nature (not a hippy promise). I always find it difficult to start the process, it seems to be this internal battle and probably the 1st 3rd of the designs are deleted straight away. But in terms of inspiration it can be as simple as seeing something in a magazine or sometimes capturing something when I am out and about as the next question shows…
TH: Can you explain the design process of one of your tshirts to us in detail?
JW: The winter 09 collection is just in production so I will pick one of those designs. As with anything it starts with an idea, this specific design started from a comment made by one of our retailers who said he was in need of T-Shirts that had multiple colours on it. This conversation had happened just before I was due to go on holiday. We were boarding the plane and it was chucking down with rain. I was daydreaming out the plane window and saw the mix of fuel and water on the ground had made a rainbow effect with the drops of water, which gave inspiration to two designs the Rain Drops (pictured below) and Rain Burst designs. Then it was simply relating that into a contemporary design. I had the colours and the concept and it was simply a case of bashing it out in Illustrator. The most difficult part was creating a nice shaped rain drop… seems simple but I reckon I went through 20 different shapes before the final one was designed…
TH: What is your personal favourite design, from your current collection?
JW: Probably Rain Drops… I am a sucker for symmetry and I love the simplicity of the design and the colour combinations…
TH: What are your favourite clothing brands and why?
JW: Fred Perry – Classic Styling, Iconic Logo, remained sought after for 80 years!
Insight – Great Designs, love the individualism of the brand
Hurley – Love the Logo and the board shorts
Analog – Something a bit different
DC Shoes – The Logo Tee – Priceless
Lyle & Scott – Same as Fred Perry really, great icon!
Sutsu – Have to say that don’t I ?
TH: Can you describe a regular/normal working day (if there is such a thing!) at the office for us?
JW: I get up round 530/6 am (been a crap sleeper for years) walk the dog for an hour or so, catch up with the girls, then head to the office and turn the computer on around 8. From then on, unless meetings are organised, I am a slave to the Wacom tablet / Mac and will be there till 6 most days.
TH: What are your main ambitions and where would you like to see SUTSU in 1 year?
JW: Looking forward to growing the brand & collection. Especially looking forward to releasing our Recycled Board Shorts. Along side this we are keen to grow the wholesale business nationally and internationally…
TH: …and in 5 years?
JW: To have a well-loved Boardwear brand respected for the designs and work done with the environment… Oh and to be financially secure! I would like to be able to use it as a platform to look at ways to make sure the sports we love continue to be sustainable. Making skate parks from Bamboo might be a start…
TH: What have been the highest and lowest points for you so far since founding SUTSU?
JW: I think the high is still yet to come really, you always get a buzz from having your clothes well received but there is so much to do daily that I think the big high will be when I can concentrate solely on design and environmental work and let employee someone to run the day to day business. As for lows there have been a few but the biggest would be when a factory we were using closed it’s doors with our samples in and we were left high and dry with no collection and so we missed a season… but it had a silver lining as it made us look at the way we run the business and so we implemented some changes to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
TH: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far with the brand and how did you overcome it?
JW: The biggest challenge is getting the brand into the market place. There are a lot of brands fighting for position and for a small brand with no marketing budget to shout about it is difficult to get attention from retailers but for us it has been about dogged determination and not taking no for an answer. This is something that is still going on but we are seeing the fruit of our labours and retailers are seeing that we can mix it up with the big boys of the business and are impressed with our sale throughs…
Massive thanks go to Jon for his time and interesting and revealing answers! This will be a great interview for aspiring brand owners to read as Jon is living proof you can launch a new brand successfully, even into an established and ultra tough market like the surfing/skating one.