August 3, 2021

Brands: Icebreaker’s Van Mossevelde: ‘We can’t do greenwashing’

7 min read

Jan Van Mossevelde is the newly named global brand president of Icebreaker, the 26-year-old Merino wool apparel brand from New Zealand and part of VF Group. Van Mossevelde has served as vice president, general manager, Icebreaker EMEA and joined VF in 2015 as general manager, global brand management and demand creation, within the company’s corporate strategy organization. Previously, he had served as vice president, strategy, for VF’s EMEA region and earlier worked for Procter & Gamble.

He explained to The SPIN OFF the brand’s targets under his leadership in his new role.

As newly appointed global brand president what are the pillars of your strategy?
Icebreaker was born in 1995 in New Zealand, and it remains firmly rooted there. The saying “The fruit is the roots” clearly expresses how we want to continue to cherish and develop the relationship with our home and origins.

There has never been a better moment than the present one for our brand, and our purpose is to move to natural. Since when it was founded it had been based on a simple belief that its core performance is based on natural materials and not manmade ones. Now, in 2021, the world is waking up to a heightened awareness for health and well-being. After having been locked up in our homes we all want to escape back into nature. We appreciate more than ever what nature can bring to us and, at the same time, also the apparel category at large is becoming more and more aware of the need for sustainability, and everyone has to focus on a dramatic change. That is for us also a stars’ aligning, but 26 years ago we were almost preaching alone in the desert, we were the first ones to move in this direction as the activist brand kicking against the big establishment.

Jan van Mossevelde, Global Brand President, Icebreaker

Jan van Mossevelde, Global Brand President, Icebreaker

For my strategy I can simply say we want to go back to our roots. Over the last 26 years we have been pushing the pedal, giving our consumers the experience of wearing natural Merino against their skin and living a truly different experience that makes people say “I will never ever wear anything else.” So the strategic roadmap is already there, and my role and my focus is just going to be guiding the team and continue doing that, perhaps with a few more accents left and right, simplifying that and just–as my background is in marketing and I start with the consumer in mind–I want just to get more consumers to get to know this brand and get to experience the brand because once you try the brand it’s already a proposition. Our founder Jeremy Moon once said to us: “If we could afford we would give everyone one of our T-shirts for free and would convince the consumer about what is better.” We really need to invite consumers, educate them and make them understand why natural fibers are different and why is it better.

Is everything you produce 100% Merino wool or natural fibers?
Even we are on a journey. The brand prides itself for its 100% transparency. Since 2017 we have been publishing our Transparency Report every year and explain how the brand develops, how it produces, ships, our materials’ footprint…everything is there.

We have also made the commitment to be plastic-free by 2023. Today already about 87% of the fibers that we use are natural. If you think of underwear it has an elastic band. Today we don’t have access to a material that has the same elasticity of Lycra or nylon we can replace it with. So we are still forced to use synthetic materials in our collection, but we have given ourselves that challenge to innovate. If today we are still using some synthetic material is because there is no better alternative in natural available. If there is a natural alternative we use it. It’s our mission.

We can’t do greenwashing. For instance, cotton is a natural material, but we all know what the impact of cotton can be. It’s a natural material, but it’s not sustainable. I think there is a lot of confusion between sustainable and natural. Using recycled plastic seems to be the pinnacle of sustainability, but we are still talking about plastic. Plus when you wash synthetic clothing–recycled or not–there are still microplastics going into the water system. That’s why natural fibers are different, and we are different, because we don’t produce microplastics.

Women's outfit by Icebreaker

Women’s outfit by Icebreaker

What new products, new styles and new brand identity will Icebreaker focus on?
Historically the brand has been worn as an outdoor apparel performance brands for skiing, climbing and similar outdoor activities–and that’s what we are known for. Once you wear Merino on your skin it’s such a great experience that everyone says “If I could, I would wear it every day…” And that’s exactly what we are going to do. Historically we have been very much the “weekend brand.” So the brand will not change, but it will grow and mature its assortment and become wider to allow you to go to work on a Tuesday morning or on Friday evening to meet up with friends.

Did you know that you can wear a Merino T-shirt for seven days, and it will never smell? You can go running and then go out for dinner, and it will not smell. Though we also want to blend it with other natural fibers like eucalyptus or linen to help improve moisture-control, odor-control and temperature control properties. By blending Merino wool with other natural fibers we can offer pieces that can be used also for other special occasions.

But what about design of a product? You cannot wear the same zipped top for skiing and going out at night. Will your products also evolve aesthetically?
In our design language we call it “natural attraction” as we want to offer timeless beautiful pieces that when you see them you say: “Oh, wow, what a beautiful piece,” meaning that we want to avoid building a collection solely for aesthetic purposes. We want to make sure to offer specific items for outdoor activities, but the bulk has to be pieces that are designed with versatility in mind because we want them to be worn in multiple occasions. We want consumers to wear what’s in their closet in more moments and more occasions allowing them to consume less. As we buy too much stuff, our responsibility as a brand is to give you the opportunity to give you versatile clothing to be used in different occasions. So you’re not buying five different pieces but one to be worn in different occasions and the consumer will see starting from now from s/s ’21.

Men's look by Icebreaker

Men’s look by Icebreaker

Will sustainability continue to play a key role in Icebreaker’s future development? Will you also focus on offering wool products made from regenerative agriculture practices?
Absolutely yes. In addition to becoming plastic-free by 2023, we continue to innovate and offering new products. Only a few weeks ago we were awarded by ISPO for our Icebreaker ZoneKnit Hoodie midlayer in sustainable Merino.

Recently Zalando has recognized our ZQ wool products as meeting their sustainability standards. ZQ is a label that tells you that this Merino wool comes from sheep that have been grown, sourced in the most ethical ways including animal fairness, no mulesing and other important references in this field.

We have also just announced a new partnership as we are going to use our RX regenerative wool in our future collections. The beauty of the merino wool fiber is that it is a naturally biodegradable fiber. Under the right conditions it will readily biodegrade if buried.

Sheep in New Zealand provide wool for Icebreaker's merino products.

Sheep in New Zealand provide wool for Icebreaker’s merino products.

Our aim with it is to start collaborating with other brands–just like it happens in a supermarket where, for instance, all organic fruit is grouped in the same area of the store in order to educate consumers to make a choice between synthetic or natural clothing and also have other brands join and scale this project–so it’s not just us. For this we started a partnership with Allbirds and Smartwool (which is also a VF brand), and the three of us teamed up together with the New Zealand Merino company (NMZ) to launch the platform of the ZQRX hosting the best quality of Merino wool raised through regenerative agriculture practices.

You spoke of adding specific accents for the future management of the brand. Could you explain better?
My focus is to emphasize awareness as we need more people to know about this brand and experience from it. Our claim is “Move to natural,” a very simple, easy and direct statement.

Whenever you ask anyone if they prefer natural or synthetics, the answer is always “natural” as it is naturally better for you and for the planet as nature comes first. It’s just our obligation. If we say its is good for the planet it is naturally better also for you.

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