Merino-wool outdoor apparel brand icebreaker is in a battle against synthetic clothing.
The company began with a focus on natural performance apparel comprised of “next-to-skin” categories, mostly base layers. Now it’s moving into mid-to-outer layers for men, women, and children.
“Icebreaker is not a one-trick pony,” said Jan Van Mossevelde, global president of icebreaker. “We’ve completed the look, from the boxer shorts all the way to the full ski outfit in merino, cotton-based pants, and outerwear jackets.”
Van Mossevelde spoke with The Daily about icebreaker’s mission to create apparel from natural products, changes at the brand since being acquired by VF Corporation, and bigger-picture business trends.
Van Mossevelde has served as global brand president of icebreaker since 2021. He took on additional responsibility as president of VF-owned Smartwool in April.
The move to include the full line of apparel from base layer to outerwear began about a year ago, Van Mossevelde said.
“We were always in a way incomplete in the wardrobe, because you always needed something else to finish (the outfit),” he added.
Van Mossevelde joked that a customer might not need to wear icebreaker clothes from boxer shorts to outer shell. “You’re going to be really warm,” he said.
But offering the entire layering system means better access to a customer who might have an existing base layer but needs a shell, for example.
“Then every time they touch merino, we know that journey continues,” Van Mossevelde said. “It’s very difficult to go back to synthetics after.”
Icebreaker Company History
Icebreaker was founded in New Zealand in 1995. Today, icebreaker clothing is available through wholesale in more than 3,000 wholesale stores in 38 countries. The brand also has 27 icebreaker-owned stores and operates e-commerce in 19 countries.
As of April 2022, global sales for the brand were $173 million, with global unit sales of 5.2 million units.
The company’s main markets are North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.
VF Purchase and Switzerland Move
Icebreaker was purchased by VF Corporation in 2017 for $204.3 million. At the time, Icebreaker’s trailing 12-month revenue was $150 million.
According to Van Mossevelde, from a brand philosophy and strategy point of view, nothing has changed since the VF purchase.
“The brand, how we envision it today, how we envision it for tomorrow, is exactly how it was invented,” Van Mossevelde said. “It’s that simple purpose of believing that we need to create a movement of a more natural way of living, by taking unnecessary plastics out of performance apparel. It’s really going against the synthetic apparel establishment.”
But one major change came in 2021, when icebreaker moved its global headquarters from New Zealand to Stabio, Switzerland, where VF has its European base.
“That was because icebreaker has a global footprint,” Van Mossevelde said. “It’s difficult to run a global business from New Zealand.”
Icebreaker hit a ceiling on its growth opportunities operating from New Zealand and the VF acquisition allowed the brand to tap into the larger corporation’s resources, according to Van Mossevelde.
“By bringing the headquarters to Switzerland, we gave the brand immediate access to all those capabilities,” he added.
Both icebreaker and Smartwool use merino wool in their products sourced from sheep raised in New Zealand and Australia. According to icebreaker, merino wool represents 89.7% of the company’s total fiber consumption. The company pushes hard to work with regenerative agriculture for its raw materials.
The two brands draw on their separate needs for different types of fiber depending on the products they’re making to keep relationships strong with the producers. That buying power works in both brands’ favor.
Icebreaker is committed to sustainability – 95.8% of the brand’s products are plastic-free, with 98.3% forecast for 2024, Van Mossevelde said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Van Mossevelde admitted that the marketplace is challenging, with a lot of inventory in the system.
But icebreaker consumers are thinking more about their health and well-being, according to Van Mossevelde. That translates to more people thinking about natural-based apparel as they get out and travel more, he added.
Once people understand that merino-based products keep them warm and comfortable and are easy to pack, that helps to boost demand. They’ve also designed products to be versatile, so that people aren’t just using the base layer to go skiing but can also wear it while traveling.
“Incremental use of those pieces on more occasions,” Van Mossevelde said. “Because it goes back to, once you feel the sensation of wearing merino, you want to wear it as often as you can.”
The company expects the coming cold-weather months to be its best in terms of sales. “We’re hoping for a strong winter,” Van Mossevelde said.
Bigger picture, the brand is working on getting its name out there. Van Mossevelde says they’re still competing for brand awareness with the Ice Breaker company that makes mints and gum.
“We need to continue to tell our same story over and over and over again, to different consumers,” he added.
That awareness comes from the brand’s heritage as well as working with outdoor specialty retailers as it grows.
Van Mossevelde mentioned that many brands make a claim to be sustainable, but icebreaker’s natural-based products can be an answer to synthetic clothing.
“We’re not a scaled brand yet,” Van Mossevelde said. “Perhaps one day we’ll get there. There has never been a better time to move to natural.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.