Rab Carrington founded is namesake company on two things “a deep understanding of what climbers and mountaineers need, and a commitment to practical gear that works.” That same philosophy has endured to this day, with Rab constantly producing top quality clothing and equipment, which in their words is “built by climbers, for climbers”.  Today Rab combines that rich heritage with cutting edge materials and forward-thinking design. One of the minds behind the brand’s continual search for improvement, innovation and refinement is Chris Bottomley. To gain an insight into Rab’s design process and Chris’s place in the grand scheme of things, Chris was kind enough to be part of the ongoing Paddy Pallin Blog Q&A series.

Hi Chris, can you tell us a little bit about yourself & your role at Rab?

I’m a product/Industrial designer by trade. I am the equipment/accessories designer here at Rab, I sometimes end up doing the odd bit of clothing too!

What was your journey to where you are now?

I started to get involved in the Outdoors properly when I was 17 (bit of a late developer compared to some I guess) when I finally got myself a car! Most weekends I’d be in North Wales/Lake District/Peak District Climbing/Hill-walking/Scrambling/Mountain Biking/ Generally having a good time. I then started to study Industrial/Product design at University. I absolutely loved it and worked hard at it. I think I always knew I wanted to combine my passion for the outdoors with design. I left University with a 1st Class Degree and 14months of Industry experience (designing climbing hardware for Wild Country/Salewa – some of the products I designed and tested in my time there are on the shelf now)…. I was actually away in the Andes when I landed the job with Rab, which was a complete surprise. I applied thinking that nothing would come of it and I returned from my trip with a job!

Do you remember your first outdoor experience?

I think one of my first ‘proper’ outdoor experiences was the Snowdon horseshoe loop in North Wales. I hadn’t really been up any mountains or exposed ridges before and just thought I’d have a go! I freaked out a bit on the ridge but soon got over it. I went back a couple of months later for an attempt at the Welsh 3000’s – 24hours of solid wind and rain!

Where is your favourite skiing/hiking/travelling/climbing etc. spot?

Too many to list! I’ve had so many good times all over the globe doing these kind of things… If it comes down to it I’d have to say the Peak District (It’s where I grew up after all).

Tell us, where is your dream skiing/hiking/travelling/climbing etc. location?

I’m still quite young (only 25) so hopefully there’s plenty of time for me to find this one out!

Why do you love skiing/hiking/travelling/climbing etc. so much?

I think it’s the whole journey. You just can’t beat a day out in the fresh air and seeing what you’ve accomplished.

Top 3 tips for new skiers/hikers/travellers/climbers etc.?

  • Always carry more food than you think you’ll need
  • Take care of your gear – it could save your life!
  • Look before you leap/ab[seil]/climb…etc (Do your homework basically!)

Top 3 pieces of equipment you always take with you?

  • A Windproof – Rab Windveil – This is probably the best piece of clothing going. Until you’ve used one, you just don’t know!
  • Map & Compass
  • A good hat

Which design or product are you most proud of?

I’m currently working on a really exciting project – if it comes off I’ll be very proud. You’ll have to wait until Spring 2018 to buy one though!

What key insights drive your designs

Insights can come from anywhere at any time. You don’t have to be some gnarly climber pushing the envelope doing first ascents to gain insights. You can literally just be watching someone struggling with a zip on a sleeping bag and think “how can I make this better”. After all – formula one car designers don’t drive the ca Often it’s good to look away from outdoor products – for example sleeping bag draw cords – I’d start by looking at the obvious and then move on to something like parachute deployment in the military. It’s items like these that will have some really interesting design cues to enable the user to distinguish which cord to pull in a stressful situation – that kind of thing really gets the cogs turning about how you can create something truly useful and innovative. I also find it’s always good to get some criticism on designs from various people (athletes, piers, other designers, sales team…etc). Often designers shy away from this and protect their ideas but I like to be more open with it – after all, what’s the point if people are showing you blatant flaws in your design work but you’re not acknowledging them or improving it!?

Filling down sleeping bags in the UK factory. Photo credit: Alex Hughes

How much does the Rab ‘brand’ enter your design decisions? How different would your designs be if you were designing for yourself rather than for Rab?

The Rab brand enters my design decisions all the time – recently as a design team we all (me included) rejected designs (done by me) that were off brand. It is critical we retain our brand identity. If I design for myself – I like simplicity – the simpler and cleaner the product the better. It is easier for the user to understand. Often designers can put too much time in on things that the end user will never find or use.

How does Rab continue to resist the pull towards almost every other generic outdoor brand?

We try to do our own thing I think and not be ruled by market trends or cash cow products. Yes we could create product that is value engineered or targets a particular consumer but I like to think people value us for not doing this. We are all inspired by the Athletes/Expeditions/Summit Attempts we sponsor, but I think we are also inspired by the climber in everyone – whether they are pushing the envelope on new routes at 8000m or out climbing their first trad lead. It doesn’t matter to us. We want to be the brand supporting your efforts. We have great heritage in down products and are always continuing to innovate and improve in this category. I think it helps that I work with a great team of designers that are also end users.

Filling down sleeping bags in the UK factory. Photo credit: Alex Hughes

Rab seems to work pretty closely with some top suppliers & makers. Can you tell us a bit about those relationships in the creative process?

We have a relatively small number of key partner factories. Our MD has built some great relationships with factories and suppliers over the years. We usually have a design trip or two each season where we go and visit our factories to see the process and problem solve if there are any issues. It’s really nice to meet the people who you communicate with every day via email and this in turn builds our relationships and understanding. When I first went overseas to our factories I was amazed at the quality of machinery, setup and production process. The factories we use are state of the art, clean environments with great conditions for the workers – I was genuinely surprised on my first visit!

What is the process & how many prototypes do you go through before a product goes into production?

For me it begins with a sketch, market research, user insights and a complex design thought process. I won’t bore you with the details here as it could take me all day to explain! We then move it on screen, select fabrics submit a specification to the factories and start to sample. When samples come in we start to test and evaluate them. This is either done by us or Athletes/Mountain Guides. These are the most extreme of users – they will probably put more wear on a product in two weeks than you or I would in two years! At the moment I’m mid-way through designing Winter 2018. This is often why you won’t see product improvements straight away in store. We typically work two seasons ahead. In terms of prototypes I have just finished clearing out samples from Winter 2017. There are probably 10-20 design iteration samples of each model and typically in a season I’m working on 15-20 products – that’s a lot of samples!

Rab is based in the UK, how does this influence the design & function of the products you produce?

I think our designs are very British and as such we design for a British market. I think it’s a key makeup of the Rab brand and part of the appeal. We still hand fill all our sleeping bags here in the UK with European down (all optimised using our super whizzy down calculator). I think our products are all tailored toward the environment they are intended for. For example if we are creating a belay jacket for the UK market – we would think of hard Scottish Winters and build the product to suit – knowing that it will get through a drier alpine winter with no issues at all.

You’ve been working recently on the Rab glove range. How difficult is it to design gloves that function well, keep the user warm/dry & still offer acceptable levels of dexterity?

It is very difficult to design gloves that function well and retain the dexterity. We have a lot of gloves in the range and find that most users will take 2 or 3 pairs of gloves for different scenarios/use. I think it always comes down to the use – if you are going up an 8000er or on polar expedition you want maximum warmth and less dexterity as typically you are travelling slowly, with poles/axes, on fixed lines or static ropes (on a typical trip). The dexterity vs warmth argument will always be there though – we are seeing more and more technologies coming through that will enable gloves to retain the warmth and dexterity with less bulk in the near future. Our construction methods help us to maximise dexterity. I can’t really go into the detail as it’s a bit of a Rab secret but essentially we leave out a material that isn’t really required but makes the gloves easier for factories to construct – this makes our gloves a little slower and more difficult to assemble but does not compromise dexterity. For winter 2017 we spent a lot of time focusing on the fit of our gloves – you should hopefully see this coming through on the shelf soon. Initially we base our sizes from anthropometric data, but we know every hand is different. I have a book full of average measurements for humans, we then select sizes based on the 5th to 95th percentile of users and a try them on a good sample group size – these can even be specific down to the body type and where in the world you may be from. In simple terms you’ll notice that our hands are never flat and always move in arcs  – never straight lines – so we try to build a glove this way with more natural fit and articulation.

What are some current International trends that you have noticed within the outdoor industry?

I think consumers are looking for more transparency from brands. People are becoming more and more aware of where their products are coming from – who made them, what’s inside them and where they are made.

Which other brands/designers do you rate?

For true R&D, money no object innovation in terms of Outdoor/Sports apparel and equipment, it has to be Nike or Adidas. There are some true performance gains to be seen in the future from these brands.

There is an obvious industry trend towards making lighter weight gear. How do you think this impacts durability & is it possible satisfy both requirements?

It depends on the construction and application of the product. I think the industry is getting there in terms of durability vs weight now (you’ll maybe see this from Winter 2017/18), over the next few years we should see some truly amazing products.

Cheers Chris and we’ll look forward to seeing what that mysterious new project eventuates into!


About The Author

Lachlan Gardiner

Lachlan works as a freelance photographer, writer and videographer. He loves spending time in the outdoors whenever possible - be it hiking, mountaineering, climbing, or just being on the road - He'll take any excuse to get into the mountains! He also works in our Paddy Pallin store in Fortitude valley, Brisbane. Drop in and say hi!

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