Ronnie Legg - Senior Clothing Designer, Alpkit
I met Ronnie at Alpkit’s HQ and showroom, a warehouse heated by two huge red enamel woodburning stoves. Ronnie’s desk is on a mezzanine, surrounded by swatches and prototype garments. Downstairs customers are testing kit, erecting tents and discussing products.
Ronnie is Senior Clothing Designer, and a keen climber, which means she's able to test all of the products she designs. "I think you’d notice the difference between someone who uses the product that designed it and somebody who doesn’t. You can look at fabric specs, but if you never actually wear the garment you're never going to know the little irritating things about it. The things that change it from something that's okay to something that works so well you don’t notice you're wearing it. The ultimate goal is something that lets you get on with the task in hand, that you don’t notice, that makes your life easy. That’s the holy grail!"
"Climbing and mountaineering, being outside in the mountains, ideally attached to a rope, that's my main thing. Ice climbing, Alpine climbing, trad rock climbing, indoors or bouldering if I have to. Although my parents introduced me to the outdoors, there was no introduction to climbing, I just really always wanted to have a go. When I was 10 or 11 I did a couple of days course at an outdoor activity centre. I was hooked from there.
As a teenager I lived in the south east. There’s not much in the way of mountains there but there was something that really attracted me about big mountains. I went on a trad rock climbing course at Plas y Brenin when I was 16, then on a course in the Alps which very nearly put me off climbing because it was really really hard, but also really inspiring. At university in Leeds there was a mountaineering club, there were opportunities everywhere and every other hobby fell by the wayside."
"I studied sports science (outdoor activities) with an industrial placement. It was a combination of physiology, psychology, motor control (how you learn to move and produce movement), but also more outdoor activity specific modules, equipment design and testing, leadership, mapping. Physiology has always really interested me, but outdoors and climbing have always really interested me, so I found a course that allowed me to mesh the two.
I gravitated more to the textile side of things, I did my dissertation on mountaineering gloves - the physiology of the hand, sitting in the cold chamber testing gloves. I did manage to do some research on an ice climbing trip! Sometimes there’s a bit of a sciences/arts divide, and design falls into arts. I ended up taking a more scientific route, but actually that that led me back to what I wanted to do, which was design outdoor gear. It meant I could think about climbing, look at textiles and look at construction techniques. There’s actually a lot of science in design."
"When I joined Alpkit they had a fairly limited clothing range. I really saw the growth of Alpkit to the next level to be getting a full clothing range so that you could go out and do whatever activity you like, wearing kit that was designed for the job. In a slightly different way to a lot of outdoor brands, we’re much more multisport, so my job here involves designing clothing that fits as many of those activities as possible.
I tend to find that when women are looking to buy something, they think about using it for multiple activities. Men are generally more likely to buy a jacket specifically for ice climbing. A woman will more likely buy a jacket that you can wear for ice climbing, winter walking, and walking in the Peak District. They're more likely to consider the purchase as a multi activity choice. When you’re making that decision you do want to consider all the activities that you do and have something that works well enough for all of them.
I design all of it from scratch. I’m involved in planning the range, sourcing the fabrics, I draw and then build a specification that tells the factory how to make it. For example, with Laika I had an idea of the fabric, talking to the mills about what I was looking for in terms of the weight, hand feel, finding the fabric then designing the garment. You can run in it, bike in it, it’s the kind of thing that I would wear climbing at the wall. It’s got a really nice durable face so you can scratch it up against holds or gritstone or whatever. It’s stretchy, it moves really well, but if you’re going out on the hill for a hike you might wear it as a mid layer."
"I’ve always felt that people don't really appreciate the psychology of feeling good and performance. Part of feeling good is feeling like you're dressed well. Color has an impact, fit has an impact. If you feel like you're dressed in clothing that makes you look good you feel positive. Positivity leads to performance."
Down in the showroom I asked Ronnie to show me her favourite piece, "The Gravitas is the kind of piece you could design for a climbers’ emergency shell, but actually it’s such a lightweight fabric it feels really great for running. It's very light but still fully waterproof and highly breathable, it packs up ridiculously small. For a backpacking trip you can take it and you know it’s going to protect you fully. Its not necessarily what I had in mind when I was designing it, but I can stick it in my handbag if I'm going out in town because it takes up so little space."
"We manufacture all our clothing in Asia, so I work remotely with several factories. I spend a lot of time contacting fabric mills, trying to find the right fabric for the product I’ve got in mind. Sometimes it’s the other way around, and I’ll see a fabric that inspires the idea for the product. I love looking at fabric and imagining what it could be. There’s room for change at any point in the process, we’ve got a completely flexible working plan which means we can experiment and we're very quick to get something to the market. If I see an interesting new development from a fabric mill, we can get it on the website and in our showroom in 7 months!
It's quite a fluid process, it’s still creative, imagining how a small swatch would make a garment and how that garment feels, how that garment interacts with other garments, and what weight zip you should put in it, all those interactions. It’s really engaging, I can’t imagine doing anything else, it’s what my mind wants to do all the time!"
This interview is part of our series about women in the outdoor industry... to read more see Gemma Dyer, Technical Product Trainer.