We met Tom Chappell and his new company, Ramblers Way, at the Outdoor Retailer earlier this year.
Most of us know Chappell (pronounced “chapel”) from Tom’s of Maine, the hugely successful, natural toothpaste and personal
care product company bought by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006.
So, what’s this new gig for the tall, white-haired man who grew up on a farm and spent many a day riding his horse in the fields of Uxbridge, Massachusetts?
Chappell, 72, first brainstormed the Maine clothing company after a trek with his son in Wales, to celebrate the Tom’s of Maine $100 million sale.
They hiked for two weeks in cool, rainy weather. He tried all variety of garb – polypropylene, capilene, silk, wool, cotton – yet, he found nothing would keep him warm, dry, and body-odor free during those 12-mile, rambling days.
He admired the local sheep, seemingly comfortable and content in their own coats.
He did some research. (His wife, Kate, says he stayed retired for just a few weeks.)
He learned that by using the superfine fibers of the Rambouillet sheep, one could create soft, fine yarn that didn’t itch. From that, you can make light, insulating, breathable clothing.
With help from family members (son Chris Chappell helps on the technological side and daughter Eliza Chappell is a designer.), the company was born in 2009. With their help, the senior Chappell has learned about bounce rates, click-through-rates, and the world of Internet sales.
“If customers see an image of a white-haired guy in a Volvo, they’re just going to move off,” he recalled.
Ramblers Way is not another clothing company, selling high-end products sourced and made in China. Chappell, who earned a Masters from the Harvard Divinity School in 1991, wanted to create something more meaningful and valuable.
Heard of “ethical fashion?” It’s an umbrella term describing a range of issues including working conditions, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare in the production and sale of clothing.
Ramblers Way is ethical fashion. The wool comes sheep in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Maine. It’s sent to mills in the North and South Carolina, then sewn by garment makers in Fall River, Massachusetts. Natural enzymes are used to clean the wool. Plant extracts are used to dye it. And the company has a thorough plan for sustainability which includes geothermal and solar energy for their offices in Kennebunk, Maine.
It started out exclusively on line and as appealing most directly to Baby Boomers. But Chappell learned that reaching younger buyers was crucial. The clothes are now geared for “value-centric” shoppers who are “stylish, fit, and trim,” he said.
He also found he disliked the “lack of relationships” inherent in the online-only entity, said Chappell. So, they connected with retailers. Its clothing is now in 400 independent clothing stores.