Rohan was the brainchild of mid-twenties British couple, Paul and Sarah Howcroft. I've read one report that suggested Paul had but £60 in the bank when
Rohan started (though it would grow to a £7 million business in less than ten years.) Sarah has listed that she was involved with Rohan from 1970, but
their first product was released in 1975.
I personally believe Rohan is one of the great unsung heroes of groundbreaking innovation in the outdoor scene. Not just for the UK market, but
internationally. Much of what is taken for granted in the outdoor industry today, was pioneered by Paul and Sarah Howcroft, with Paul as the principal
The name is apparently derived from the famous fictional saga, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by JRR Toilken. It refers to the grassland territory of the
Rohirrim, a people famous for their horsemanship and horse breeding. Gandalf's horse, Shadowfax, was a horse bred in Rohan. Although Lord of the Rings
is never directly mentioned, at least in marketing material produced from 1979 onwards, the garments themselves allude to the brand's origin. Blatantly
like Starkhorn, Striders, or more indirectly such as Pampas and Savannah.
From the outset the Rohan design aesthetic was a simple, pared down efficiency. This extended to the logotype, which has long been just the word in the
boxy san serif typeface Microgramma. (It is probably no coincidence that this font was developed by Italian type designers. Paul had a fascination with
Italian design and captions in catalogues were often as much about the Italian furniture and lighting, as it was the actual clothing. And he was a keen rally
driver in an Italian Lancia Fulvia car.) The logotype appeared as white text on a blue background label until about 1981, when it began to be simply
embroidered directly onto the garment's exterior. It would be a decade, or more, before the outdoor industry as a whole moved to embroidered logos,
over sewn-on logos. Just one of Rohan early innovations.
Their garments were always sleek. They were lightweight, years before This was serious consideration for many outdoor companies. They were compact.
In 1982 the company was publishing packed sizes for their apparel, starting with length x diameter, but soon moving to cubic centimetres. They have
always offered separate men's and women's sizing in their technical apparel, again long before the more 'mainstream' brands had graduated from unisex
Next to Skin
In 1980 Rohan released next-to-the-skin garments made of Dunova, a modified acrylic fibre from Bayer. This was the same year that Patagonia hit the
headlines for making polypropylene apparel. Yet Dunova was streets ahead of polypro. It looked and felt like a fine cotton. It arrived soft and stayed soft.
It didn't shrink when you hot washed or tumble dried it. It didn't retain body odour. Yet it absorbed moisture and perspiration, whilst always feeling dry
against the skin. Rohan had Dunova five years before Patagonia would replace polypropylene with Capilene, a material that exhibited many of the same
characteristics. (Though via a quite different manner.)
Later, in 1986, they would repeat this industry leading feat with another next-to-the-skin fabric. Rohan called it Dryline, though it was actually
FieldSensor from Japan's Toray. With it, Rohan had the outdoor industry's second 'denier gradient' fabric (the first was their Multiflex for legwear).
Dryline pulled moisture off the skin into a loose arrangement of fibres and by capillary action moved it them to a more dense knit on the outside of the
cloth, where they could safely evaporate without cooling the skin of the wear. The result being the inner surface always felt dry to touch. Fieldsensor was
being used by Pearl Izumi for the cycling market, but Rohan pioneered it for the outdoor market. It would be almost ten years before Lowe Alpine would
come along with their Dryflo underwear using the same concept. And even longer before Malden Mills (now Polartec) would offer their Powerdry material.
And it should be remembered that at no time did the Rohan garments look like underwear either. They were stylish garments that could be proudly worn
on their own as shirts, yet they retained high performance moisture transfer attributes.
Jekyll and Hyde
The name sums it up. Two garments with different personalities but intimately linked. The soft, moisture wicking, knitted Dunova long sleeve shirt. And
the tough poly-cotton wind resistant overshirt. Designed to be worn independently or combined, where the sum was greater than the parts. Considered by
Paul to be the modern replacement for the cotton t-shirt and woolen lumberjack arrangement that was de riguer at the time. The 1982 Jekyll had an
offset asymmetrical collar opening, again long pre-dating the offset openings now common on technical apparel today.
Bags of Fun
There was a reoccurring Rohan theme. That form did not have to obviate function, or vice versa. And probably this is most widely evident in Rohan's most
famous product: Bags. These travel pants weighed just 300 grams, and, as Rohan themselves would later advertise, packed up to the same size as a can
of soft drink. First launched in 1980, as lightweight pants for mountaineers that would take up any space in the pack when travelling to-and-from the
mountain, they seemed like a rather specialised garment, yet would confound everyone by going on to sell more than a million pairs over the next 30
years. And almost singlehandedly establishing the travel clothing market in the UK.
Six pockets, four zippered for security, two with bellows volume expansion, a D-ring for attaching keys and the like, double seat and knees, and an over-
abundance of belt keepers set these lightweight pants apart from pretty much anything else when they first appeared. The original versions, up to about
1983, even had a snap fastened, right side, thigh pocket.
Also, prior to 1983, the zipper security pockets were on the outside pocket (as can be seen in the product photos of that era.) The reason that Paul once
gave for changing the design, was that a Bags wearer travelling in some exotic locale was attacked by an agressive pickpocket who attempted to rip the
entire front pocket of the pants. To gain whatever was protected by those zips. As I recall the heavy duty stitching held the base of the pocket to the
Bags and the pickpocket broke off the assualt. But Paul revised the design, so the security pocket couldn't be levered away away from the body of the
pants. And added in the now iconic snap fastener adjusted bellows panel.
Although the 135 gm/m2 50% polyester, 50% cotton fabric was thin, it was also densely woven, which offered both wind resistance and durability,
especially given the weight of cloth. Bags apparently used more than 200 metres of thread, which in turn was a heavier weight thread costly double
normal thread. Each pair had 27 bartacks, or zigzag reinforcing stitches, with each belt loop consuming almost two metres of thread.
So popular were bags that variations soon appeared. Double Bags with brushed polycotton linings. Warm Bags with knitted linings, and Winter Bags with
polyester wadding and a knitted lining. (After the Howcroft era there was also Convertibale Bags with zip off legs. And I think even waterproof Bags.)
Everything about the early Rohan clothing was different, right down to the zippers. From about 1981 garments came with RiRi zips from Switzerland.
Founded in 1936 RiRi, (which comes the the German words Rille and Rippe, or concave and convex, indicating the shape of zipper teeth), would later go
on to invent and hold the world patent for the nylon injected moulded toothed zipper. Although lacking the distribution clout of YKK, RiRi were able to
make high quality zips and offer small production runs of styles and sizes. Initially the RiRi zip pulls used by Rohan were a long, solid metal tab (RiRi
model 'Lang'). But these were found to jam in the perforated drums of washing machines and driers, so the larger, ergonomic, doughnut style, nylon zip
tab was chosen (RiRi model 'FLNY'). Paul Howcroft once reckoned that using RiRi zips added about £3-4 per garment, but that the quality was worth it,
because they'd only had three broken zips returned in six years.
With the change of Rohan ownership, after the Howcrofts, Rohan moved away from RiRi zips. But have since started using the acclaimed waterproof RiRi
Aqua Zip in their new premium Pinnacle series shellwear.
The Pampas jacket in its 1978 iteration had two 'reach across' chest pockets with external vertical zip access. Look around now at how many outdoor
jackets have this feature. Nearly all do. But try to find an outdoor jacket predating the Pampas with this feature. That's a much harder task.
And there was the short-lived Master Jacket in three layer Gore-Tex. It had a detachable hood, a feature not all that common at the time (although the
Berghaus Sirocco did sport one), but its more innovative feature was side zips that allowed the front cargo pockets to be worn over a rucksack hipbelt, so
they remained accessible with a pack on. (It would be another three years before Marmot would introduce their Alpinist jacket with chest pockets to allow
Paul Howcroft was way ahead of the 'soft shell' game, long before it was even a glint in most designers eye. The dense stretchy fabric used in Super
Striders and Super Salopettes, known as Helenca, had all the characteristics of modern day 'soft shell.' It had amazing stretch and recovery, it sported a
smooth exterior and a terry loop inner that provided excellent warmth. (For some people it was too toasty and various lighter weight versions appeared
over the years to cater for those folk.) It was brilliant at shedding snow and did a decent job in showers also. It dried pretty quickly, given its weight, but
more importantly was still comfortable to wear when wet.
All this in the late 70's. Mountaineers loved the stuff for all those reasons. In 1979 Rohan introduced Multiflex, which they term all 'way stretch', in that it
expanded 60% up and down the leg and 40% around the leg. (And to their credit they never called it '4 Way stretch', which is persistent untruth. Fabric
stretches up-down, and across. That's it. Only 2 ways. Not including the diagonal bias, in which which most clothes also have some 'give.') If Multiflex
had one drawback, it was that the hook side of some Velcro style fastenings could abrade the exterior, but this was only an aesthetic issue, not
Later, in 1984, a Dunova backed Multiflex would be introduced as a lighter weight, moisture wicking version. It appeared briefly in the Spyders pants and
Strangely, Paul never released, to this writers knowledge, a Multiflex style upper garment. (Correction. Over at Rohantime, Sarah Howcroft thinks
the1979 Tundra was an early softshell. "Showerproof, windproof, close fitting, two way stretch, really comfortable, with or without hood" were some of
the Tundra's catalog descriptors.) But that's not to say he didn't also pioneer softshell tops, as well though. An early foray into this field was a Dunova
lined pullover based on the Moving On overshirt. The moisture absorbing Dunova was a terry loop form and it was protected from the weather by an outer
of wind resistant tightly woven poly-cotton (Fabric 20) - the same material used for the Bags and Pampas. Although the Fabric 20, later to be known as
Airlight, did not stretch, it was very durable for its weight. Rohan did dabble in stretchy knitted Dunova warmwear briefly in 1983, but unreliable supply of
the fabric became of a major issue. So the focus changed to non-woven polyester fibre fills.
Known as Insusoft and Insuflex these were polyester waddings, that had very little in common with the stiff, boardy skiwear-like Thinsulate insulation of
the day. Rather they were very soft and body conforming insulations. Insulflex was even bonded to a soft modal/cotton blended knit that was comfortable
on bare skin. It was used in the Olfio. This was an overhead high tech sweater, with an Airlight shell and full Insuflex inner. It sported a long side pleat
which could be opened or closed with snap fasteners for a snug fit or extra airflow. The asymmetrical neck opening also increased ventilation. A zippered
handwarmer muff kept digits out of the weather. Later versions would incorporate a kangaroo style, zippered chest pocket for gear stowage. All in all, a
cosy, yet lightweight and very compactable package that predated the rise of the polyester filled 'puffball' style garments by at least a decade.
Over the Head
Rohan customers were forever pummelled with the benefits of over-the-head garments, but on this issue they didn't readily side with Paul's strident
views, preferring full front opening tops. Not that this stopped him from trying. The original Hyde windshirt was a pullover style. The Moving On was also
an over-the-head windshirt, with lots of accessible pockets and a reach-through, muff-style, handwarmer pocket. The aforementioned Olfio insulated top
was yet another jumper style. As was the knitted Mariner top. Even when front opening tops were released, like the insulated Sohao, the half insulated
Busker and the extra thick Cadradhras, they were strongly positioned as not conceding to being a front opening Olfio.
Colour was both a strength and a weakness for Rohan. Some colour selections had broad appeal, others were rather provocative and not likely to find
wide support. Yellow Hydes, and Red, Purple or White Bags come to mind. Although often designed with travelling in mind, many of the Rohan colourway
combinations were quite striking and certainly would not have allowed the wearer to quietly blend into the crowd. But other shades, such Lovat, were
classics that survived many years in the range, precisely because they did almost render the wearer invisible.
At first Rohan garments were conceived for hillwalking and mountaineering. Then the success of the Bags opened up a whole new world, which initially the
company called Daywear, but would soon become a focus on travel. Often catalogues would however hark back to the company's outdoor roots, and offer
up the SuperStriders and Pampas as proof.
The Classico line was another apparent deviation from early climbing origins. Smart urban wear suitable for wearing to the office or on business trips. It
had relatively standard looking appearance that disguised the Rohan easy-care (no dry cleaning) fabrics and components, and zippered security pockets.
Paul wrote of its introduction in 1989, "It is inevitable that some Rohan users are going to see Classico as a sell-out to the mass market. I can personally
assure that these products have been seen as a logical progression of the Rohan philosophy since the beginning."
And that may true, for back in 1982 Rohan offered the City Slicker, a Gore-Tex rain coat for men and women that was described thus: Rohan mountain
expertise has been fully applied to this garment to provide first-class comfort and protection in addition to superb styling.
During the Howcroft years, Rohan also extended itself beyond the basic outdoor pants and tops. They sold Rohan branded belts, bandannas, boots, socks,
sunglasses (including a folding pair in a hard case), scarves, water repellent spraypacks, first aid kits, as well as third-party waterproof luggage and even
collapsible bicycles (Moultons).
But it wasn't just product that the Howcrofts pioneered. They also reinvented the way brands connect with their customer. When Rohan couldn't convince
retailers to carry the clothing, because it was seen as odd, they went it alone. They set up their own Rohan retail outlet, and within the first four years
had ten stores. A highly unusual move for an outdoor clothing brand at the time.
Plus, they dived heavily into mail order sales. According to one report, Rohan moved the equivalent of a full years worth of retail sales in just two months
when they started offering Mail Order. They even developed a Rapid Response scheme, allocating priority ordering to certain garments in particular colours
and sizes, although the concept was later dropped. They held Regional Shows, to service customers that had no local Rohan retailer. The Shows toured the
UK setting up in hotels and halls, what they described as, "a cross between Harrods sale and a theatre bar during interval." Once more pre-dating the
"pop-up shops" designers now use in, say New York, to reach customers.
Paul Howcroft not only designed the product, but in the early years he also 'studio' photographed it for the catalogues (often with less than favourable
results, it must be said). He often wrote the catalogue and advert copy. I don't believe they ever repeated their magazine adverts. Each was different,
from poking fun at men with beards, to quoting poetry by Keats. He also wrote most of the text in the TQQ newsletters, regularly castigating the outdoor
and fashion industry, and Rohan competitors. But also praising those whom he admired. Paul saw Rohan as "the enfant terrible, the outsider, the white
knight of the clothing world."
No doubt Paul had many faults, but a lack of passion or drive weren't among them. His intense enthusiasm for creative thinking and outside-the-square-
design attracted an equally passionate customer following—the devout Rohanist. But the same almost evangelical fervour also alienated many as well.
British outdoor types during the heydays of the 80's were polarised as Rohan believers, or doubters. But there's no doubting that the outdoor and travel
industry lost a powerhouse of pioneering spirit and creative thinking, when Paul died in a recreational motoring accident in 1993.
In 2009, Sarah Howcroft, through the internet-based social media of blogging, would reach out again to those early Rohanists, via the company
sanctioned website, Rohantime.