Portrait of Nick by
Launched just a few months ago, Vulpine make stylish, yet still practical, bikeware. Inspired by British tailoring, their products use natural fabrics with technical properties (such as Epic Wear waterproof cotton, and of course, an abundance of merino wool) – they’re for cyclists who want to integrate cycling into their everyday life without having to compromise on style.
I’ve known Nick Hussey, the man behind Vulpine, for a few years now through riding with our club the Kingston Wheelers. I’ve followed with interest the hard work he’s put into turning Vulpine from an idea into a reality. That he’s launched with a range of such desirable products makes the journey even more inspiring. I managed to grab a coffee with him during a temporary lull in his hectic schedule to chat racing as a junior, dodgy backs, the high and lows of launching a new start-up, and cycling fetes…
Give us a brief account of your cycling background. I grew up in a crappy mining village in Nottinghamshire, and had a rough time at school and was pretty crap at sports such as football – I felt like I needed an outlet. It sounds really ridiculous, but I’d always been very skinny but at the same time also had big legs. I watched the Tour in ’86 when Channel 4 was showing it with LeMond and Hinault, and although I didn’t necessarily understand it all, I got an enjoyment out of it. And then I started reading Winning magazine and in ’87 Stephen Roche won the Giro, which was a particularly mad edition of the race, and so this folklore of cycling started to seep into me. Watching the Tour later in the year Charly Mottet who came fourth became my cycling hero, and still is even now. Those moments, such as when Roche collapsed at La Plagne after chasing down Delgado, it blew my mind. I’d always been a weak sickly kid, but I wanted to do something really tough that required self-discipline – cycling seemed like that could make it possible for me to do that. And being so skinny it seemed like the right fit.
I started off with a crappy bike, and then graduated on to doing evening time trials which luckily started only a few miles down the road – the East Midlands Championship circuit was literally round the corner from our house. And got further and further into it, almost like a forcefield was dragging me in! By the time of my GCSEs I was completely obsessed, which drove my mum crazy. Instead of revising I’d go out on massive training rides instead. I gravitated more towards time trialling just because, as a small guy, I got bashed around a bit in road races.
But eventually I just completely wore myself out. Wrecked my back, slipping my first disc when I was just 19. Then managed to get glandular fever, going from 9 stone down to 8 stone, losing all my strength. When I recovered I still wasn’t able to cycle because of my back, so went about fixing it through yoga and pilates and better posture and all that sort of stuff – and had a short period later where I was with the Kingston Wheelers and could get back to riding semi-seriously. Unfortunately I ended up using the last of the brownie points I had with my body before my back put a halt to it all again.
Vulpine Cotton Rain Jacket. Made from Epic Cotton – a fabric made by applying a microscopic coating to cotton before weaving – the jacket is both wind and water-resistant. It has a tailored structure and is packed with clever details such as magnetic neck and pocket closures, reflective cuffs, and a pull down splash guard to keep your bum dry in the rain.
How did you come to set up your own company? And as a cyclist I’d have to ask whether one of the reasons might have been to fit in a bit more time on the bike? It wasn’t a motivation. The reason I started was because I wanted to do something in cycling. I was frustrated working for other people, for bosses who always had a veto over me. Previously I didn’t have the time or the idea, or even the money to do it. Eventually my wife Emmalou said to me, because I was miserable at work – my dad was really ill, my back was in pieces, really stressed – that I needed to do what I really wanted to do. By that time I was basically on my knees, so I said ok, and quit my job.
Emmalou still had her salary, but we had to change our lifestyle and remortgage the house. There was a lot of risk involved, and of course there still is. That’s why I know now why so few people start their own business because it’s so full on. Having said that, I’m very rarely stressed, because I’m not dealing with the frustrations of someone saying ‘You can’t do this’, or sitting by watching opportunities being missed. Everyday I make decisions that fundamentally change the direction of the company, which is very satisfying. It’s tiring and incredibly hard work, but it’s not stressful.
Starting a cycling company everyone asks if I’m getting in plenty of time to ride. Even if it wasn’t for my back I probably wouldn’t be able to get out much, but I’m hoping to gradually change that. So I deliberately chose to set up my office around Box Hill because of all the great riding around there – another advantage of being your own boss! – and will be doing some more mountain biking around there, with my dog Lily chasing after me.
Vulpine Merino T-Shirt. Every cyclist should know about the great natural benefits of merino wool by now – antibacterial, odour resistant, keeps you warm in the cold, cool in the heat. And the Vulpine T-shirt is 100% merino, so there’s literally nothing not to like.
If you knew then what you know now – the amount of hard work, suffering the setbacks – would you still have started your own business? Yes. Lots of people said to me ‘If you knew how hard it’s going to be you won’t do it’. Which was like a red rag to a bull for me. People said don’t go into clothing, it’s really, really tough. But It had to be something I was passionate about, and something I completely believed in. What you’re told all the time is ‘It won’t happen. It won’t succeed.’
Everyone is always telling you about the barriers. Problems, problems, problems. And you have to be arrogant enough to do it anyway, even though everyone’s telling you not to, because otherwise you’d never start a company. But at the same time you’ve got to listen to what people are saying and take it on board. It’s walking that tightrope between being single-minded and listening to good advice when it’s offered.
Because new businesses are so likely to fail it means whoever is supporting or backing you has to have a lot of faith in you as a person. What’s weird is it becomes almost like a personality cult, a company almost completely built around me and my ideas, and you end up trying to sell yourself. And that’s quite odd when you’re looking for investment – people would concentrate on you and what you were like. And if they didn’t like me they didn’t talk to me, and if they did they would. But I don’t feel so comfortable with being the ‘personality owner’. I don’t want Vulpine to be about me, but a reflection of my sensibilities.
People say to me how much they respect what I’ve done. In fact they say ‘I wish I’d done it, you’re so brave’. But it wasn’t brave, I had the backing of Emmalou and I was miserable anyway, so it was almost like I was in a corner. And I’ve always been very driven, but always a round peg in a square hole, running companies for other people and never felt comfortable. It was almost like I had a calling to do it! I’ve no idea whether it’s going to be a success or not, but right now the reception has been really positive.
Vulpine Softshell Jacket. Fortunately it’s not made from soft shell crabs, although that would make for a very unique selling point. The Vulpine Softshell is instead a smart, tailored jacket that just happens to be fantastic for cycling in – wind and water resistant, breathable, and with lots of those lovely details like reversible reflective cuffs, contrast lined pockets, and clever magnetic pocket clasps.
What were your influences when designing the range? My main influences were British tailoring, such as Richard James, but also military wear too. It has to be functional, and has that technical grounding, but always has elements of smartness and which makes feel good and proud. I think British style is about doing the simple things really well, and adding an unusual twist. So for our rain jacket that might be the green lining, panels, and the selectively reflective cuffs.
Having a background in film and not design, and how did you got about designing the range? I grew up in a creative household, my mother worked in theatre and dance, and my dad worked for the Arts Council so I had a very creative upbringing. But the thing about technical apparel is it’s not pure art, it’s about making things that work, creating things that make sense.
So I just thought what do I want from cycling clothing? What makes sense to me? And what are my sensibilities – which are very much about British tailoring – and then what works with the technical fabrics we’re using? So things were narrowed down quite quickly by the demands of the cyclist and the limitations of the materials.
But these limitations I put on the designs were my own, not necessarily those of the industry. I was starting from scratch so was able to re-think a lot of things. For example I asked why not use waterproof cotton rather than synthetic Gore? So I looked into Gore, it’s very expensive, you need a license and I’d never really enjoyed wearing it in the past anyway, so I was looking for a different fabric. We’ve ended up using a coated cotton, which is not only waterproof but you can also tailor it – it’s crisp and it sits well. We’re also getting feedback that it’s more breathable too; because it’s woven warm moist air is forced out. Over the course of a couple of hours it might not be as waterproof as Gore, but you’ll be drier because moisture is being allowed out – there’s less of that boil in the bag problem.
It seems that the perfect waterproof jacket is the holy grail of cycling apparel – do you think anyone will ever achieve it? It’s impossible, it’ll never happen. There’s always going to be a gradient between keeping water out but also getting rid of sweat. It’s why people say ‘Oh my waterproof jacket isn’t waterproof’ – it’s because you become soaked through, not with rain, but with your own sweat. It’s quite disgusting when you think about it.
And then if you’re wearing such a jacket and a polyester top underneath instead of merino then you’re going to stink as your body is covered in sweat. So combining a cotton jacket with merino underneath means you can ride into work in the morning and not have to worry about getting smelly, and even if it gets a bit moist it will dry in minutes as good as new.
Vulpine Cotton Visibility Gilet. It’s high-vis but without screaming ‘HIGH VIS!’. Vulpine have taken the ugly duckling of cycling apparel and turned it into a pleasant green swan, made from waterproof cotton, with Scotchlite trimming to help you be seen after dark. It doesn’t have wings or feathers however, although I’m sure Nick is working on that.
How did you decide on the price points for the Vulpine range? Some people might baulk at the sight of a £55 price tag for the merino T-Shirt. It’s an issue that does occasionally come up, and I suppose it’s a question that people levelled at Rapha too. But having been through the process I now know where that money goes. Fabric is the biggest cost, and the particular fabrics that I use are unbelievably expensive – you buy thousands of yards of something and it costs a hell of a lot of money.
Our products are good value – some people might snort with derision, I know they will – but considering the costs involved in producing each garment, it is. I know Rapha took a lot of stick for their pricing especially in the early days, but once you add up import duty costs, materials, the taxes you need to pay, even postage, and you quickly see why the prices are where they are. Starting from the ground up I wanted the best materials possible, but I also wanted an inclusive brand so I didn’t want prices that would be too inaccessible. So it was a case of finding the right level, and really the prices are a reflection of the costs involved, there aren’t large margins on each garment sold.
I think we’re probably not going to appeal to someone who’s maybe very new to cycling and isn’t that bothered about what they’re wearing on the bike. But there is a group of people who really appreciate good design and who will pay that slight premium for it. However, I realised that as cyclists we’re quite used to paying fairly low prices for our gear. You walk into high street stores such as Reiss or look at brands such as G-Star and you’d pay £195 – the cost of our most expensive garment, the rain jacket – for some flimsy nonperformance fashionable cotton jacket without thinking too much about it.
Some people will just be interested in buying the cheapest and purely functional cycling gear, maybe something high vis, and make do with that. But what Vulpine is about is showing that you can have both – you can have functional gear, but jump off the bike and still look stylish. And the performance element of our garments are actually better than a lot of the cycling-specific stuff that’s already out there.
Vulpine Merino Button Jersey. Again, nothing but 100% merino wool, but with a rear pocket and reflective detailing. It’s a jersey for casual and city riding, and for being non-smelly down the pub or in the office, or wherever else it is you hip urban types like to spend your time.
For me, in an ideal world, commuting by bicycle wouldn’t require any fancy specific clothing. If you look to places like Copenhagen you see ordinary people in ordinary clothes just incorporating a bicycle in their everyday lives. Do you think that could be possible in a city like London? Without meaning to be patronising, London is a much bigger city than Copenhagen or Amsterdam. London is enormous and cycling travel distances can be much greater. So if you’re travelling those distances, perhaps in the rain, or maybe as part of a fitness regime, you have different requirements. You worry about getting sweaty and starting to smell, or about getting hit by crazy drivers. In Amsterdam for example, if you’re in a car and you hit a cyclist it’s your fault – so the speed of traffic is slower and motorists are a lot more cautious. So here we’re more likely to feel we’re fighting for space, and one way is through bright clothing. Looking at the statistics suggests that cycling is not inherently dangerous, but that’s often not how it feels out on the roads of London. There’s a lot of aggression out there, and it can be intimidating. It’s going to take a while, and a lot investment and shifts in thinking, for that to change.
Cycling seems to be one of those things that inspires people to turn their hobby or love of a sport into a business – so many cycling businesses seem to be small operations run by enthusiasts. Was the Vulpine Cycling Fete a conscious effort to bring those sorts of people together? I wanted to choose people that were like Vulpine, friendly small businesses, entrepreneurial, passionate, who design really well and care about what they’re doing. I wanted people who had a similar vibe, and who would get and appreciate what the fete is all about. All that I asked in return is for each company to donate something of their’s for a charity auction. It’s not a trade fair or anything like, it’s just supposed to be a fun event.
What’s next for you and for Vulpine? I was asked recently where I see Vulpine in five, ten, twenty years time. I don’t have an answer for that. You’ve got to do things from the heart and see where it takes you. You have to be authentic, people are pretty clued up and media savvy and can tell when they’re being sold to. So that’s why when people say something I’m doing could be ‘more professional’ I just see that as being boring and standardised and inauthentic. I’d rather be a little bit eccentric and over emotional – ok, very eccentric and over emotional! – and let people know that I mean it.
The Vulpine Cycling Fete will take place on Monday 4th June, the Jubilee Bank Holiday, at Balham Bowls Club in London. As well all manner of cycling related entertainment and activities, the fete brings together some of the most exciting small cycling businesses and ventures around. There will be a charity auction in aid of Wheels For Wellbeing (supporting disabled people to cycle) and Rollapaluza Outreach (bringing cycling and fitness to the disadvantaged). See the Vulpine website for more details.