Icebreaker: A true NZ success story

By Zoe Walker

Icebreaker's Jeremy Moon loves the symbiotic relationship between the families, the land and the animals on sheep stations. Icebreaker's Jeremy Moon is obsessed with merino. Viva catches up with him at a Queenstown sheep station where it all begins.

Icebreaker's Jeremy Moon loves the symbiotic relationship between the families, the land and the animals on sheep stations. Photo / Babiche Martens
Icebreaker's Jeremy Moon loves the symbiotic relationship between the families, the land and the animals on sheep stations. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jeremy Moon flies in by helicopter, and we arrive by boat. We're at Mt Nicholas Station, a remote high country sheep station on the pebbled shores of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown, where 30,000 merino sheep roam on more than 40,000ha of land. It's here that Icebreaker, the company Moon launched in 1995, gets much of the merino fibre that makes up their garments, and today a small group of media have gathered to meet the brand's quietly charismatic leader.

Everything that takes place here connects to the surroundings, with vast landscapes surrounded by massive mountains, views over the crystal clear waters of Lake Wakatipu and trees ablaze with the colours of autumn. There's no snow on the mountains, but that will come in the next few months. Hearty home-cooked meals come from the land - venison from the mountains, vegetables grown in a massive backyard garden - and daily routines move with the seasons (when we visit it's crutching season). "You lose track of the days," explains Bruce Collins, the straight-talking Southerner who runs the station lodge with his wife Adrienne McNatty, their enthusiastic schnauzer Jackson and pet deer Buck (they rescued him from the foot of some nearby mountains a few months ago).

Moon visits this station - one of the first suppliers of merino wool to Icebreaker - about three times a year, and they clearly enjoy a relaxed, family-like relationship, with station owner Linda Butson chatting to Moon about his wedding photos.

As a true New Zealand success story, the Icebreaker tale has been told many times. Moon's passion for merino began in 1994 when farmer Brian Brackenridge showed him prototypes of merino wool thermals, dubbed Ice Breakers. The 24-year-old recent Otago University commerce and marketing graduate was intrigued, and after wearing it, was hooked on the lightweight, silky soft natural fibre.

He quit his job, bought the business concept and locked himself in his room to figure out what to do with it. After raising capital from some impressive backers, his academic background - a masters degree in cultural anthropology and consumer behaviour - kicked in. "I started staying on merino stations, and I was amazed at the relationship between the families and the land, and the animals. There was this symbiotic relationship going on. Cultural anthropology really is looking at how people bring objects into their life, and the meaning that they give them. So I had to put a meaning around that garment."

That meaning formed the bones of the brand, with ideas of symbiosis and kinship of nature, essentially pulling together what New Zealand is known for: adventure, nature and sheep - Icebreaker has been built on discovering the fibre, and exploring its potential, Moon explains. "We totally push the limits of what you can do with merino, but the essence of it is totally natural."

For some, that natural, sustainable image is at odds with its shipping to and manufacture in China. But Moon is completely transparent about where it's made - Shanghai, because it has the best technology in the world. "I'm proud of it. I know it's robust, I know it's fair, and I know the product has integrity," he explains. "Shanghai is in the middle of the world, and it's much more effective to ship everything from Asia to Europe and the US, rather than having everything come from New Zealand, the furthest possible point from everywhere." He admits that transitioning to overseas manufacturing in 2003 was "the most confronting decision" he's had to make, but says New Zealand stopped investing in apparel technology in the 1980s.

"It's really important to be conscious about being sustainable, and minimising resources, but you can't be totally dogmatic and black and white about these things."

Moon still has his original business plan in his office, featuring his mission to build an international brand.

The global focus continues: Icebreaker is now available in 42 countries, with three quarters of sales in the Northern Hemisphere - an impressive achievement for a New Zealand brand. Beyond its Wellington headquarters, Icebreaker has offices in Australia, Vancouver, France, Germany - and Portland, a city Moon visits every six weeks. He has 50 people there, with product design done there also, because of the city's talent pool (Nike and Adidas, both said to be launching merino-blend running products, are also based in Portland, a major sports hub).

"It's very quirky and creative and slightly grungy, friendly with good food and great coffee. It's a bit like Wellington actually; like a bigger version of Wellington," explains Moon over a cup of tea in the kitchen of the shearers' quarters by the lake.

Moon also visits Europe twice a year and is going to Japan this month. It's an extension of a well-travelled childhood - his dad was a doctor, teaching medicine and doing medical exchanges.

"My dream was to fly around the world hanging out with cool people. That's what I did with my parents, so I grew up seeing the world as a small place. I wanted to live like that, so now that's how I live half my life," he explains. He's passing on that idea of living globally to his three daughters, aged 6, 9 and 12: he will take them with him to Europe in July, and enjoys taking them to new places (Sardinia last year, Spain this year).

But though there's a strong global outlook, Moon says the place is still run like a family business. He's "one of the old guys" and encourages a young and energetic, work hard, play hard culture.

Moon's staff in Queenstown seem slightly in awe of him, fussing about and making sure everything is organised just so; he seems comparatively low key. It could be the slight hangover - the night before the group celebrated with some quiet drinks and a lakeside bonfire. But he's happy to sit on the fence ("metaphorically or literally?" he jokes to our photographer) to have his photo taken at the sheep yards.

Our photographer teases him for looking slightly nerdy and he feigns mock offence, but it must be a running joke as later that day Collins tells us that station owner, Rob Butson, thought Moon was a bit of a nerd when he first met him.

Moon - who wears Icebreaker every day, as well as other favourite brands Prada, Paul Smith and Ferragamo - talks thoughtfully and enthusiastically; from the local fashion industry ("I love New Zealand fashion, but it doesn't have anything to do with our business") to the power of simplicity of design ("It's much easier to add stuff than take stuff away. Taking stuff away is discipline"). For his design team, fashion isn't necessarily the focus, although they reference it. Its approach is clean and functional, and about building longevity. They design 18 months ahead, and "disposable fashion is not our focus".

Moon recently opened a second Icebreaker store in New York, with plans for five more stores in the US this year and a store in London next year. So how does it feel to be one of New Zealand's success stories? "It feels like a relief really. It's a work in progress, and even though we've been successful, we've got a very long runway in front of us. I chair a group called Better by Design, which is 150 local businesses and brands who are all exporting, and I'm really committed to sharing my learnings from Icebreaker through that network," he says. "And through the act of passing it on, you learn a lot about what you've learned."

One thing Moon has seen over the years is the explosion in popularity of his passion - although there's still room for growth.

"Merino is in almost in every collection now, but I don't think people understand the full potential of it; the sensuality of how the fabric feels. For us it's an obsession ... but we don't expect everyone to be as obsessed with it as we are."

* To see more of our visit to Mt Nicholas Station, see our behind the scenes photos on the Viva Facebook page.

- NZ Herald

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