Jeremy Moon's Shirt Don't Stink

By Lindsay Warner April 24, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a four part series:
Part 1: The Wool Market      Part 2: Wool’s Renaissance        Part 4: Bullish on Wool


Jeremy Moon, the founder of Icebreaker, was a few hours into a sea-kayaking trip in 1994 when he realized he had a problem. “By the end of the first day, I was beginning to feel clammy,” he says. “We were all wearing synthetics, and by the end of the trip, my friends and I all smelled completely rank. And I thought, ‘well, that was amazing, but it would be cool if we didn’t all have to smell like dogs by the end of it.’” Just a few short weeks later, the 24-year-old Kiwi met a farmer who gave him a merino shirt to try. That shirt changed the way he and his friends smelled—and planted the seed that prompted Moon to launch what is now New Zealand’s leading outdoor clothing producer and exporter.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Moon. Longtime retail partners chuckle when they remember the earnest young man dragging around his grandfather’s battered leather suitcase, stuffed with merino Henleys and long johns. Robert Butson, the owner of Mount Nicholas sheep station—now Icebreaker’s largest merino supplier—recalls thinking the young man “looked like something of a dreamer.” There were some quality-control issues in the early days. And consumers, who knew wool as an itchy, prickly material best reserved for mid and top layers, weren’t interested in Moon’s next-to-skin product concept. But Moon persisted.

In April 2015, Icebreaker celebrated its 20th anniversary, with 5,000 retail partners in 50 countries. We caught up with Moon at Icebreaker’s Vancouver, B.C., offices to talk about what it takes to turn an old-fashioned fiber into one of the fastest-growing fabrics in the outdoor industry.

OIA: You mortgaged your house to peddle merino door to door. What made you so passionate about the fabric?
Jeremy Moon: The first merino shirt I put on. I was amazed that it wasn’t itchy like regular wool. I started wearing it running and mountain biking. Suddenly I found myself sleeping in it too, and I thought, ‘that’s odd! I’m developing a strange relationship with a shirt.’ It didn’t stink, and it was a natural fiber that wasn’t made of plastic. After visiting the merino farm where the shirt had come from, I wanted—on a subconscious level—to have a part in the amazing relationship I could see between the animals and the environment.

OIA: So what next?
JM: I didn’t even have a product line, but I knew I had an incredible natural fabric that would keep you warm when it was cold and cool when it was hot. It was naturally renewable and wouldn’t hold odor but was also lightweight, machine-washable and not at all prickly. I wrote up a little business plan about how I could create a small collection based on this underlying ethos of being a product built from nature, and then hit the road with my suitcase.

OIA: That was 1994. How was it received?
JM: The rest of the world thought I was stupid. Retailers thought wool was dead. Everyone was wearing synthetics, and nothing I could say made any difference to them. I had to convince them one by one. One of my mentors said he’d never been involved in a company where you could drink the year’s profits and still remain sober!

Q: How long did it take before you could ditch the suitcase?
JM: We still have to start from the bottom-up with every new market. People hear ‘merino’ and think we’re talking about old school wool. It’s not until you have the in-store clinics and get advocates on the shop floors that you actually start selling.

OIA: And it started working?
JM: Yes. But then a merino farmer called to tell me I was a disgrace to the industry because the Icebreaker top she had was literally falling apart. I was absolutely devastated, but that’s when I realized that we’d gotten a bad batch, and that not all merino was the same. So we started working directly with the growers, not sourcing from elsewhere. I knew that if we couldn’t control the fiber quality, we couldn’t control the fabric either.

OIA: So in 1997, you started signing contracts directly with your growers. How did that affect the quality of your product?
JM:Immensely. We set high standards and tested every single bale. In return, growers got three-year contracts set at a premium price. That ensured end-to-end quality control where we have complete visibility into the entire process. Now we source 1,600 tons of merino from New Zealand, all of it coming from animals raised in the very best environments. And in turn, growers know where their wool is going and consumers know where it has come from.

OIA: Today, 20 years after launching, what’s your biggest challenge?
JM: All of the low-quality wool blends that are hitting the market, causing confusion. People might buy a T-shirt marketed as ‘merino wool,’ but if it has been blended with, say, 50 percent polypropylene or polyester, it’s lost the inherent qualities of merino. That’s an entirely different product than high-quality merino wool.

 Icebreaker’s Journey

1994: Icebreaker launches, creating a new clothing category: technical apparel made from merino wool.

1995: Sir Peter Blake, world yachting champion, endorses Icebreaker, saying, “Icebreaker is superior in every way to anything I’ve ever worn. I wore it for 43 days and 43 nights, and it didn’t itch or get whiffy.” The endorsement triggers wider acceptance of Icebreaker’s performance philosophy in the technical outdoor market.

1997: Icebreaker pioneers the practice of signing contracts directly with growers, giving them security and allowing the brand to set strict standards of animal welfare and environmental responsibility.

1999: Icebreaker’s merino clothing layering system gains traction in New Zealand.

2003: Icebreaker adopts a philosophy of forging a “narrow and deep” partnership with its supply chain, choosing to partner with a few special suppliers who share core values with Icebreaker, and who are interested in growing alongside the brand.

2006: Icebreaker’s award-winning, nature-inspired “Touch Lab” outlets and “Touch Point” retail displays launch globally.

2007: Icebreaker launches its underwear ranges — “Nature” for women and “Beast” for men. The company sets up a global design exchange in Portland, Oregon.

2008: The debut of Baacode, Icebreaker’s traceability program. More than 200 magazines endorsed the initiative.

2009: Icebreaker launches ecosystem, a companywide sustainability initiative.

2010: The brand rolls out a revolutionary performance base layer product: Icebreaker GT, which combines premium merino with Lycra for unparalleled fit and support

2014: Icebreaker announces MerinoLOFT, a launch of exceptionally warm, sustainably focused jacket made with recycled fabrics. The lightweight insulation is created from premium, ethically sourced wool fibers. Ten percent of the loft comes from recycled merino offcuts salvaged from the factory floor, while the jackets’ water repellent shell is made from recycled polyester.

Spring/Summer 2015: Icebreaker Cool-lite fabrics hit stores. A mix of lifestyle and technical tops and shorts, the Cool-lite range is a fusion of merino wool and Tencel, a fiber made from sustainably produced wood that keeps wearers cool, dry and comfortable on even the hottest days of summer.