Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dunning Golf

I have had the opportunity to get to know Ralph Dunning founder of Dunning Golf over the last couple of weeks. If you are an apparel aficionado there may not be better conversation. Ralph is a truly unique individual who I am sure will become well known to the golf industry and quickly. His recent merger with Tharanco Lifestyle, owners of Greg Norman Collections is a coalition that will make waves in the industry. It is a pleasure to talk with him here and have something to do with that process. 

Ralph, I’m sure there are many readers of this blog who would say your reputation precedes you but for those who have not been introduced, would you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as an athlete?
Prior to entering the golf industry in 2001, I was involved in a company that designed and manufactured very high-end technical apparel for the sports of triathlon, cycling and running. I have been racing triathlons since 1989 and started playing golf in 2000 while at The Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I was playing golf in Hawaiian heat in what was considered to be technical at the time which was heavy, pilled and had some odor issues. I thought to myself that I could design a shirt using fibers that I am currently running in, our triathlon products, and give it a more golf specific hand. I went home to Toronto, met with my mills and started working on engineering a shirt from the ground up with playability in mind. Within 6 months I had engineered and designed a complete system for players that went from next to skin all the way to really player specific outerwear. The outerwear in the marketplace at the time was bulky and I couldn’t figure out why guys were playing golf in it. I sent out some catalogues to some people and started to build a buzz in the Canadian market through some key shops. Mike Weir was wearing my outerwear (by choice, not by contract) during our first couple of seasons. I took some time off racing and really committed to learning the game of golf and the culture that surrounded it. I was still heavily involved in designing very high-end performance apparel for the cycling and running industries up until 2007 when we started to gain some momentum in the US. I was designing for Saucony Running, Cervelo Cycles and GT Bicycles. I started racing again in 2009 and have raced an Ironman every year since including the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii a couple of years ago.

I know from our discussions that your approach to designing and perfecting your product and the vision as to what Dunning Golf ultimately provides the marketplace is quite unique, expound on this if you would?

Our approach has always been based on playability first. Most companies, when they present their catalogue, talk about their color story or inspiration coming from Cape Cod or Moon River or Orange Banana. We are playability first and then we discuss our color ways and aesthetic based on making it easier for our retail partners to merchandise in shop. We aren’t interested in making statement clothing or being “radical” which seems to be the buzz right now with some of the colors and patterns I am seeing out there. Our aesthetic is very clean and classic with some athletic influences in terms of pattern detail. We run two distinct collections based on this: one being classic and the second being athletic. This actually makes sense when you think how players select their footwear.  Our classic aesthetic comes from my family’s history with British shirt and tie maker, “Turnbull and Asser”. They are the ultimate in British Old School Prep. Ken Williams who ran “Turnbull and Asser” and personally fitted and dressed the Royal Family along with most of the James Bond characters over the years had a huge influence on my design taste. Our athletic aesthetic is very clean and understated and speaks to my 20 plus years in endurance sports. I think the combination of both tastes is very important in the game right now and the game needs to stay focused on its tradition and etiquette, but at the same time adapt with the newer, athletic side of the game.
Our customer is interested in how the shirts fit with respect to the right length of sleeve or shoulder width.  Our shirts are designed to stay tucked in when at address and we add an extra couple of inches in the back of the shirttail so they won’t come untucked. Our shorts are cut specifically for players, meaning how they fit when you are at address with proper posture and your rear end is sticking out. We modify our fit each season with minor adjustments and make sure it is going to fit properly.
We introduced a “players system” from the very beginning that explained to players the importance of wearing three layers when playing in cold weather with very little bulk. If you look at how Zach Johnson dressed in 2007 when he won the Masters in a compression mock, technical polo and 4-way stretch vest, this was unheard of then. If you recall that year, it was very cold and most players were wearing bulky sweaters with big drapey sleeves. When you look at the industry today, this “players system” is a big part of the way tour players dress. Zach opened a lot of eyes that year and was even wearing our compression underwear.

Technical fabrics are a huge part of the game now and it’s no different than it was in 2005 when the majority of the industry was cotton. The consumer is so much more educated now on what is quality and offers premium performance.
The fabrics we introduce are proprietary and we work very hard to get the weights and hand of the fabric to be specific to the game. We spent 3 years to get our Interface Stretch fabric right before we launched it in 2007. It was a key fabric in allowing gentleman who were cotton players to be able to move into technical shirts with feeling they were wearing clingy polyester.
If you look around the industry now, there are numerous companies that are running a very similar fabric. It may appear to be the same, but the DNA of the fabric is not the same because we engineer our own fabric and then it is tested in the toughest arenas in the sporting world. 

The new partnership with Tharanco Lifestyles obviously clears the way for unlimited possibilities. What is the business plan going forward in terms of marketing, distribution and your participation?

I am very engaged in this new venture and am partners with Michael Setola and Haresh Tharani.   We spoke with a number of potential owners for Dunning Golf and they were exactly the type of partners we wanted to have the brand positioned with. The entire senior management of Tharanco Lifestyles consists of real players, meaning the game is a huge part of their lives and they truly understand the culture of the game.

We are now in a position to service the green grass golf industry the way it deserves to be serviced with a world-class infrastructure. Our distribution is very focused on green grass doors that cater to core golf players. The distribution will continue to be focused on the best 500 green grass clubs and resorts across the US and Canada.  I expect the brand to be globally distributed by the end of 2013. 

The design direction will continue to come from my Toronto design studio and I will continue to be very involved in the branding and marketing of the company.

Before the merger, Dunning Sportswear had a short but impressive run in golf shops in the states both in terms of sell-in and sell-through. It also was probably never properly understood even by die-hard fans. Is there a plan to educate both shop staffs and consumers?
We built a good business in the US with the infrastructure we had and we were very well financed. We also were able to partner with very premium doors and we built a very loyal following amongst core golfers. As a smaller brand you only have so much to spend on marketing and it makes it very difficult to get your true message out there to the consumer and our green grass partners.

There is a lot of smoke and mirrors with some product out there and I think now the industry is very aware of who we are and our strength at designing and manufacturing player specific apparel using the world’s best fibers and materials.

We built our brand basically on word of mouth and our competitors helped us do that.  We have always believed in creating categories and fabrics for a reason. We have never been one to just react because it is a trend. We are not interested in being a fashion company either. We are focused on being a players company and that means its all about fit and fabric. Having said that, I pay at least as much attention to fashion as anyone and am very aware of what is going on in the world of menswear. It is very heritage fueled in menswear and the look is very inspired by the 60’s - meaning the fits are cleaner. 

We just finished a video that gives some insight into the DNA of the brand as well as the new relationship with Tharanco that we will begin distributing through our sales representatives shortly.

What are the key elements that differentiate Dunning Golf from the multitude of other brands it will be competing with for shelf space?
At the PGA show it was really great to meet with an incredible amount of new retail partners who were aware of the brand, but never really looked at it. Our brand tagline is “Engineered for Athletes and Designed for Players”. This speaks to exactly who we are as a company.  Our products are authentic from a technical perspective because of my personal involvement in athletics and endurance sports. There is no faking it with our material, fit or construction. The “players” part really comes from the fact that we are offering an aesthetic that speaks to the tradition and etiquette associated with this game; clean and classic. This is important when you look at the demographics of the game. We used to get asked “Who is your demographic?” We always answered “players”. Look around who is wearing our product and it really does range from a 13 year old junior right up to an older play.

The industry is incredibly competitive and everyone has their hype or spin. We speak to the game and what our clothes are designed to do. There is a clear movement to the return of traditional looks with a modern country club aesthetic. We heard this message loud and clear at the recent PGA show. Most players have always dressed this way and will continue to dress this way. We also happen to offer a technical story that is real, not a reaction.

What do you see as the future of Dunning Golf and in particular “natural performance”?

Craig, that is a great question. I have been in the synthetic performance apparel industry for over 20 years. We have always manufactured products that don’t feel very synthetic and are now working with our key mills to introduce fabrics that are incredibly technical and look and feel natural. My son is 13, plays golf, is a purist when it comes to dressing to for the course and I find him occasionally on eBay hunting down Footjoy Classics. He skateboards and he rides BMX at a very high level, so he knows all about authentic skate brands. He chuckles at companies in our space who attempt to do the skate thing and he and his friends told me “if I want to look like a skateboarder I’ll wear skateboard brands but when I play golf I want to look traditional.” They are talking to me about how they want technical products that don’t feel technical and the fabrics I am showing them are just that. They are on the leading edge of what’s going and they are all talking about natural feeling performance. I think youth culture always lead the way and are years ahead of the average consumer. This will be a key for where golf goes both technically and aesthetically.

We have also been working with Merino fabrics for a very long time and in my cycling world, merino has always been a big part of it. There is a great buzz on Merino because it offers incredible technical performance with no odor issues and it really does work. You will see a major category development from us here.

This is a brand that is going to create cult customers and word of mouth and you want it on your radar.Good apparel partners are about product first but quickly behind that comes dedication to the retail success of the customer. The management team in place to take this brand forward includes Mike Elliott and Jimmy Glass, two of my oldest friends in the industry who owe their success to work ethic, empathy and integrity. You can't do much better than this team.