Maloja on what it takes for a sportswear brand to thrive
German sports brand Maloja, which just opened its first US flagship store in Stowe, Vermont, was founded 15 years ago in a small village in Bavaria. Although in the beginning, not everything was running smoothly, the label with its unusual and fashionably designed road and mountain bike collections quickly built up a fan base. In the biking strongholds around the Alps, everyone was suddenly wearing Maloja. What sets the brand appart is that cyclists aren't just doning Maloja gear on the bike, but also in their leisure time.
Maloja is one of very few sportswear brands that credibly and successfully sell both: a technical sportswear collection and a streetwear collection. To this day, Maloja sets standards in the sports market and has triggered quite a few trends. The fact that more and more international retailers are interested in the sports- and design-obsessed brand makes sense. Peter Räuber and Klaus Haas, the two founders of Maloja, talk about their international plans and about their special positioning between sportswear and streetwear.
Your concept is positioned in between fashion and sports retailing - something that retail is only gradually trying to understand. How do you find your retailers?
Traditionally, it is not easy to find retailers who can help us sell our products. It works best when retailers are dedicated to the product and bring the right customers along. Basically, one can say that retail has become more open in recent years to present streetwear in combination with sportswear. But it is still difficult. That's why we also have some monolabel stores by now; both can be better displayed there. Although it is, of course, not our goal to work against retail. But customers are sometimes more advanced than sportswear retail. We definitely need stores that credibly stand for different types of sports and can also offer a whole range of products. From ski shops to bike stores to, of course, mountaineering stores. Lifestyle alone is not enough. That is what we have learned over the course of all these years. Pure fashion retail did not work out over time.
Maloja had been associated with the modern alpine look for a while. Then, five years ago, a completely different, ethnic looking collection was introduced. Had the alpine look become too narrow?
We had been stuck with the label ‘traditional dress’ and ‘alpine tradition’. And then we went 11,000 km further away, to Peru, and nobody could follow us because we were too early and the change too sudden. We were not recognisable any more. We have learnt from this experience: We can only make 30 percent of the collection so modern; the rest must be recognisable. But it was still good; the experience polarised us and triggered emotions. The question is just when we can afford to do this again. Since then, some partners have been a little nervous whenever we announce the theme for a new collection.
What was the economic impact?
Until then, we had been growing between ten and forty percent annually. That year, we just broke even for the first time, which we were not used to.
Meanwhile, you have been expanding internationally. Where can customers find you?
Apart from our new flagship store in Stowe, Vermont, there are now three stores in South Korea alone. Our partner there has opened a third Maloja store, one of them in Gangnam, the hottest neighborhood in Seoul. In addition, in the USA and in Canada, we have founded our own subsidiaries, signalising that we’re here to stay. However, the internationalisation was never a goal that we pushed for, there were just more and more requests. But of course, our home is the alpine region, that's where we're strongest.
Your collections have always been imitated by other brands. What do you do about it?
Reinvent ourselves every year. Every year, we have a completely new collection, no short-lived articles, completely new artwork, new logos. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to copy us. So we can be calm when many designers ask us for a catalogue at trade fairs. They usually get one.
You also have your own production in Bulgaria. Why is that?
One’s own production has a certain charm when making technical parts. We can now buy the machines ourselves that we need and of course, develop more styles ourselves. We had contacts from before, it was a good opportunity. This has given us a lot of know-how, which also helps us understand other manufacturers better. And we have become more efficient. We want to soften this strong separation between the channels, i.e. between production, the brand and sales. Approximately 20 percent of our production takes place there; maybe 30 percent in the next few years. Our aim is to serve the market, produce for other brands and be competitive. What makes up a collection, percentage wise? Functional wear makes up 65 percent of the collection; streetwear 35 percent. The collections have an equal proportion of menswear and womenswear, which is also reflected in sales. Even in summer and winter, we have exactly the same turnover, which is quite unusual. You also design uniforms and workwear for other companies, can you give some examples?In addition to our own collection, we also make quite high-quality collections for Audi, Bosch and a 100-piece collection for the athletes of Red Bull. Much of this is manufactured at our own production facility, so we can increase capacity and use it to its fullest as well.
And you also created the current collection for McDonalds?
Yes, but we were only responsible for the design and the cut, it was produced by a workwear specialist. McDonalds not only wanted a new, appealing design, but also a few functional supplements. We were tempted by that. At first, the collection was only for meant Germany, then it was extended to the whole of Europe and has been well received by the franchisees.
In the sports segment, following a seasonal rhythm is currently a hot topic. What do you think?
We would appreciate it if a staggering of delivery dates by six to eight weeks would be even more widely accepted by the industry and trade. Thus, we could deliver streetwear earlier and warm winter articles later. In reality, however, everyone thinks that they need thick winter clothes even sooner. This year is a good example: In September, nobody sold winter goods because it was much too warm. But the industry suffers from the fact that there are too many discounted goods on the market. We try to combat early discounting by keeping or storage very conservative, so that we are in no danger of having to sell everything at a loss. We are also trying to keep discounts at a moderate level in our own stores.
What are your long-term goals?
That is quite simple: We want to continue along the path we have taken and establish ourselves as a stylish functional brand in the market. In terms of content, we want to develop even more passion for handcrafted products. For the new summer collection, we have, for example, tie-dyed a fabric ourselves and developed a print out of it. Something like that suits us.
We have also made it clear that we want to focus on mountaineering and endurance sports and on what we know. One can't be credible with everything. That is why there are no shoes, helmets, protectors, etc. That would only remove us from our core competence. However, we can also image design cooperations - with real specialists.