SETTING THE STANDARD. The Firstgear product set a new standard for motorcycle outerwear with five patents and trademarks developed to protect proprietary design aspects, such as rotated sleeves, sleeve and torso ventilation systems, a neck wrap sewn inside of the liner, folding pockets, and the use of the breathable fabric Hypertex for lining material.
Not only would there not be any mail order or 800 number ordering, but stocking dealers would have to agree to rigid pricing standards in order to maintain their flow of inventory.
Each garment came with a five-year unconditional warranty, and an 800 number was affixed to the label, giving consumers direct access to IFW in the event of any product problems or warranty issues. As it turned out their warranty return was less than one-tenth of one percent.
LaBonge said that one area slow to develop was fabric garments. The initial Firstgear products were leather, and while there were a few manufacturers making fabric products, the general impression and one that IFW tended to reinforce was that nylon would not provide adequate abrasion resistance. There was also, as he acknowledged, a reluctance to offset expensive, high-profit leather goods with much cheaper fabric ones. But the tide and fabric technology were changing, and after two years, IFW developed a fabric product that the parties felt would meet their high standards.
According to LaBonge, the product and concept was a success from the onset, with many dealers and accessory companies contacting IFW, asking they would consider developing other non-garment products with the same philosophy and brand name. Obviously, IFW declined these requests.
RESULTS OF THE SALE. In 1999 LaBonge and Miller elected to sell IFW to Eurobike, a large publicly traded retail and wholesale distribution company in Europe. In 2003 Eurobike was sold to Fairchild Sports, and in 2005 Firstgear was finally sold to Tucker Rocky, who had been the sole U.S. distributor for several years. Fortunately, the image of the brand wasn’t damaged during these years, but it had fallen behind in some areas.
Under the ownership of the Europeans, the brand, in TR’s opinion, had “lost its way.” According to Apparel Development Manager Mark Salvatore, who’s been with the brand since TR acquired it, “The brand had lost the focus of its original philosophy, and was all over the map in terms of who the customer was. The fit had changed to accommodate Europeans rather than Americans, and the emphasis was on margins rather than on benefits to the user.”
TR’s first job was to bring the brand back in synch with its former goals, objectives and image. Said Salvatore, “What we tried to do was 1) Make sure the brand was true to its heritage by offering technical, functional gear that fit for the rider more interested in the adventure than the destination, and 2) Let the customer know we’re here for him over the long term and we’re going to take care of his needs.”
In addressing this issue, TR shifted first contact warranty and service problems from the dealer to corporate; the customer could contact TR directly to handle warranty issues, product improvement or criticism. The objective wasn’t to cut the dealer out of the equation, but to make it easier for all three parties to resolve customer-related problems and get direct product input from consumers.
ABOUT THE FIT. General garment shape had morphed to a European inverted style V, causing fitment problems for U.S. riders who better fit a traditional “V” shape. Along with this fix, the size range was expanded to include men’s S to 4XL sizes, women’s S to 3XL, and short and tall lengths were added. All garments were designed to fit properly while riding a motorcycle; as Greayer Clover, Firstgear brand manager, put it, “the last time I checked there were at least three different standard riding positions.”
The advent of CE armor as a part of a riding garment further complicated fitting. Armor location for one person is different for another. Clover gave an example: Within the category of large, there are 50 different “fits.” So, based on feedback from customers, Firstgear’s response was to make the armor adjustable to fit a variety of shapes and figure that they currently can comfortably fit abut 75 percent of the riding population.
According to Salvatore, most of the technical innovation for outerwear comes from companies outside the powersports business, like Patagonia, REI, Columbia, Mountain Hardware and others. Their goals are similar to those of Firstgear, to make you warm when you’re cold, cool when you’re hot and dry when it’s wet, but there the similarity ends. Outdoor outfitters are constantly trying to make their gear lighter, whereas Firstgear and others also have to make the gear stronger and more protective, meaning the inclusion of armor, and heavier fabric and seams strong enough to resist coming apart on impact.
“When making garments, it’s done by hand," Salvatore said. "Of course, sewing machines are used, but on a jacket we can have up to 50 sewing operations and 30 different hands touching it. It's half science and half art; everything we do has to be imagined, created and sourced right here. There's nothing that comes straight off the shelf. As Eric Andersen once said, it’s like trying to create a Swiss Army jacket.”
As far as price integrity, all Firstgear dealers are brick and mortar. Yes, they advertise on their websites but all pricing is within a few dollars of one another and, noted Salvatore, it hasn’t been an issue.
Firstgear is now a 22 year-old brand, whose focus is on providing the customer with a well fitting, technologically advanced product, backed by a strong warranty and staff assigned to listen to suggestions and resolve consumer issues.
By Mike Vaughan. Press images courtesy Firstgear/Tucker Rocky
For information on Firstgear's 2013 product lineup, including new footwear, click here.