By Zach d’Arbeloff
When I arrived at RailRiders in September of 2014, I knew little about the machinations behind our product line. Although I had spent most of my life wearing our product along with years in the outdoor industry, the garment manufacturing and design business was a complete mystery.
It started as a bit of baptism by fire. By my second week at work, we were already placing orders and finalizing colors for Spring 2015 and working to finish designs for Fall. This was the first lesson I learned: every season’s product line is a yearlong process. The new products we had designed for Spring 2015 had been in the pipeline for at least 6 months already.
I was a glorified opinion, sharing my thoughts without really knowing the first thing about clothing design. I quickly learned, however, that my opinion was valued, if only as another source of input, and I began to gain confidence in my own experience within the outdoor industry, both as a consumer and a professional.
By the spring of 2015, I was bubbling over with ideas for products, and while my enthusiasm knew no bounds, the market did. Many of my ideas were unrealistic shots in the dark – standard for someone new to a job, but also normal in the clothing industry. After all, we needed ideas in order to figure out which ones were good and which ones were bad.
One thing I learned: for every product that we put into production, there are five that never make it past the initial sample stage. Coming up with new products required a few things: a solid reason for being, a good gut feeling about the product, and a sample that we love and don’t want to take off. While coming up with an idea and having it shot down (often before even getting to the sample stage) can be demoralizing, it also taught me a valuable lesson: designing quality product is hard and it takes constant thought and innovation.
Eventually, I turned my eye towards a revival of an old product. The original “Too Tough Trunk,” from the nineties, was a short with a mesh brief made from Supplex, with Cordura reinforcements on the back (this was back when we still used DuPont fabrics before developing our own). I had found a pair in the closet and was using them as my primary swim trunks – they had a great fit, dried lightning fast, and were very durable. The fact that I still wore them despite the advanced age of the garment (they were well-used and falling apart when I found them) just proved that it was worth looking at.
The first thing we had to do was establish a reason for being. We already had the ripstop-nylon, mesh-brief’d Rampage short that was popular in our line. We needed a way to differentiate from that and create a new product that filled a hole.
The idea that I pushed was simple, and, ultimately appealing: create scaled-down products that we could charge less for, but with the same great quality. Give customers a chance to buy into our product line at lower-than-market prices, so that they’d be willing to buy more expensive items the next time they shopped. While RailRiders isn’t any more expensive than other industry leaders, like Patagonia or Marmot, convincing a customer to take a chance on a smaller, lesser-known brand has always been our biggest challenge.
I had other ideas to go along with this, but the Too Tough Trunk reboot was (rightly) the only product that made it past even the first sample stage. And sample stages, let me tell you, are where the fun really happens.
Our first sample came true to the original Trunks. It had the RAILTEX (our proprietary substitute for Cordura) seat, with a nylon front, a mesh brief, and a tiny, ½ inch elastic waistband. They were… mediocre, at best.
We knew we had to make changes, because we always do. We adjusted the spec, borrowing the fit from our extremely successful (and comfortable) Rampage Shorts. We changed the fabric to the 74/26 nylon/poly blend that we make most of our shirts out of – a decision I initially disagreed with.
The second sample made a world of difference. Needless to say, I had been wrong about the fabric. It caressed my legs with softness never before felt from clothing. But, despite the product being better, it still wasn’t right.
We realized that, to go in and out of the water, the pockets had to be sewn in, instead of loose bags. We initially had a small zipper side pocket that felt weird and imbalanced, so we decided to incorporate that into a small zipper security pocket behind the main front pockets.
For those counting at home: we were now on our third sample. Things were starting to come together.
Usually, around the third sample is when we start to nail down the product and start really looking towards function and fit. In the case of the Too Toughs, we pretty much had it figured out and the next step was the fun part: testing.
It was a glorious afternoon in Rindge jumping into the lake and drying the shorts to see how they performed and how quickly they dried. One thing we realized– the light tan color that we had the sample made in could definitely not be used in the final product run as the mesh was readily visible through the shorts after they got wet. These are the types of details we need in order to make sure a product run is successful on its first try.
After the features and function are decided upon, it becomes about color. Orders have to be placed around six months before the product gets to the warehouse, which means that by September, we had the Too Tough Trunk order, complete with a new array of colors, ready for Spring 2016. Just like that, the my first product was a part of our line, and after almost two years here, I have some understanding of the lengthy process that we go through to get every single product from concept to page.
Finally, the shorts arrived this month. I got one in every color.