BEST OF BRITISH - DHB
Born out of necessity as a house brand for online giant Wiggle, a focus on design, quality and, yes, price, has seen dhb emerge as one of the UK’s biggest apparel brands…
A tight-knit design team based in the heart of London, backed by Wiggle’s online presence.
Internet cycling behemoth Wiggle houses its headquarters on the south coast of England, but tucked away just south of the River Thames in the heart of London is the design studio of in-house brand dhb. Here, in one of the world’s fashion capitals, a team has been turning one of British cycling’s most prosaic brands into one that can hold its head high in the most exalted company.
Chief designers Tom Webb and Nick Underhill are largely responsible for that sea change, though they insist the building blocks were already in place.
“Nick and I arrived around the same time in 2013, and dhb provided a good foundation for us to build on: it had a reputation for producing functional kit that people had as their basics, but when it came to a big ride or event people would reach for something else. And they would do that even if the performance wasn’t as good, because it looked better or made them feel better. Nick and I could definitely see that, and so it offered us so much opportunity. In the last three or so years we’ve been given a lot of room to do whatever we’ve wanted, and we’ve been headstrong,” Tom tells us.
“We’ve always been the oddballs in the corner. We are a house brand, and we’re here because of Wiggle, but we pride ourselves on not being your typical house brand. The way we’re set up and given our independence means we can operate differently.
“I’ve worked in retail and with house brands and it often is literally a case of branding up off the shelf products, but this setup gives us the ability to flex our design muscles and compete with the other brands Wiggle sells,” Nick adds.
Named after the initials of the three founders of Wiggle, while the small scale and nature of dhb’s London office give the brand an independent feel, it naturally benefits from Wiggle’s reach and contacts when it comes to ensuring their designs are delivered in the form of quality clothing at competitive prices.
“We like to see ourselves as a ‘real world’, down to earth brand, looking to offer what is still great looking kit but at a third of the price of some of our competitors. We like to see ourselves on the side of the underdog,” says Nick. “To that end being with Wiggle is a huge advantage because we have partnerships with key fabric mills that a smaller independent brand wouldn’t be able to develop. We can work directly with them to select fabrics at source, we aren’t working with a factory that pieces things together for us.”
“One of the two factories we use in Italy produces kit for Rapha,” explains Tom. “We use the same materials, but we pride ourselves on not copying them. We wouldn’t be able to call ourselves designers if we were just copyists.”
Nick returns to the theme of delivering product for every cyclist, whatever their budget: “We get satisfaction out of matching the spec of other brands, using the same fabrics and the same top-end high-tech pads. We make out of the same parts of Europe, and the development we put in is huge.
“But the added satisfaction we then get is that people might not be able to afford some of the most premium brands, but they can afford dhb, and that’s what drives me: the thought we can do a lot of what they do at our prices. In that, our suppliers are a great asset for us.”
We leave Tom and Nick in the office as we head out to dhb’s favoured testing ground of Richmond Park with brand manager James Pullinger and PR man [at the time] Chris Snook, but Tom is a regular in the Park and both designers are keen cyclists who tap into what’s happening on their doorstep.
“The whole London cycling scene has really taken off,” enthuses Nick, “and to be immersed in that and soak it up for inspiration, as a cycle brand being in and around London, Kent and Surrey where we ride, it’s great for us.
“We like to see ourselves as a ‘real world ’, down to earth brand, looking to offer great looking kit but at a third of the price of some of our competitors” Nick Underhill
“Early mornings around Regents Park and Richmond Park are massive. We also ride down in south London around Crystal Palace.”
Tom has seen things develop over the years, and noticed the broadening of the pool of committed road riders in the capital.
“It’s an interesting scene around Regents Park,” he tells us. “Everybody cares about what they wear and how they look. For a long time, between 2001 and 2011, it was a Rapha scene, and mostly people who worked for Rapha were there because they were dragged there, but it’s really caught on now.
“I actually live next to Richmond Park and it’s really diverse there, you could do a caricature for every half an hour as to who is going to be riding around the park at any given time. The roadies will have been and gone early, then you’ll get more old-school riders, then the time-triallists annoyed that there are cars there at all… It’s a really broad scene.”
“Then there’s the cottage industry side of being in London. There are lots of small bike brands popping up and that’s really exciting. There’s a lot going on with interesting brands and frame makers,” Nick continues.
“On the flip side we do ride sportives and get out of the London bubble,” Tom explains. “Having been in fashion before this, there’s no doubt that London is a bubble and for retailers in other areas and countries it’s a different vibe and we have to be aware of that. But it’s not just cycling, we’re influenced by all the things we see in our lives – even chocolate wrappers – and we adapt the colours we use to try to up the ante a bit each time.”
As dhb has upped its game on Nick and Tom’s watch, a range of eye-catching styles has emerged from London that, while different from each other, are all instantly recognisable as coming from the same brand. Colourways and print styles link pieces together into outfits, and a consistency of design ensures the whole range sits comfortably together.
Tom talks us through the process: “When we joined there was already a range called bloc, but it didn’t look very nice: it was a Union Jack broken up with fluoro yellow zips. It worked for some people, but we want to hit the right spots for most people – you can call that commercial if you want, but we don’t look at it that way, it’s about getting the right feel.
“We took that range and used the plus sign design that became a bit of a signature in a variety of sizes, ran with a blue and orange colour scheme, and went from selling £500-a-week worth of kit in that range to £10,000-a-week.
“That’s continued to the point that we’re growing now and we’ll want to bring people in who can do some of the prints instead of me, and that’s a challenge. Because I have to lock myself away for a couple of weeks to get, say, 30 different prints done.”
“We’ve achieved the consistency you identify with a small team, and one of the challenges of growing will be maintaining that aspect of dhb – that it is instantly recognisable,” Nick chips in.
Time to dye
While at the office we were shown a range of swatches for upcoming dhb ranges, which led to wondering about the turnaround between sketching a new design locked in a home office to that jersey popping up on the Wiggle site.
“We’ve been working on a new design for our top-end ASV range for a while. It goes through a very rigorous testing process, then we get the manufacturer to revise, say, the integrated gripper so it works the way we want, then commit to so many thousands of orders so they will do for us what they would do for Assos...” says Tom.
“It can be two years to get that far,” interjects Nick, “then another year to see the results.”
“For our core ranges we have a quicker turnaround. We have fabrics and shapes that we know work – although we’re always testing new ones – and with European factories we can check samples and make amendments quickly. It can be as little as six weeks,” Tom continues.
“We can also go direct to market through Wiggle the moment stuff is ready,” adds Nick, “so there is no time lost in wholesaling, distribution or a long checking process where changes can end up being made just so someone has something to say in a meeting.
“Being self-contained we avoid that, although it does mean that if something doesn’t do well we can’t point at someone else and say that they said it was alright!”
“We’re influenced by all the things we see in our lives – even chocolate wrapper s–and we adapt the colours we use to try to up the ante a bit each time” TomWebb
James, Chris and CP show off some dhb to the other posers in the Richmond Park cafe
Though working independently, dhb’s staff are quick to acknowledge its debt to Wiggle
The London staff at dhb often put their kit to the test riding at Richmond Park