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Royal Robbins brings co-founder on board as adviser, plans to return to dirtbag roots

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Royal and Liz Robbins. // Photo by Glen Denny.
Royal and Liz Robbins. Photo by Glen Denny.Glen Denny

A company’s history and the stories it tells can often differentiate the brand among a sea of competitors, and capitalizing on the early days of long-standing brands can be key to piquing a customer’s interest and holding it.

Royal Robbins is one of many brands hoping to dig up its beginnings. As a clothing company by dirtbag climbers, for dirtbag climbers, it plans to bring back apparel known for both function and fashion. Co-founder Liz Robbins is returning as an advisor to help rekindle some of that authenticity.

“I’m very happy,” Robbins said. “The future of the company is going to be bright.”

Royal Robbins has changed hands several times since its founders sold it in the early 2000s, and it has gotten away from its heritage as a function first brand. Michael Millenacker, who worked with the company in the ‘90s, has been brought back on as CEO. It was his idea to bring Robbins on board, and she said trusts him and believes in his plan to reemphasize the brand’s heritage.

“I looked at all the parts and pieces and history that was there, and I just saw a real opportunity,” Millenacker said. “I just think heritage is a key differentiator for this brand, and we’re going to be a great storyteller around it.”

He plans to heavily invest in marketing in 2016, and the apparel line will evolve for spring 2017. It won’t be top-of-the-mountain technical, but it will be more versatile and reminiscent of the first pieces Liz and Royal made, which Liz Robbins said was function first, but “also absolutely had to have style.”

In a new video from Royal Robbins, Liz Robbins talks about why and how they founded the brand.

It couldn’t just perform well. It had to look great, too. “We’re kind of getting to go back to those roots so our product can be more functional,” Millenacker said. “So you can wear it for outdoor activities, or you can also wear it to the office.”

Royal Robbins’ history as a company that was about kayaking, climbing and adventure more than it was about business, and its founders’ commitment to sustainability give it a “super strong culture,” which Millenacker said can “propel a business forward faster than any other strategy put in place.”

Royal Robbins started out in the late 1960s, when Liz and Royal Robbins, clad in torn denim shorts after climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome, decided it was time to clean up their act and dress more appropriately to be seen in public.

Those dirtbags, along with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, pioneered “clean climbing,” leaving little or no damage in their tracks as they climbed up rock faces, and Royal Robbins became known as one of the best climbers in the world. He holds many first and second ascents, and wrote the books “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft.”

They were iconic climbers, some of the first in an age when durable, comfortable clothing was in short supply. Aside from military surplus, there weren’t many options, and they desperately needed clothes that were as flexible as they were, that could also stand up to harsh rock.

Royal Robbins
Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard at the top of the North America Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Tom Frost.

“The people there I saw were so real and so uninterested in how they were viewed by society that it impressed me, that there were people like that around that were really good, really bright, really interesting and fun, exciting people,” Robbins said, adding that she became interested in figuring out how they could be dressed more acceptably. “They just appeared to be really not a value to society, but in fact they were. That was what inspired me to think about how to make a short, at the time, because that was the first product.”

In the next couple of years, customers will see new, heritage-focused hangtags, and a tweaked logo. Royal Robbins will also focus more heavily on conservation efforts with Yosemite Conservancy, because that’s where the brand was born. To emphasize the authenticity they want customers to feel, a product photoshoot was held at the Robbins’ cabin. They’re also planning to invest more heavily with their retail partners, updating fixtures and signage and creating pop-up shops.

Liz Robbins is sifting through old photos to help share the brand’s history with others at the company, and Millenacker said they looked through Liz and Royal’s old documents to help create a new mission and solidify the company’s values.

With so much competition on the market, it’s becoming increasingly important for brands to sell their stories along with their products. There���s growing distrust of “big and fake,” Millenacker said, and what customers want is quality and authenticity. They’re big selling points, and can add a premium to the price, too.

“Royal Robbins has that great heritage to look back to, and for brands, heritage can play a really important role,” Millenacker said. “[Customers] want to trust what they’re spending their money on, and they like that comfort.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll publish articles from Outdoor Retailer Daily Winter Market 2016. Find this article on page 38 of the Day 3 issue.