Exec Q&A / Royal Robbins
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Royal Robbins Desert Pucker Shirt
After dipping a toe into lifestyle, Royal Robbins returns to its performance roots. New CEO Erik Burbank explains the brand’s past, present and future.

Erik Burbank has worked in the outdoor world (Keen, Helly Hansen, Timberland) long enough to know that a brand with a storied heritage is a valuable differentiator. While sometimes the brand message can get lost or muddled over the years (for Royal Robbins, perhaps by steering too far into adventure travel), it’s a cornerstone that is never too late to return to.

Royal Robbins was created by two climbers (Royal and his wife Liz) in 1968. Liz was the first woman to climb Half Dome. The two shared a love for adventure and nature. Liz designed the first shorts created specifically for climbing in 1975, followed by the 5.11 pant in 1979 and Desert Pucker shirt in 1999. The goal was, and still is, to create functional, comfortable, durable and stylish pieces with minimal environmental impact. Burbank recognized the value in their story when he came on board in 2022. Now he’s ready to share that tale with the rest of the world.

Erik Burbank

What drew you to Royal Robbins?

Burbank: “Royal Robbins was one of the most influential climbers of the last two generations. I’ve spoken to Liz quite a bit over the last 12 months or so (Royal died in 2017). They were climbers, but their lives, personally and in business, were never really about climbing. It was always about adventure. Our core belief within the company is that nature and adventure are good for the soul. Everything they were driving – if you read his books or see the documentary – he credits nature for literally saving his life and putting him on the right path.”

You’ve come on the help right the ship. What happened along the way?

“You can point to a lot of things, but primarily lack of focus. There were changes in ownership and leadership too. In contrast, I visited with a bunch of my Helly Hansen colleagues recently. That business went through a similar exercise. We landed on the brand being always trusted by professionals, but we had somehow lost that storyline along the way. So, we went back to it and came up with a product line and explored partnerships. It’s been 10 years since we started that journey and it is absolutely 100% still focused on that storyline. That kind of discipline and not getting distracted by shiny objects is one of the keys to why the brand has become so successful.”

Tell us about the current campaign.

“When we decided to refocus back on core concepts, we went to basecamp. That’s relevant because it’s where everything starts and ends. It’s where you start your morning – whether with climbing, hiking, paddling, running – and it’s where you come back to prepare meals, share stories and it’s also where Liz and Royal founded our company. It was in a basecamp at Yosemite. So, its central to what we are about. While other brands can focus on extreme elements or activities, we really want to focus on basecamp and doing whatever you want to do in our gear, up to a point. For the majority of people, we can make the gear that they can do 90% of the activities they want to do in.”

Where is the dividing line between lifestyle and basecamp?

“A good example is wool sweaters. Liz brought them in because she thought people could use them as performance products due to the qualities in wool. For 2024, we’ve circled back and really believe we can serve our fans and the marketplace with them in ways we’re not seeing right now. The response thus far has been very strong. You can wear it casually, but you can also wear it as a performance layer. Wool is the original performance fiber.”

What about more technical gear?

“I would gently challenge you in that a wool sweater is a very technical piece. Our culture has minimized that with the rapid chasing of tech as a selling point. I’ve sold a lot of three-layer jackets in my day and would argue that 99% of consumers have a difficult time telling the difference between 10,000mm and 20,000mm of breathability. We put ourselves on a wheel increasing tech stories when they really aren’t consumer relevant. We’re trying to come up with stories with an emphasis on natural fibers so consumers can feel the performance that may emphasize comfort or versatility. That wool sweater may not insulate as well as a down layer, but it provides a broader comfort range for the wearer. We’re leaning into hemp because we like the way it performs and how it minimizes impact due to how much water it takes to grow and pesticides/chemicals it takes to produce. Our Desert Pucker uses Modal. By all accounts, I’ve yet to find a retailer who can tell me that it’s not the best all time selling shirt in the outdoor industry. We’ve sold over a million of them. It’s 100% carbon neutral starting in 2024. We’re doing that with Lenzing, who’s been a partner on this program since it’s insertion.”

Give us the scoop on some new products 2024.

“Wool sweaters will be big. There is a basecamp collection coming out for Spring 2024. We’re taking some design elements from our playbook in the ‘70s and ‘80s and bringing it into today. We consider ourselves to be one of the leaders in adventure dresses. We’re the number one dress in some of the biggest European outdoor stores like Globe-Trotter. This is the Spotless collection of dresses and they are big sellers – we’re expanding that collection too. They are marketed for travel. With the pivot the company is taking, this is traveling to and from basecamp in your Sprinter van or Subaru rather than exotic travel like a safari.”

Any goals?

“We really believe – when you look back at Liz and Royal and nature being good for the soul – that really is our core mission. It’s really about advancing that idea in a way that resonates with our fans, the planet, the industry and our partners. We’re focusing more on being a respected brand in the outdoor space. If we do these other things, the financial aspects will follow.”