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At home with Vulpine’s Nick Hussey

December 5, 2012

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Inside the home, and the bike/design obsessed mind, of Vulpine founder Nick Hussey. Mining towns, gangsters, dogs, bikes... and Elvis.

This interview has been over six months in the making, mostly because Nick is a tricky fellow to pin down. His cycling brand, Vulpine, launched early in 2012, has received huge praise for its sharply tailored apparel, and has been at the top of my hit-list for a CycleLove interview for some time. I felt a little nervous as I made the train journey to his South Wimbledon home… but it turned out the only thing I had to worry about was an over-friendly Jack Russell.

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I think we should start with your dog, Lily

Lily is desperate for you to play with that fox, but if you don’t want to, just ignore her. She’s obviously got a thing about you, because she’ll say hello to visitors and then just ignore them. But she’s just staring at you. “I LUVVV YOU”.

Maybe it’s a beard thing?

[Laughing] Yeah!  She rides alongside side me, we go mountain biking, not on the roads because she’s too scatty.

What bike does she ride then? Actually I saw something yesterday, a bike holder/pannier for dogs that goes on the back… it doesn’t look very comfortable though.

[Chuckling] I got a handlebag bar for her, the thing is she’s too big now. You can hook into her collar so she doesn’t jump out, but the problem is that one time she did jump out and hung herself by the collar. It didn’t hurt, but she was dangling from the bag and slowly bobbing near the front wheel. And I was thinking… “Hmm, bad”. We’ve given up on that, so now we just go mountain biking and she runs alongside. If I shout “Go! Go!” then she accelerates and we’ll be racing. She always wins.

That would make some good video footage! You’d need a helmet cam…

Yes. That’s one of the things on my Christmas list actually, a GoPro.

You being here, I suddenly realised how many Vulpine things have ingratiated themselves into the house. It wasn’t deliberate, but the Pantone mugs I grabbed were the Pantone match for Vulpine green. Slowly things are taking over… and everyone always expects me to wear green all the time. It’s quite weird. I always think people are joking when actually they’re quite serious.

Green is not a colour that used much in cycling. How did you go about choosing a design agency to create the Vulpine brand?

I’ve worked in film, and with designers, and been seeped in that media world of London, and so my view of design is quite intense. I wanted to find the right designers to help me. I’m one of these people that knows what they want, but I hate jargon. I like people to just show me stuff and then I go “yeah, that one!”. I went with these guys called Us Design, Chris and Luke, really bright and nice guys. They’re really passionate about what they do but aren’t overly intense.

Do you have some background in marketing then?

Kind of. I used to be an exec producer with film. I basically found directors, matched them with people who wanted to use them, and looked after them. So I guess my marketing background was self-taught or invented. I’ve just written a blog about how marketing is just completely fucked up, it’s all about lies. If you say you’re involved in marketing or sales, it’s embarrassing, because people say its lies… you’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, to create a veneer of untruth.

If you have a great product (which I hope I have), then you should be telling people the truth. So, that’s what I’ve done with Vulpine. People keep saying “Oh you should do this and that” because they see every other brand doing it. I’ve tried to do something different. The biggest difference, people keep telling me, is my passion. A lot of people seem quite thrown by it. I talked to a couple of people about helping with PR, and they really tried to squeeze the passion out. They said “It’s too much, you’ll scare people away!” . They showed me a typical press release thing for Vulpine, and it was just so dull. The people I like are people who take what they do really seriously, but don’t take themselves seriously. And that’s the key. It’s one of the reasons I hated worked in the advertising/music industry, there were a lot of people who took themselves REALLY seriously. They weren’t open to influence or open to new ideas.

My wife’s really frustrated. I’ve been with her for 17 years, we met in Manchester when she was a student, and both ended up working in very similar fields. She’s still in advertising, paying for me to mess about with Vulpine. She’s sees me going off on this voyage of self-discovery and “truth” and enjoying it so much, and she’s struck with all the political bullshit [in her job].

This is my Ritch Mitch thing I got done. These are two of my great heros. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon were in the greatest Tour de France ever in ’89 which just completely blew my mind. So when I saw those (I know Ritch pretty well) I just had to have them. Elvis is not a hero, but he’s my style obsession. You’ll find Elvis’s all over this house. We’re not massive loony fans, we just think he’s a fantastic symbol.

My bike is sat in the living room which doesn’t make me particularly popular, but to me it’s a work of art.

Ricky Feather was amazing making it. It was hung up in Tokyo Fixed for six weeks, and people were tweeting about it and stuff. It’s funny because it’s actually in many ways an uncool bike. It’s got the rack, it’s got mudguards. The head tube and stem are for my bad back — I’ve done in six discs in my bike. So the handlebars have to be higher than the saddle, or at least the same height. So we had to find a solution which didn’t make it look ridiculous. I used to have a Colnago which was made especially for me, but it had this absolutely ridiculous stem system which just made a beautiful bike look stupid. So I got rid of that… I used to have seven bikes and now I’ve got two [laughing], because starting a company you just need all the money you can to get it going.

This is a beautiful bike — I’ve ridden a lot of bikes, I’ve been at this for twenty seven years, I dived in at twelve/thirteen and drove my mum crazy, suddenly from being a grade A student to not doing anything but cycling. I’ve ridden all kinds of bike, especially steel when I was racing in the late 80s/early 90s. There’s just something about steel.. I love design and beautiful things, and you can do that with steel. These are stainless steel lugs. Normally they’d be chromed but Ricky polished these himself. It took him eight hours. So, massive attention to detail. It’s so clean. And these lights, Bookman gave me these because they’re exactly the same colour as my bike.

[Pointing to mantelpiece]. This is Lily in woollen form. It has to be up there because she just tears them apart. And that’s my wife Emmalou when she was a little kid. She’s heavily pregnant at the moment — it’s quite a weird time, we basically conceived our son at the same time as launching Vulpine, so it’s a really insane year.

So you’ve got two babies, basically?

Yeah, exactly!  Absolutely. I can remember people I didn’t know telling me just how obsessed you become with your company, and how much you love it. I absolutely love Vulpine now. When I started it I wanted to do something that I’d enjoy and feel passionate about, and then slowly but surely, especially because you put so much effort into it, and it becomes so hard to do…. the more you put in, the more you get out. But also the more obsessed you become the more it means to you.

And now, I just have this weird sort of… you know that chemical feeling when you’re in love with something? I actually feel that about Vulpine. I don’t want to overdo it, because I am a very emotive person. But I just absolutely love working. So my problem at the moment is I just kill myself. I’m doing stupid hours…

You’re quoted as saying that Vulpine is incredibly hard work, but you never find it stressful? That’s an unusual mindset I think, for a new business…

A lot of people said to me, when I started this, if you knew how stressful it is to start up a clothing company, specifically a clothing company,  you wouldn’t do it.

There’s two things that made me not stop. First of all, I’m very pig headed. If someone tells me not to do something, it’ll probably make me want to do it more. And that’s an essential thing for an entrepreneur, because pretty much everyone tells you you can’t do it. Most people are quite negative — not because they’re down on things, just because you’re told all the time that things aren’t possible. So you’ve got to ignore a certain amount of advice.

The other thing is that I’ve worked in film production. I’m not being funny, but film production is a shit. It’s really really stressful. A lot of people shouting at each other, a lot of very very big decisions made very quickly. So I was used to really long hours, and used to immense amounts of stress. Because things go wrong on shoots, and people can lose hundreds of thousands of pounds, and all kinds of stuff. Clients are terrified about making bold decisions, so they don’t really make any decisions.

So, I wanted to be a client. I wanted to go “You know what, we’re gonna be daring. We’re gonna do that! We’re gonna take a punt!”. Because nobody takes punts any more. So that’s another blog I’m writing: about how I always thought I was against gambling. I’ve never gambled in my life. And I met a professional gambler, and was quite shocked by how switched on he was. I thought he’d be a lunatic, like a crazed gangster or something. He wasn’t at all. And he was a very very rich man. And I actually realised that I am a gambler, because I’ve gambled this house, and all our savings, and five bikes and three years of my life on something that may not work (It seems to be working now thank God). So I starting thinking again, very emotively: you’ve got to gamble in life, otherwise you don’t do anything.

Small business is all about just pushing through when people say you shouldn’t do something. The best people I spoke to, setting things up, were entrepreneurs. It’s a cliche but you know that sort of “I pulled myself up by my breeches, self-made” image. And I’m actually becoming one of those people. I grew up in a shitty gypsum mining village in Nottinghamshire… I’m already doing it now aren’t I… anyhow I just wish people would take a chance and risk something to gain something. I get terrified by what I call the “Eastenders” generation, you just watch soaps and sit there whilst life slips away.

People take these jobs, and get trapped in the illusion of safety that comes with a paycheck…

Yeah, I did that for a long time, I was lost. I didn’t do anything in my twenties really. I realise now that it was a really key period.  I ran clubs in Manchester, was an Oddbins manager, ran bars and restaurants. But I was never really happy. I was always being a manager for other people, who made (I thought) stupid decisions.

I started off being a real moaner and quite negative, and then what actually changed me was… I was thinking about this recently… I had a gun put to my head a number of times, by gangsters, running a club in Manchester.

And I didn’t realise until recently that this was a really important thing, because I was really fearful of doing stuff… and once you’ve had a gun put to your head, and not been affected by it (once I’d gotten over the initial shock), I became a much more risk-taking person and much more positive. So I think the gun thing made me go “For fuck’s sake, lets get on with it!” and made me start pushing myself a lot more. I think it was really good for me. It’s funny, because I was such a blouse, such a middle-class kid growing up in a very creative background, very naive. And I went to this big club, and saw a lot of scary stuff. It was so foreign to me I didn’t even get how dangerous it was. And then something happened to me which was completely out of character — basically the guy put a gun to my head and I called him a cunt, and told him to fuck off. I still don’t know why I said that, but it worked. I think it was probably because the doorman had taught me never to show weakness… because if you show weakness to people like that you’re fucked. So I though, if I can do that, then I can do anything. I’m thinking about that incident a lot, because suddenly Vulpine is working, and most of my life I’ve just gone… [makes feeble whimpering noises]

So, Vulpine is what two, three years old now?

No! I left my job at the end of 2009 because I was really unhappy. My dad was really unwell, I was really unwell with my back, I was hating work, incredibly stressed. Emmalou said “All you do is just come back at 10 or 11 at night, and I put food in front of you, and you grab a whisky, and then you just sit there for an hour dead-eyed, and then fall asleep on the sofa. You do that every single night, it’s killing us, and it’s killing you. You have to stop… I want you to give up your job and do the thing you always wanted to do”.

I wanted to do a cycling clothing company since I’d met Emmalou… I’ve always liked clothes. I’m dressed pretty somberly for me, I can wear some pretty weird stuff, and I love tailored clothing and suits. Anyway, she said “For Christ’s sake just do it!”. That was great, because this house costs us a lot… taking a salary out of the equation… I  had a career which was going very well.

So I sort of… slept for a month… and then went “Right, let’s do it!”

Early concepts for Vulpine jacket and shorts

I spent nine months creating the company: finding the people who could help me, finding out about how to manufacture stuff, factories, creating the designs and the branding, creating the logo, and then very quickly realising that I need investment. Because, to buy the clothing, to a high quality, you have to go to high quality factories, which aren’t even going to look at you unless you’re putting thousands of garments their way. So I immediately realised I was going to need a lot of money to do that. So, I had to learn about getting investment, which most people only know about from watching Dragon’s Den. It’s kind of a cartoon version of what happens. People are much nicer in real life. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are investors, weirdly.

I had to spend a year finding investment. That was probably THE hardest thing because we it was the middle of a downturn, and everyone just said “You’ll never get the money”. Everyone said: great idea, love the enthusiasm, but you won’t get the money. Over and over again.

Eventually I found a guy, Phillip, who’s my partner now, who’s fantastic, who agreed to put the money in. And we’ve got two other smashing guys, and all three of them are cyclists to greater and lesser degrees. And all three of them are really experienced in business, and I’m (hopefully) the one who’s immersed in cycling.

And so, it all came together — which is weird because [a major sports brand] tried to buy Vulpine before we launched, which was really weird. They phoned me up and we talked for four hours… broke down the entire business and built it back up again… probably the most intense conversation I’ve ever had. I went to sleep afterwards for an hour I was so exhausted! At the end of it, he said, right, we’re gonna turn this into a major brand, pay you a salary and give you a slice of the company.

But it just didn’t feel right. Already in the interview I was having to justify myself. So I put the phone down and went to sleep, and then got up and phoned all the people I trust… eight business/personal people. I kind of knew the answer already. And every single one, which really surprised me, said “Don’t do it. You’ve got your investors, you’re lined up and can start a much smaller thing right away, and you can own it… or you can work for a corporation, which you’ve done in the past and you hated”. So I turned it down, which really helped my confidence.

So that taught me a lesson: I’ve got to make sure I try to avoid being corporate.

At that point, it was just a business plan they’d seen?

The think that happens is that there’s a community, and people start talking about you. It took a year to get going because people know each other, and eventually people start talking and having lunches, and saying “Oh… have you seen the Vulpine thing…?”. If people start talking, it creates hype. I turned down a number of investors eventually.

I turned down Dragon’s Den three days before the shoot as well. I was thankful of that! Phew.

I emailed Simon Mottram from Rapha in the summer of 2010 and said “I’m setting up this apparel company. It’s really design minded. It’ll be different from you, but there are a lot of similarities. Can I… ask you for advice?”. And he was great, really helpful. And it made me respect Rapha a lot more, because I realised how hard it was. He started in 2003/04 when cycling wasn’t anywhere, and nobody took him seriously. It was far harder for him than it was for me. So from really liking Rapha when they launched, to really dissing Rapha because I thought they were snobby and pretentious, to actually now being quite agnostic and defending them, because I really respect what Simon has done.

So what would you say to some kind of sceptical bastard on a bike forum, who says you’re just a poor man’s Rapha?

[laughing] I hope we’re not the poor man’s Rapha! Hopefully if they’re gonna say it they say we’re just the same as Rapha! Actually nobody has said it. It’s funny, I anticipated they would because if you’re going to make apparel that’s more stylish or casual than other stuff, you’ve got your head switched on in terms of the way you present things, people see similarities. There’s so little of that [in cycling]. I see companies like us, everywhere in other arenas, but in cycling it’s very rare.

The problem was for us, of course, that Rapha did it first. When Rapha launched I was like “For fuck’s sake!”. But I couldn’t blame myself because I hadn’t done a thing about it. I’d been thinking about it for ages. Why is cycling so stuck in the past? First of all, the gear itself is not made with as quality fabrics as they could be. It’s not styled properly. It’s not marketed properly. It’s really naff and geeky, and seems to be stuck in a time warp. Nobody’s reacted and raised their game to Rapha. Not properly. It’s very specific what they do, and people either love it for hate it, which is very deliberate on their part.

The differences, if you wanted to define them:  there’s a very different attitude to the way we treat cycling.

I’m really passionate about inclusivity in cycling, and about cycling being a mode of transport and a source of fun..

I think fun is an unused word, an uncool word. You never see fun in Rapha! I’m not dissing them for that, I just think it’s a shame because cycling is a wonderful, joyous thing. And that hopefully always comes across in what I do with Vulpine. That’s my philosophy which I put across the company. So I wanted something that included all kinds of cycling and cyclists, and wasn’t snobby. I grew up road racing, and some old school road cyclists can be very snobby. It really did my head in.

One of things that was really useful about the amount of time it took to get Vulpine off the ground, was that I spent a lot of time being really finicky about the products, and getting every garment bang on. I had this bizarre idea that it was going to take four months to launch the company when I started, which seems ridiculous now. I think you need two years to get your head round all the fabric choices, the types of stitching, the cut — you’ve got to test the stuff, and change it, and test it again and change it. I developed a big range of clothing during that time and a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do — you know I’ve got sixty products in line… if I’d done that in the space of six months or a year it would have been impossible.

I love photography, my mum was a pro photographer and so I’m a very visual person: I love film, photography and design.

So do you take your own shots for the Vulpine site?

Unless it says otherwise, almost all of it is mine on the blog. Not the products, there’s a really nice guy called Paul Calver who did the cover of Cyclist, who does our lifestyle shots, and Kayti Peschke, Ricky Feather’s wife, who does our product photography. It’s a nice creative outlet, to make clothes and take pictures.

There’s something about having ownership of the whole process…

I’m going to have to start giving it up, which is a real shame because I know EXACTLY what’s going on. We’re about to take on people, who are giving up really good jobs to work for us, which is a huge compliment… but I’ve got to make sure there’s an induction, and I’m going to have to not control them… and trust them… which is going to be the hard part, because I’m not a good delegator. I get obsessed about the minutiae of everything… yeah… I’m obsessed by my wife and my dog amongst everything else that I’m obsessed by.


Yeah… you know what, I didn’t realise that until I saw them [pointing at row of Fantastic Mr. Fox figurines on the bookshelf] I do really like foxes. I was a member of the hunt saboteurs when I was a kid, there was a hunt near my house. I just love animals in general, I wanted to be a vet when I was younger but I wasn’t going to get the grades so I gave up. So Vulpine is obviously fox connected, but I also just liked the word, it make sense.

I actually had to google “Vulpine” because I wasn’t sure what it meant! It sounds a bit like… a 1950’s jet fighter or something. But it sounds British as well…

That’s good, because I wanted a word that meant something but nothing. That didn’t have immediate connotations for people, that I could pour meaning onto. It also sounds like ‘Alpine’. I originally wanted to call the company ‘Chroma’, as in colour, but there’s already a company in the US called Chrome, who make bags, so I used Vulpine instead. It’s just a word that came up.

It’s quite nice working from home as well. We do have an office, but I just get so busy I might as well just hang around here. I met Emmalou in Manchester, I’m obsessed… I keep saying obsessed about everything! Um… I really like the north-west. Emmalou is from Lancashire, I went to uni in Liverpool, met her in Manchester, and yesterday confirmed we’re going to do a fete there in February which is wicked, but terrifying because I’ve got to organise it, touch wood, weeks after Emmalou has given birth. I don’t make life easy for myself, do I? She’s not overjoyed about it. But I have to make sure Vulpine keeps momentum. We’re going to be part of a big trade show and have a fete in the middle of it.

Bike shows can be pretty boring…

That’s one of the reasons I started up the cycling fete. I can’t promote Vulpine here [at shows]. We’re all about vibrancy and doing something innovative and creative… I don’t want to stand there with leaflets all day. The NEC as well is so beige. All you can buy is hot-dogs and crisps… it just does my head in.

I went to Flanders for the first time in March, and had to get a Flanders flag. I kept this, almost as a joke, to remind me to be humble. It’s the only trophy I’ve got left. Junior Time Trial Champion 1991. All the other half-decent ones go back at the end of the year to the next winner, so that’s a little bit of memorabilia there. And Emmalou was gonna throw away those videos… even though I can’t play them, I have to keep them… again… Tour de France ’89. Something that I love.

I’m a bit of a Star Wars obsessive… well I was when I was a kid… and then I destroyed all my Star Wars figures, I melted them all in a bonfire as a rite of passage, with my best mate. My Mum went berserk of course. My collection would have been worth thousands now! Those are the ones that my Mum found in the loft, the only ones left! And a smashed up Millenium Falcon.

And these are piles of samples, which have served their purpose, with these tickets on to denote what stage they’re at. These are samples of shorts, this is pretty close to where they’ll be, but not right. So for instance, they forgot to put the carabiner on, and they didn’t attach the buttons. Little things, like they sewed on a patch of the logo instead of embroidering it onto the garment. These are little things that really count for me. And then the classic things that we do, the lining and stuff. Also, if you look at the pocket here. That’s wrong and that’s right. [say these are samples]. Because it’s a sample, the stitching’s not right, it’s not as neat as it should be.

So where is everything being made?

South Korea for the jackets, shorts and trousers. American for the caps, and China for the merino stuff. It’s something I really worried about, I wanted to make the stuff in the UK if I could, which was one of my first lessons… pretty much everyone told me, you can’t make it here. The skills aren’t here any more. You can do it in small amounts, ok, but if you want to make larger amounts of consistently high quality apparel, you’ve got to go to South East Europe. I tried Europe but got stuffed around, and eventually ended up in South Korea and China. They were much better to work with, and the stuff they were creating was really good. Factories are very literal, but their interpretation of literal can be very different from yours, so you have to find people you can trust.

My styling influence is British tailoring and military. Military is simple and beautiful. I don’t like militarism, but I love military clothing because it does a job, which is what I want Vulpine to do, and it still looks fantastic.

So I’m always trying to simplify what I’m doing. To pull it back a little more. For instance, we could have used velcro for these tabs to make them close, but I hate velcro, so they’ll be buttons. Buttons aren’t technical, so when you put them on things it makes them more casual… so we use them quite a bit. You wouldn’t wear this racing — you could because it’s Merino. A lot of people get confused… “This isn’t technical enough… this isn’t racing gear”. Of course it’s deliberate.

This is what I started with when I started Vulpine, I just found images of things I liked. Military things, with a crisp feel to them. That was kind of like an early business plan, in a way. [Pointing at bib jersey] This is what I said we’re not going to do . Yeah, that is ridiculous! This is what I thought was wrong with cycling. It’s funny, people say I’m a hipster…  I’m not. I’m thirty nine. That’s not me!

For somebody who’s quite a happy, sunny person, I have very dark tastes. I’m really into Francis Bacon, I really like dark, heavy music. I think it’s the yin to my yang. I also obsessed my badgers [that word again]. Obsessed is the word I obviously use far too much. I’ve really become self-conscious about it. I’m obsessed with obsessing.

That’s Will Barras, who’s going to be at the Fete. He uses acrylic to paint bottles. I really like these… praising the wheel. And these milk bottles… they’re not painted, they’re made in white. So slowly but surely I’m filling the house with cycling stuff, whether Emmalou likes it or not. She’s a cyclist herself, a casual mountain-biker.

This is where I used to keep all my bikes. This is now filling with baby stuff which is great. My wife’s mountain bike, and my mountain bike, which is all I have left now. It’s a little grotto. Piles of components, boxes of components. Normally this would obsessively tidy, but this year’s it’s just fallen by the wayside, with the baby. It’s due in January. I’m desperately trying to get everything sorted, so I can have some time off.

I’m naturally quite inquisitive, and  I don’t accept things as they are. I don’t like the Status Quo. First of all I hate the band, but I actually hate the phrase. So I never accept anything on face value. It used to do people’s heads in, because sometimes you just want something which just does what you want it to. And I’d say “Why don’t we do it like this?” And of course I realise now that was quite frustrating. I was obviously much more suited to being an entrepreneur, because I just thought “How can I do this differently?”.

I always wanted to do something differently, whether it was the right thing to do or not. I used to run a bar, a really big bar in Manchester. We had a really big stock problem, a lot of money was being lost through stock. All they ever used to do was say “Let’s put up the prices”. So I said, instead of putting up the prices, which is going to drive away customers, why don’t we work out why we’re losing stock. And it turned out, the staff were incredibly low paid, even though it was one of the coolest bars in Manchester, and they hated being employed, and felt that they should supplement their wages by taking free drinks… giving away and stealing loads of drinks. So I said, if you want to stop your stock problem, pay everyone 50p more an hour. They didn’t like that at all, they thought it was a ludicrous amount of money. That’s the thing, you have to think laterally. Simple really.

Nick is a person who oozes passion for his craft, and that infectious kind of energy which rubs off on people. So it’s only at this point I realise we’ve been talking for close to two hours — another of the reasons that this interview is being published  two months after it happened.

With time running out, we take his beautiful (and almost glowing) green bike out onto the street for a quick photoshoot. It’s not long before it’s attracting attention from passers by, and Nick finds himself fielding questions from a curious policeman… 

Posted to Features
by James Greig

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