Interview with ROA’s Creative Director, Patrick Stangbye
Founded in 2015, ROA is an Italian brand that employs crossover, experimental techniques to create products that reflect a hybrid attitude towards fashion and the outdoors. Starting exclusively as a footwear brand, this Fall Winter ROA debuted its first clothing collection, complete with jackets, shirts, fleeces and tech-knits that embody ROA’s hybrid attitude, creating functional pieces through the use of avant-garde materials and construction techniques of performance derivation. We spoke with Patrick Stangbye, creative director of ROA, to learn more about the brand’s first collection, what the transition from footwear to clothing has been like, and ROA’s experience of the current boom in outdoor clothing.
From Alyx to Our Legacy and Brain Dead, the brand has found itself coerced into different spaces. But now, with its own clothing line, does this change how ROA feels about its own identity?
As you mention, I think how it's changed, perhaps in distance from the collaborations, is how people now view ROA more as a brand itself. It's easier to understand the full vision or the sensibility of the brand — and maybe before you could understand the sensibility of an individual product, but it's difficult to communicate brand identity just through one product. So probably for the final consumers, the community, but also potential collaborators, it's easier to understand the total essence or focus of the brand through having a full line of products.
I imagine a struggle with creating outdoor clothing is meeting this functionality without following the blueprint of conventional/already existing outdoor clothing too closely. How did you find the transition from footwear to clothing in that sense? ROA's shoes and boots definitely have their own look, design language, and aesthetic, but translating that into outdoor clothing without just creating something just like another Patagonia, Gramicci, or And Wander seems quite the challenge.
Well, first we can start with the brand’s initial desire to make a product. When the first Andreas boot was made by the designer and founder Maurizio Quaglia, he thought the Andreas and a lot of products were potentially too performance for his needs. Although performance is a byproduct of ROA, it isn’t our first intention. And yet also, at the other end of the spectrum, it is important to note that we are not interested in heritage; especially not heritage for the sake of heritage. We are not a heritage brand. There are so many outdoor brands that are pure heritage and playing on these ideas about history. For example, ROA might produce a flannel shirt, but the flannel shirt of ROA will not be what you’d consider or expect a normal flannel shirt to be from an outdoor heritage brand. There's so many outdoor brands who are very traditionalist. To distinguish our distance, we may interpret or reference these outdoor archetypes of product and categories, but we were not taking a very traditionalist approach. Nor will they be entirely performance.
Of course, of certain pieces there are certain details that if someone was a very good observer, they could probably understand that a certain detail belongs to like specific mountaineering jackets in the late eighties for example. However, we are not referencing super close in detail — instead when it comes to heritage we innovate and reappropriate the heritage than replicate it.
So this probably made it not so difficult for us in the outdoor space because we didn't have to create something that was as linear as heritage brands or brands with long histories have to — it could be more disturbing. And as you said, we occupy this space which is hybrid so everything is functional but it's not necessarily made to climb Everest. It might be able to get you there, but it's not tested to go to Everest. The purpose was not to go to Everest, right? The purpose was to guide someone through their life.
As for the lookbook, the photos are a lot more wholesome and ‘real’ than what we have come to expect from lookbook photos in the High-End sphere. Out of the thirty-odd photos used in the most recent lookbook, nearly a third of them are more preoccupied with people and the clear enjoyment of the shoot, being in the mountains and within nature. Could you speak about how the team came about conceptualizing this vision of the brand? The dog, the bike, the food, and the cows ground the photos in contrast to the sleek design of the collection in a way which I think embodies what outdoor brands are trying to capture and sell right now: beautiful pieces, but focused on getting you out into these beautiful environments.
Interestingly, some people first saw it as ironic, but I don't think it has much to do with irony for me. I mean, we are a very precise team — fashion is very precise, though today it's also quite easy to make something look too perfect. For example, our E-commerce: we already knew that the models would be completely what we envision, to be within our curated, controlled “ROA” sphere. We knew we could control the styling, we could control the light, we could control all the variables and have it look very pristine.
So this type of outdoors, in nature lookbook was more like an ode or homage to the mountains, though more the atmosphere that comes with the mountain. And since we used these archetypes of mountain or outdoor clothing to launch our first collection, we wanted to let them be shot in an environment which was not as controlled — and maybe some of the beauty is actually in the fact that it's not so controlled or curated.
I also think that the outdoors allows each piece to shine on its own, whereas more controlled and manufactured looks often showcase a ‘look’ rather than pieces.
It’s less modular, yes. So I’m sure most people who have acquired pieces will take the products and mix them with what they already own, have them make it their own — it’s not made for someone to always acquire a full look in a season. The outdoor shoot is also a way to just let the products be for everyone who wants to relate to it. We're not trying to control how someone has to look or be in order to enjoy our products. But it was also trying to give people the sort of like ROA version of the Dolomites, where the logo of the brand originates from.
Before this lookbook, you had a more dynamic, technical lookbook with looks layered over blurred images of the same look in the background. You also have the CAVE lookbook, which sees ROA in action in the wild. Yet, with ROA as a hybrid brand, the concept of these lookbooks aren’t to suggest that these are the only places that the shoes should be worn. With large customer bases in urban cities like New York or in Europe, and cult followings in Korea, how do you think lookbooks like this translate — both environment-wise and also into different customer bases who might never take the boots off concrete and onto a trail?
So CAVE collection we took in a cave because the colorways of the shoes were inspired by a lot of imagery from caves; that was just like a natural way to shoot that lookbook. But then we had both the Spring 22 and the Fall 21 lookbooks which were done by this multi media artist Daniel Swan from London using 3D renders. So I think this very much fits that sort of hybrid space. I think we do a bit of both because a lot of it is based on archetypes of functionality and of the outdoors. So we try to play in those environments but we also try to not replicate true sportswear lookbooks. I mean, we are not having someone mountain biking or base jumping, climbing a mountain, going with ice axes to a peak.
A better example of where we stand, or where the middle ground is: there was some content last spring that Liam from Advanced.Rock produced where he took the shoes camping. And for us that's also a perfect scenario: ideally someone taking the shoes you wore to the office in the week camping on the weekend. That's a completely normal scenario and we see that that's also how a lot of our consumers probably relate to the product, in this hybrid way. Many of them are sitting in an office on concrete wearing their hiking boots and imagining that they were somewhere else, you know, and it’s bringing something of that attitude with them through their normal day. So I think it's more about an attitude that people enjoy expressing than not necessarily having to always be in that setting.
Before the interview you alluded to the idea of brand pathways and how brands take an aesthetic and run with it, both increasing the profile of the aesthetic whilst allowing the brand to grow along with it. You said something along the lines of ‘What Visvim did with Americana, ROA is doing with outdoors wear’. Could you speak on this model of elevating a style onto a level beyond its functionality? Are there certain kinds of hurdles which involve taking something beyond its functionality or taking something grounded and then moving it into a different space that you know ROA has encountered?
I think for us we are just mostly interested also in silhouette. Even if we even say that the outdoors is a language on its own, we are offering a different dialect of this language. So I don't really see so many hurdles because we approach it with our perspective and we find a way to do it.
What other brands would you say are in the same Ecosystem as ROA, perhaps following the similar Visvim model but with outdoors wear. And how do you think this group of brands play off each other? This type of interaction between actors happens similarly with musicians and artists, within architecture, but the inherently competitive nature of fashion maybe makes it a little different. Is it helpful for the profile of luxury outdoors wear to be raised by lots of different visions and interpretations, even if in the end you are all market competitors?
I think it's definitely helped: to be in something or a genre that has momentum, though I don’t think certain aspects of this outdoor movement are anything new depending on how you look at it. Maybe this certain outdoors look right now is from a moment in time, but you can even go ten, fifteen years back and there was NikeLab doing certain things which were just as functional; same with Acronym. And then Acronym did the stuff with Nike and became a lot more popular. Then you had the whole surge in technical offshoots, which are still probably going on in some sub Reddit. But then even before that there have been a lot of Japanese fashion brands making jackets with Gore-Tex in the early and mid-2000s.
And now, returning to the present, the three layers shell jacket popularised by Arc’teryx has maybe reached its peak in terms of contemporary image and understanding, but it didn’t come from nowhere. That kind of three layers shell jacket has almost always been a part of streetwear, as a status symbol or cultural signifier, but also as a practical, functional piece. So I don't necessarily think that that's a certain thing right now alone. It just looks a certain way right now that maybe is closer to mountaineering than before.
Overall, it just helps the understanding of what ROA is doing, the fact that there was an Acronym there, there is And Wander, there is Goldwin, there are all these other things happening. And that it’s happened previously. .
Before the interview you mentioned how every piece you sampled went to final production, something good from a financial standpoint and from a sustainability standpoint. Does this come as a product of just designing and redesigning and making sure that the final product on an image basis is perfectly refined before you send off for a first sample? Do you put pressure on yourself not to be wasteful with material and what you’re designing?
I think it's about adding some preciseness, or not necessarily pressure, but the intention of wanting to be precise, both in terms of resources financially, but environmentally as well. But it's also a challenge, right? To see how good can your prototype be, which is amazing when the first proto just needs some adjustments, and you can actually just slightly adjust the proto and take the proto as a final sample. That's the real goal. But that comes also from having very clear dialogue and communication internally with the team and having a very skilled team of people working on your product. And that's both in-house, but also then externally with the factory because with certain factories they can deliver a very good final product, but you might have to do a lot of samples before arriving where you wanted to be.
Onto some of the pieces. How did you and the team approach pieces like this: taking a simple puffer, but making it the ROA way? You hear it a lot that people take something simple and then they elevate it to where the brand wants to take it. Is that difficult when you tackle something so established — nearly everyone at this point makes some form of darker coat? Is it hard to find a gap in the market with silhouettes or by playing with proportions to find a new area?
It can be hard depending on your positioning as a brand and the brand’s individual identity. For example, the design on the jacket we printed the topography lines from where the ROA logo is from. Though it looks like someone just drew some topography, it was a nice way to match the design to meaning too.
In terms of awareness, I know it would be impossible for us to be unaware of the market, but we're also not intensely observing all the time what other people are doing. Of course, maybe we had to double check that it doesn't look completely like something else out there right now, but we just added the details and some articulation and some hardware that we found interesting and ended up with a product that we feel is close to our brand; and naturally with this method the final product was always going to be different from other versions of a black down jacket.
This Padded Overshirt has Patrick Stangbye written all over it. I can very easily picture you in this with some straight pleated trousers and technical trainers. As Creative Director, did you ever find it difficult to make sure that your designs were staying true to the ROA aesthetic/uniform you had in mind, whilst trying to perhaps prevent personal preferences from filtered into the work? Or was that something you cherished and utilized?
I think, of course, my preferences go into the work, and that's a part of my title and my role, and my privilege, and the knowledge I have accumulated is what I use for a living. But going to exhibitions, listening to new music, having conversations, all these things are questioning and fuelling what I believe is relevant or important or sparks my curiosity, so of course it's going to inform the product. But I think what is important in the role when you are Creative Director of a brand that you didn't create or found is that you also understand the heritage and history of what was there — and not to let your inspirations take over entirely.
Even with a brand like ROA where the heritage was young, there was already an established philosophy, and then you apply your own view of that philosophy and you bring things together. But then you also have an idea about who this brand is for? You're not constantly creating for yourself. That doesn't mean that you couldn't wear it or that you don't enjoy it, but most of us also have some limitations in terms of both space and budget in our life, or even just preferences that we enjoy, that keep our personal style within a specific frame. You always have to keep the customer in mind. Of course I work with a design team as well. It's very much our collective consciousness that brings to the table what we see today.
So having that kind of ability to understand where these clothes will fit into people's wardrobes is not an easy skill to master. I know the quote “Gorpcore” outdoors wear trend has been going on for at least a couple of years now. When designing do you find that outside influences have an effect on you? Do you think about the context in which these pieces will be received?
I think it's quite important. And I think also in terms of the pieces we choose to make, there is a balance in terms of outdoor and how modern the collection looks. There's our down jackets which is quite boxy, the fleece with the long sleeves and the panels in the pit — which is not something at least we saw recently or we didn't have a clear reference for. That was an idea that the team had. And then there is the black shell jacket which is quite unconventional. The pockets for example are not placed in the places where you normally find pockets on shell jackets. Different from conventional shells, I think some of the pocketing came from an old fishing jacket, but not the fishing jacket we have all seen around recently.
So there is also of course overlap, but it was important for us to not look like an outdoor brand who now tried to just to make a gorp collection, because that was not our approach. We didn't say, “okay, let's make the most gorpcore collection ever so that we can sell huge numbers to everyone in the market.” We have a vision we wanted to convey and a look and a story that we believe is way more long term.
And there's a certain uniform — at least on social media right now when you think of gorpcore — that is very easy to gain a lot of traction with using a certain kind of picture, but maybe the longevity of that is not very good. So a question to ask is how much do you want to be involved with that or not? And I think how much you want to be involved or not depends on what's your real or true involvement with those categories.
It’s great to see your collaboration with Octi continuing this season. What particularly about her designs do you think speaks to ROA so appropriately?
I like many other people saw her stuff on social media, and I was quite intrigued because we were just opening the E-commerce and we wanted to have something else other than just the shoes — but we wanted to do something that was quite natural and many fashion brands also eventually do jewellery, whether to complete a look or to do something else.
Yet I wanted to do something that focused on the shoes at the same time. So my idea was: can we make jewellery for footwear? I have the original here, done in aluminium, unlike her normal ones which are done in silver. So the collaboration came out of her use of topography, which we thought, “okay, it's close to nature: she's also maybe a bit hybrid in the same way we are.”Because she does jewellery and jewellery is not really something you use for hiking or for going to the mountains or skiing. So it's something for the city or everyday life, but it's referencing those outdoor things. Her work was the perfect fit.
When we launched ROA’s E-commerce we were fortunate enough to be her first retailer. Now she's talked in places like LNCC and SSENSE. It was also a nice statement for us: we are a mono brand store, but to show that we believed in something that was not a big brand already. But what was interesting to me was that when I met her the first time in person in Milan, I didn't realise that she is dating Jean-Luc from j_la.l_. ROA and Slam Jam were starting to work with him, and that season in Milan was the first time meeting him too. It was funny to realise that though we had reached out to them independently, that there was more of a shared sensibility between them than just their individual interest to work with us.
As a brand started in footwear, it would be remiss not to mention the shoes. Although you have now expanded into clothes and other accessories, how do you see the shoe line evolving in the future? I’m intrigued by the Green Slip-On shoes, as they possibly show us what ROA’s diversification might look like in the future. Can we expect newer models like this each season as ROA slowly expands its uniform?
Shoes are definitely the most important feature of the brand and they continue to be. I think from when I started the collection we had maybe about twenty pairs of shoes in the season. Now I think we are about forty for the next one we are working at.
There's this this slip-on we introduce this fall which is new, and there was also a Chelsea boot with our normal sole which I think also embodied this idea of hybrid which we are building out more and more. An open sandal which is also maybe following a bit of that language and expanding, and then there is also more of a classic idea of an approach shoe with quite like slimmer sort of sneaker profile shoe coming soon. So we are continuing to develop new styles of shoes. We are finished with the next Fall/Winter, which we will present in Paris in January. But also I think having a full look with the clothing really helped the understanding of the footwear. At least that's what we've seen so far.
As for the future, are there any upcoming collaborations that we can expect? What do you look for in collaborations at this point in the brand’s journey? The Alyx collaboration seemed perfect in the 2016-18 era of the brand, though perhaps even so far that Alyx and ROA were almost too synonymous. Nearly five years later, I’m sure collaborations offer something quite different? Did it influence how you're picking new collaborations? Does it make you want to find more consistency perhaps by going back to ones that you've done before, or has the recent development of the brand opened up even more possibilities with differences in how footwear collaborations can be utilised?
Yeah, I think they differ. They follow the same sort of story but I think also our perception of our own brand is also slightly different as the brand is bigger. So how we choose our collaborators or our role in the collaboration is also maybe slightly changed. So rather than just being a facilitator, it’s far different. Early on, many people didn't really realise ROA was a part of the equation with the Alyx Andreas. They just thought it was like the boots some people in the US wear, because the brand was maybe also very young and not recognized. And now it's more about collaborating either with brands which are recognized on the same level as us, or more recognized.
I think what is most important is only doing collaborations where we can do something that wouldn't really make sense in terms of the current direction to put them into our own collection. For example, we did a shoot with Jean-Luc for Spring where we used his colour palette and some detailing, which is very much him and I really appreciate that shoe, though it didn't quite match with our concept for that spring summer to do exactly that. So it made sense to use it elsewhere.
I'm very excited to launch this first collaboration that's still coming out this year and I think it will take some people by surprise, but it also totally makes sense and the product is in the end very wearable. Ultimately that’s always going to be important for us with everything we do: that it's something that has identity but it still has its functional element, always working in people's everyday lives.