New to the outdoors: Purnell Gear born a top a wind turbine for ‘industrial athletes’

In this new series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.
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One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

While it might seem an odd leap from wind energy executive to lifestyle apparel entrepreneur, Brent Dehlsen begs to differ. As the co-founder of Santa Barbara, Calif., apparel brand Purnell Gear, the former wind energy company manager feels it’s all about meeting a need.

The Purnell story began in 2012 when Dehlsen was unsatisfied with the everyday gear available to outfit his wind energy “techs” who worked high in the air in crazy weather conditions. He wanted something his employees could wear on and off the job that also offered such purposeful design elements as stretch in canvas pants and rearranged pockets and seams so they’d fit better under a safety harness.

The idea went from wind workers to a worldwide network when he brought sister-in-law and retail veteran Brita Womack to the table to help, who previously served as a director at Hot Topic and marketing head at Genesco.

 Purnell co-founder Brita Womack, right, a top a wind turbine in Tehachapi, Calif.

Purnell co-founder Brita Womack, right, a top a wind turbine in Tehachapi, Calif.

Rethinking common assumptions about clothing, they received a great response and exhibited at their first Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show in 2012. “At the time, our line was focused on workwear designed for ‘industrial athletes’ — people who work outdoors in physical jobs that require work clothes with performance qualities like durability, flexibility or flame resistance,” Womack told SNEWS. “When it came to outfit wind techs performing turbine maintenance, there wasn’t anything that met their requirements. So we set out to modernize the classic workwear styles they were wearing.”

Retailers, including many outdoor specialty stores, have taken note, with more than 60 currently carrying Purnell’s wares. “It’s unique to sell,” said Josh Haring, co-owner of San Luis Obispo, Calif.’s The Mountain Air, Purnell’s first official retailer. “It’s always nice when people can feel the product and notice a difference right away. “It’s also great not having to oversell its technical aspects.”

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While its first stores were in its backyard, after Outdoor Retailer, Purnell gained partners in the Southeast, Northwest and Midwest. “At that first show we had some interest from players in the workwear market, but we also found that the classic look, great feel and athletic silhouettes of our line struck a cord with the broader outdoor market,” Womack said. Purnell responded last year with an expanded line.

“Our clothes are a good fit for specialty shops because people need to see and feel them to appreciate them,” Womack said, adding that they’ve shied away from big box and online channels that don’t support the specialty retail experience — although the brand does offer direct-to-consumer e-commerce from its website. “And since our styles have year-round appeal, our replenishment program works well with accounts not able to make big pre-season commitments.”

This year Purnell also exhibited at the Snowsports Industries America tradeshow in Denver, opening up even more doors. “We weren’t sure what to expect given our line is made up of lifestyle apparel rather than technical cold-weather gear, but the response was great,” said Womack. “We had great response from mountain-resort, lifestyle-brand stores, but also those in the hard goods sector looking for shoulder-season apparel that’s not as dependent on there being snow.” Purnell also added a few cold-weather accessories this season, including base layer leggings for women and Awesome Possum New Zealand knit beanies.

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Their debut of new SKUs is also at the right pace, adds The Mountain Air’s Haring. “We brought in some of their new women’s line this spring,” he said. “They’re approaching it the right way by adding to their line slowly. Too many companies come too far, too fast.”

Purnell recently hired on a sales rep for the Intermountain region — an area they’re focused on growing — and are continuing to set their sights on the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Carrying their message overseas, they plan to exhibit at the Outdoor Show in Freidrichshafen, Germany, this summer.

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“Initially, our growth plans were just to maximize selling in the niche industrial athlete market, so we’ve far exceeded our expectations,” Womack said. “We’re a small company and fortunate enough to be nimble and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.”

--Eugene Buchanan

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