In our last post we spoke about the renaissance of cottage production, small companies making awesome gear and giving a tiny “up yours” to big companies and mass production. Cactus Climbing Equipment is a perfect example of what we’re getting at here. They’ve taken an idea, “Make extremely tough, function-focused gear for Outdoor trades”, applied Occam’s Razor, and perfected it. Their pants sport names like “Supertrousers” and “Dreadnoughts” and have a reputation for standing up by themselves like an exo-skeleton for the first few months of wear. Made of incredibly tough 12oz Canvas (the same fabric weight as their pack material), the HD Dreadnoughts have a cult following with Ski Patrollers, Antarctica crews, National Parks and Outdoor professionals and the like. One user has calculated 1100 days of Ski-Patrolling and Snow Dozer use in one pair and they’re still going strong. Users generally have to give their pants away in order to justify buying a new pair. “Worn out” isn’t something many can claim to have seen of a Cactus product. According to Cactus “We believe in making things tough. Stupidly tough, some would say.”
Tough is one thing, but there’s much more to Cactus than bulked-up fabrics, upholstery-weight threads and extreme durability. Cactus started in Wellington, New Zealand and has been in business since 1992. They moved to Christchurch in the late 90’s so the Outdoors-obsessed staff could be closer to the Southern Alps, a move that clearly highlights the Company’s priorities. The first products to sport the Cactus label were Chalk Bags for climbers, but packs soon followed and the rest is history. All their kit is still made in their independent factories in New Zealand where employee rights, environmental ethics and support for the local community are taken just as seriously as their bottom line.
I personally own a couple of packs, a pair of gloves, six pairs of pants, a jacket and a wallet made by cactus; The stuff is incredible. There’s a no-frills, function over form ethos at Cactus that has allowed them to produce bombproof gear that is aesthetically appealing precisely because of its simplicity. While their uncompromising approach to quality and durability is legendary, they admit that, when it comes to product development, “it is impossible to please everyone all of the time, so we sometimes we have to make hard calls.” It is the nature of Niche production that even though “sometimes the products are great … the markets for them are just so small that we would go out of business trying to keep them in stock. It’s a constant juggling act, but lots of fun.”
Unlike some of the new craftspeople in this series, Cactus has been around for a long time. They’ve got a long history of supplying the trades and this has given them a solid and reliable customer base and allowed them to feed a lot of the R&D required by their wholesale customers into the development of their retail lines. This relationship is clearly presented on their website, where users can easily navigate between recreational and industry-focused products.
We asked Cactus about how they view their customer relationship and in true, straight down the line, Kiwi fashion they responded by saying that “It helps when you genuinely like your customers. We don’t get it right every time, but we’re working on it.” They recognise that their market is limited and fickle and that a lot of people prefer a huge range of colour and style options to “ locally made, well-designed, durable stuff”, if even if they claim otherwise. They stay true to their roots and are enduring in Christchurch in spite of how shaky things have been around there over the last few years. Knowing your niche is incredibly important and they’re smack-on here.
Note: Be sure to check out last week’s post on the Cottage Renaissance to put this into perspective.