The legacy of Peter Hutchinson, founder of Mountain Equipment and PHD

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 26/11/2018

Peter Hutchinson, founder of the brands Mountain Equipment and then PHD, passed away on Friday 2 November 2018, aged 81. Peter was hands-on at the forefront of outdoor down gear manufacture from the very beginning of the industry until the modern day. When other outdoor brands grew big and moved production overseas, Peter saw a different way. A more sustainable and personal way.

At the beginning of his career, Peter made the first-ever down suit in collaboration with Don Whillans – it was worn on the South West Face of Everest expeditions in ’73 and ’75. Along the way he also clothed Boardman, Tasker, Scott, Haston, Bonington, Carrington, Cave, Parnell, Penington and many more besides. He clothed Rosie Swale-Pope for her run around the world. Ranulph Fiennes for his coldest journey. He also made down jackets for the Avengers, Tom Cruise and Madonna. These heroes sought him out, not the other way around. Pete was just interested in making the best down gear for anyone and didn’t like to advertise – he preferred word of mouth.

I first interviewed Peter in 2014 for Summit magazine, after hearing a story. A friend told me he had been surprised, after ordering a sleeping bag from PHD back in 2001, to receive an email from Peter himself: “He was concerned I wasn’t getting quite the right bag for my needs. We came up with various modifications to suit exactly what I wanted.”

Intrigued, I got in touch with Peter to find out more about him. When he came of the army in '57, he told me, Britain’s outdoor industry was in its infancy and our first National Parks had just opened. Blacks had moved from sailcloth to tent manufacture and Karrimor had started making cycling gear above a bike shop. That was about all we had. Most outdoor gear was imported from mountainous countries that already had outdoor industries, like the Alps and Scandinavia.

“When I came out of the army, I bought the best tent on the market – made by Blacks,” he told me. "As for hardware, we either paid a lot for European pegs, chocks and krabs back then, or made them ourselves." 

 


Hutchinson on the right in 1956, climbing Mount Kenya

In a move that, not for the first time, showed him as a fresh thinker, Pete left uni and set up one of Britain's very first outdoor gear manufacturing companies. Well, to begin with it wasn't exactly a company. He would clean out cattle sheds in the mornings to pay for his rent and food, then stitch up a sleeping bag in the small farm shack he lived in.

One of Pete's favourite stories was that Yvon Chouinard “Flew over, scared that I was a competitor. When he turned up and found two dirty guys heating up pegs in the fireplace and drying down in the oven I think he realised he didn’t have much to worry about.”

“But In 1969,” he continued, “I was asked by Brigham’s [yes, a relation of Ellis Brighams] to make a batch of sleeping bags – my first trade order. I opened a small premises called Mountain Equipment in Glossop in 1970.”

Pete wasn’t focussed solely on down gear back then. Around this time he, along with the 'Berghaus lads', as he called them, was one of the first to work with this new thing – Gore-Tex. He also made hardware. In a brilliant article about him, Andy Kirkpatrick writes that Peter’s apprentice was “a young Demy Moorhouse (who would later take the skills he learned with Pete and set up Clog and then DMM).”

Others Brits began making outdoor gear too — the ‘70s to ‘90s being the Golden Era of outdoor gear manufacture in Britain, when the founders of our classic outdoor gear companies like Berghaus, Rab, DMM and Karrimor walked their own factory floors and were in hot competition. Then, in the ‘90s, China opened up to foreign investment and capitalism. Investors began buying Britain's manufacturing companies and ‘off-shoring’ production to benefit from cheap labour in China. 

Like many of the other founders, Peter felt conflicted by his business’s growth and the loss of his factory floor – none of them had ever intended on being businessmen: “Instead of listening to climbers I had designers telling me about next year’s colours.” This was quite a change for someone who once tested gear destined for Makalu by sleeping in it in a deep freeze.

As China developed into the ‘World’s Factory’, prices, quite rightly, began to go up. To keep their costs low, outdoor gear companies had to place bigger orders. All this contributed to our disposable society. As prices kept rising, Western companies sought out cheaper labour in other countries. But where does it end, and what about the carbon footprint?

A few years ago, a government study suggested that manufacturing industries could regrow in Britain if companies found a good niche, and suggested high-quality products, specifically tailored to customer demand, made to order, at speed.

One man was ahead of the game here. Peter had sold Mountain Equipment in 1997, and set up a small factory in an old mill not far from his original farm shack, called Peter Hutchinson Designs (PHD), where he employed local people and made down products in small batches, and as custom-made designs. He bought as much of the materials as possible in Europe. 


Staff at PHD

As Peter told Andy Kirkpatrick: “Nearly everything you buy in a climbing shop is made abroad, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there's no flexibility. I saw that there was increasing room for the specialist. I saw that I could start again from scratch and avoid making those same mistakes again.”

Until he retired, Peter was on the shop floor, where he loved to be - helping design, pattern-cut and respond to enquiries. Then, in 2009, Peter Elliot took over as Managing Director, and I can confirm that the Peter Hutchinson philosophy is still alive and well under his stewardship.

In 2015 I contacted PHD to ask if they made down duvets. I thought it would be a great lightweight option for a cycle touring trip. Peter Elliot wrote back to tell me that he liked the idea. If PHD made one, would I test it out? I took the sleeping bag to New Zealand, and on my return, gave my feedback. I thought it would be great if the sleeping bag had poppers on it, so you could attach two of the down duvets together to make a double sleeping bag. You can now buy these down duvets on PHD’s website. Have you experienced a feedback loop like this with any other outdoor gear brand?

What a special company, and a special man.

www.phdesigns.co.uk


Sarah testing the PHD down quilt in New Zealand in 2015


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