Tom Barber quit his job to make cycling gear a while back. From a science background to trying out for the Olympic team to quitting a job in finance, he launched a cycling clothing brand supported with a successful Kickstarter in 2015; Svelte. They made sensible relaxed jerseys in navy and burgundy, then took things off in a slightly different direction, towards surfer vibes, fun colours and reflective kit. We had coffee and he talked about it.
Hi Tom. How did Svelte start?
I was a sportsman originally back in the day, with a science background. I did the Modern Pentathlon. Slightly random – you would have seen it in the Olympics. That’s the only time you would have seen it. It’s a bizarre sport where, it’s running, swimming, but also fencing, shooting and horse-riding. I did that professionally for a little bit, before the job in finance. So, that’s where the sports background comes from.
‘Before you know it you’re riding horses and fighting with swords’
Modern Pentathlon. I have many questions.
It’s a really odd thing to get into isn’t it? My sister rode and we had horses and I swam and ran, and it kind of just coalesced into, you know…
Then you get given a sword for Christmas…
You keep adding them in. People go, ‘Oh, have you thought of fencing? Have you thought of trying this?’ Before you know it you’re riding horses and fighting with swords. I did that when I was little and gave up just before I went to university just because when you’re a sportsman when you’re young it kind of takes over, so it was nice to get away from that.
Then I took it up again at university and had the foolish ambition of making it to the Olympics. So, the year after university, which was 2011/2012, I went into full-time training for a year – I guess professionally because I got paid but that makes it sound like it was professional and it wasn’t. So, I went for the Olympics, but I missed out. I came third at the British Championships but ultimately missed out on the games.
That’s not foolish. You tried. That was incredibly close.
I mean, I think it sounds close. That’s what I’d say on my CV. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s terribly close,’ but actually realistically there was a big gap.
So long story short, I got a job in finance. It was probably the best job for me. It was fund management. When we started [Svelte] I was working in finance and, well, you probably have friends who have stumbled into finance. Everyone was really lovely, super intelligent and it was a great place to work, but the work is a bit boring. It wasn’t really my thing.
Which was a bit strange when you’ve just gone from trying out for the Olympics to being in an office?
It was quite nice actually, at first. It was quite novel. At first it was like, ‘Oh, yes. Wow, I get to wear a shirt and jacket and go to work.
Ah, I have those days about once a year. ‘Oh, smart day.’
It’s nicer when it’s one day a year. So, at first it’s just nice to have a job isn’t it. After a while you realise this isn’t actually what I want to do. Eventually if you’re in a job you don’t like, you get to this horrible place where it’s like, ‘God, I want to quit one day,’ and it becomes all-consuming.
Once I’d done that, it was quite refreshing to think, ‘Oh, I want to do my own thing.’ I guess there were thoughts of, what do I want to do. I’d like to make things. Luckily, I was thinking about doing my own thing at the same time that I was taking up cycling.
I’d taken up cycling once I’d quit sports, when I got the ‘real job’. I had a friend I used to compete with and he did an Ironman triathlon. I thought, ‘that looks fun’, having never cycled.
You see their heroic finish, and you speak to them about it and they’re like, ‘Oh, yes, it’s great.’ So, I took up cycling and did the Ironman in Nice. It’s really nice ironically. If you’re going to do one, it’s lovely. You’re swimming in the Med and then you go up to the foothills to cycle and thankfully you climb on the way out, but you do a flat route, relatively flat, in the middle section, then the last 30 kilometres is downhill and then flat. So, you roll in for a nice run and you’re pretty much guaranteed good weather.
I did the Ironman in Nice on my Dad’s old steel frame, you know, with the gear shifters on the down tube. They’re amazing, yes, but everyone’s going past on these carbon time travelling devices, and I’m there, going backwards.
What kind of rides have you been up to since?
I love that with cycling you can actually go a long distance. We did the whole London-Paris in 24 hours, which was quite traumatic. We thought: ‘Oh, we can do it. We don’t need a support car or anything like that.’
We arrived at Calais at one in the morning and it started drizzling. We thought: ‘Oh this is lovely, refreshing rain, it’s great.’
At four o’clock in the morning it was torrential downpour in the middle of nowhere, completely frozen, completely soaked, and we ended up huddling in a petrol station, under the thing, huddling in a corner, the three of us, just being like: ‘This is grim. What are we doing?’
We were taking spare bin bags and making jackets out of it. We ended up going to a hotel for like, two hours, just to warm up.
We did it in 25 and a half hours, because once we got of the hotel when we were feeling so good, we set off on the wrong road for about two hours and then had to do a detour. It’s a good story, but we didn’t make it in time, sadly.
That’s possibly better than actually doing it in 24 hours though. You’ve got the sad rain, the petrol station, all the fun bits that make it a proper story.
Yes, exactly. I don’t want to do it again. I feel like if we did it just straight it would be less exciting.
Those are the stories that I want to base the brand around, rather than serious racing. I think it’s much more fun going with a group of mates and doing an adventure – an adventure is maybe pushing it but you know what I mean – versus, going and doing laps of Box Hill to go and get the King of the Mountain.
We do the occasional lap of Box Hill. So, there’s definitely a venn diagram crossover in the middle, but that’s the idea – to kind take the seriousness out of it a little bit. We do the occasional lap of Box Hill so, there’s definitely a venn diagram crossover in the middle, but that’s the idea – to kind take the seriousness out of it a little bit.
The idea behind Svelte is: something that I’d like to wear and not pay the earth for. I like the feel of the surf brands in the ‘90s.
What is it you like about that design and vibe?
In the way they built this whole ethos around it that was all about having fun. They had the high-end sport that they catered to but people could come and buy surf gear having never surfed. Hopefully people will come and buy our shirts and t-shirts and stuff, having never cycled, or cycle occasionally.
“I like the feel of the surf brands in the ‘90s.”
So many brands are just catering purely to people who think: ‘I love cycling. I love watching the Tour de France every day. I love the history of it all. I’m very versed on all my gear ratios.’
Ours is like: ‘You like cycling? Go for it. This is gear that will get you around and make you feel comfortable, and ultimately won’t make you quicker. What will make you quicker is getting out on your bike. If you want to be quick, go cycle!’
That’s the idea behind it, more than: ‘This is the latest carbon ribbed bib short and will shave off two milliseconds per kilometre.’ I mean the kit’s made so you can do a 200 mile ride in it and you’d feel great but it’s maybe not the aesthetic that club riders want.
That’s a catchy name.
Catchy, exactly, but you know what I mean.
My friends that were in the creative industries, doing things they loved, that were very style conscious but didn’t have £100,000 salaries to be blowing £150 on cycling jerseys. So, they’re the people that I would quite like to be clothing, the kind of people that I want to be associated with the brand.
What were the very first steps to creating a kit?
The biggest chunk of that was finding manufacturers that we could work with.
We did a big search looking for a fabric manufacturer. We found somewhere in Denmark and they were just amazing. They sat me down and said, ‘What do you know about fabric?’ I was like, ‘Nothing.’ They were talking about the circle knit and warp knit and they had about 1,000 fabrics and they were like: ‘Just go, walk around, touch them, if you like them put them on the table, if you don’t, put them back.’ It was nice. It was the first time it felt like a business, sitting in a boardroom talking about fabrics.
Then we started looking [for the factory] and thought: ‘why don’t we bring it home?’ We found these guys in East London. It’s amazing, having to take a twenty-minute Tube ride to the factory instead of a fifteen-hour flight.
Then began the development of the garment in London. We had to convince the factory in East London that we were serious about it because I just turned up and they asked: ’What do you do?’ and I said: ‘I work in finance but I want to make some garments.’ They get 20 people like that a day and most of them forget about it after two weeks.
What are the next events you want to do?
Now the idea is to try to run events, and you know the Norseman? – it’s like an Ironman but they run it in Norway. It’s the same distance but it’s just ridiculous. They take you on a ferry out to the middle of a fjord, 3.2 kilometres from the transition. Then you jump off the back of the ferry and swim to the edge of the fjord, change onto your bike then you cycle through windy Norwegian foothills and then the run starts at the foot of the mountain and finishes the marathon at the top.
The idea is to maybe do that one day, but that’s a serious undertaking. I’m not ready for that yet. I like events like that where it’s more about completion. It’s more about you against yourself than you against everyone else, because I think the competition has a much nicer feel to it. People are more willing to help each other.