It’s less than a decade since Orn Clothing arrived to shake up the workwear market. Images talks to director Ivor Tunley and sales manager Graham Burgess about eagles, tough guys and the Orn experience

Eight years ago, on a sunny afternoon, Ivor Tunley was sitting round a barbecue with his family discussing the new workwear business he was setting up with his brother Cameron. It was an exciting time, but they had hit a problem: what should they call the company? They wanted to be perceived in the market as having a product that could punch its weight alongside the Scandinavian brands, but were struggling to find a name that conveyed the appropriate values. His dad turned to Ivor asked: “So, what interests you?” “Birds of prey, eagles,” replied Ivor. “Well, let’s start with that,” said his dad.

Ivor bought a Danish dictionary, looked up ‘eagle’ and found the word ‘Orn’. “It gave us the O with the forward slash: very distinctive, typically Scandinavian,” he explains. “It was three short letters, punchy. Once you’ve seen it, you don’t forget it.”

It also gave the company its distinctive eagle emblem, which can be found on its neck label and packaging – on everything, in fact. Every product is named after a bird of prey, and Orn even has joint custody of a bald-headed eagle called Weigle, reports sales manager Graham Burgess. “An eagle is an absolutely awesome piece of godly creation,” says Graham. “So everything else has to follow suit: we specialise in high quality garments. There’s nothing we do which is average. Absolutely nothing. We specialise in triple stitching products: all of our trousers are triple stitched on all the major seams. And if you get two tough guys together and they have a leg each, they will not pull one of our trousers apart from the seam.”

And yes, they have tried this, confirms Graham: “It involved quite a lot of beer and a lot pulling.”

Orn’s Merlin trouser is a typical tradesman trouser, he explains, but in addition to the triple stitching it has 52 bar tacks on it: “Not only would two people not be able to pull it apart, you’d be struggling with three.”

The company also offers a lifetime guarantee on all zips and components – they use only YKK zips and the buttons are rubber-coated, which means they conform to automotive industry requirements. “All these little things, which add 30p and 50p to the cost of the garment at source, actually make them very, very high quality,” states Graham, adding, “We use certified hi-vis tape that is guaranteed to wash at least 52 times without losing its hi-visibility, which is why it’s slightly more expensive that most people’s.”

Orn also offers a unique workwear garment called the Ballistic Trouser. “It offers stab-protection to the main parts of the leg,” explains Graham. So where a refuse collector picks up a plastic bag and it has broken glass in it, it won’t penetrate the trouser. It conforms to EN388, Cut Level 2, which no one else has in the industry.”

The garments are made not just to suit the wearers, but also the garment decorators. “Our polo shirts will hold more stitches per square cm than any other polo shirt,” states Graham. “We use the Lacoste Knit, which means it’s a weave and a knit. It’s not a honeycomb polo shirt, because as soon as you put a needle through a honeycomb, it breaks the honeycomb. If you put a needle into a weave, it might impair the actual strand but it’s surrounded by other threads that keep it strong. We also try to make sure that on all of our garments, the outward face will take prints and transfers and so on.”

Gap in the market

Before launching Orn, Cameron and Ivor both had backgrounds in clothing and health and safety companies. “We looked at the market, got our heads together and thought there was, as far as we could see, a gap in the market in the middle ground for a quality wholesale range,” says Ivor, adding: “A lot has changed in the last seven years, but this was pre-global financial crisis and pre the cotton price increases. At that stage, if you wanted a cheap trouser, you could get that around the £4 mark, and if you wanted a top end product you could get it, mainly from the Scandinavian brands, for more like £12, but a very, very nice product. In the middle there didn’t seem to be an awful lot, so we said: ‘What we want is a Scandinavian-quality product at a lower price point, in UK sizing, and stocked in the UK so our customers can have it tomorrow.’ And that’s the ethos that we’re still pretty much working to today.”

In their previous jobs Cameron and Ivor had been working directly with the end consumer, so when they were creating the Orn range, Ivor thought about what he would carry about in his sample bag to impress customers: he wanted to make sure that his company’s products could compete with the best garments available.

It was a tall order, and Ivor admits that while initially they got the pricing right, the quality wasn’t quite as they wanted, and so they took greater control of the manufacturing process. “We also learned more about the process that the factories go through, because we were pretty green when we went into it. We learned more about what impact the fibres – the raw product – make to the end product. What effect do proper dying processes make? What effect does the finishing process have?”

When the cotton prices started increasing in 2010, however, Orn felt the impact. “Being a very young company still at that stage, we were forced to put our prices up,” reveals Ivor. “We had no war chest, so to speak. Probably some of our competitors had seen it happen before and they knew that if they rode it, it would pan out. We weren’t able to, so we had to put our prices up, in some cases quite significantly, and we did lose customers over it.”

The figures show that Orn has more than recovered from that period: At the end of June this year, sales for the first six months were up 103% on the same time last year. And for the whole of 2014, they were up just over 70% on 2013. An industry report ranks Orn as the fastest growing company in the sector in 2014, second in the sector in the return on assets ranking, and number five in the sector for net profit. Turnover this year, reports Graham, is looking to be around £10 million.

The company now employs 18 full-time people in the UK and has set up an overseas office in India this year with a staff of four. “We’re growing, we need more people on the ground to handle the development of products,” explains Graham. And it’s not just the development of the brand’s own stock lines – around 40% of Orn’s business is making bespoke garments, such as uniforms for a major garden centre and hoodies for a Christmas launch at a computer games company. “Because of our particularly good pricing at the factories we can offer bespoke products at very competitive prices,” comments Graham.

Beyond health and safety

The initial customers Ivor and Cameron targeted were mainly in the health and safety sector because that was their background. “The customer base has varied a lot since,” says Ivor, “we’ve seen a lot more promotional companies getting into offering a better level of quality. In the past couple of years we’ve also seen more of the likes of Buck & Hickman, who offer a one-stop shop solution.”

Earlier this year the company further expanded its customer base when the well-known workwear brand Ensemble went into liquidation. Orn bought Ensemble, which Graham describes as offering “economical, cost-effective solutions.” Shirts, tunics, polo shirts and jumpers are all part of the line, which had a huge customer base. “One of the biggest areas for them was healthcare with tunics,” explains Graham. “When you get involved with some of these council contracts you could be talking something like 200,000 to 300,000 pieces.” Orn has been busy establishing relationships with the factories that were manufacturing Ensemble products before they went bust, and getting all the stock up on its website and into Orn’s new brochure.

The other big focus for the company in the coming months is on developing the Orn experience – the company’s new marketing strategy. “If you’re a garment decorator, what is the Orn experience?” asks Ivor. “Are we happy, friendly people that answer the phone? What is the stock position like? When you open that box, what does it look like, what is the quality of the garments?”

At the moment, says Ivor, if you ask Orn’s customers what the company’s strapline, Designed to Endure, relates to, they largely tend to think of the product. “It’s so much more than that,” says Ivor. “We want someone to think: ‘Well, the team that Graham’s now got backing him up in sales: they’re designed to endure. The customer services team upstairs who are there to take any calls: they’re designed to endure. It’s not just about a garment. You get a lot more from us than that.”

(Left) The Essential Blouse – one of the “economical, cost-effective solutions” from the Ensemble range. (Right) The Osprey Deluxe Poloshirt, which uses the Lacoste Knit to provide a superior surface for decoration

(Left) The Vulture Ballistic Trouser uniquely conforms to EN388, Cut Level 2. (Right) The Condor Combat Trouser.