I caught up with the Rapanui boys Martin and Rob Drake-Knight yesterday at their office in Bembridge.
For anyone who doesn’t know them or Rapanui, the two brothers set up Rapanui in 2008. They make eco-fashionable clothing from natural organic fabrics in a Fair Wear Foundation audited, wind powered factory. Like Topshop, without sweat shop.
They focus on traceability – people can see where the clothes come from and how they are made, from seed to shop. Many of us feel strongly about stopping child labour and care for the environment and our climate but when buying clothes it is never very clear. Rapanui changes all that and the brothers have been featured in national newspapers and TV recently, as the issue gets more and more important.
Rapanui was started up with only £200 of savings in University, and in 2010 Rapanui won Sustainable Business Awards; runners-up place at the 2010 Enterprising Young Brits Awards and were Highly Commended by the RSPCA at the Good Business Awards and were listed in the top 100 Start-ups of 2008.
“We hope this shows other young people on the Island – you can do whatever you want, be a success, start your own business, whatever. You don’t need money and it doesn’t matter if you wear a suit, or flip flops” said Mart.
Rapanui has hold Seminars and Lectures at UK and EU universities and multinational companies such as Centrica PLC on Sustainable Business and sit on the Panel at Plymouth University’s All our Futures Conference, and are listed on the Future 100 List of Top young Ethical Entrepreneurs. It’s all a bit hectic for two lads from Lake.
Going into the office though and you can see they’ve stuck to their roots. There’s Tony Hawks on the play station, surfboards on the walls and a blow-up picture of David Brent above their desks. It’s a bit cramped too – almost all of their staff are 18-25 year olds as they’re big on sorting out youth unemployment – except the part-time finishing ladies, who do a good job of looking after the boys, making cake and tea. “We had to get rid of the sofas as it’s sort of grown outwards a bit” says Rob (There’s desks, computers, cups of tea everywhere). In response to the companies growth, Rapanui is just about to open a new store in Sandown too, however I’ve been told it will be more of a surf club hang out than a shop, so watch this space…!
Martin and Rob first took to the water in the early 90’s and initially on bodyboards down at Hayle and Godrevy. Rob had a Hot Buttered; brightly coloured bodyboard, and said that some of that late 80’s and early 90’s surf style has influenced some of their designs of today.
Later Mart made friends with Joby Wells and family from Niton and they started skateboarding a lot at school. Martin bought his first surfboard from Ceri Williams at Offshore, a 7’6” bight yellow Sola Mini Mal – Ceri let him pay by instalments as Mart earned £2.50 an hour in an ice-cream shop in Sandown. Like all surfers, the first thing he says about his old board is that he wants me to use the Wight Surf History website to find it and get in back for him!
Little Stairs beach was right below their house and he could easily check the surf as it was just over the railway line. Martin remembers the sandbanks down at Little Stairs being epic and many great surfs were had back in the day – “it’s rubbish now so don’t tell anyone to surf there yeah?” .. Sure Mart, sure.
Not driving meant Martin had to get a lift to the beach and remember once paying his brother Rob £6 in petrol money just to take him to Compton (which was a lot more than it would have cost). So it seems Rob started in business early…
Martin had never bought a surf magazine or seen a surf movie and had learned to surf his own way, enjoying picking up the biggest possible waves he could catch and just flying down the line, “straighthanders” as he calls them. So much time focusing on bigger waves got ingrained along the way. He got his mum to take him over to Compton one Saturday and he remembers seeing Josh Jupe, Jamie Whittle and friends doing some amazing manoeuvres which at that time he hadn’t even considered possible. Martin remembers being blown away when paddling out and Josh pulled an air right in front of him– he said “my eyes popped out of my head. I went straight home and started looking for a shorter board.”
At this time Martin had persuaded his brothers Rob and George to take up the sport (George is a mean boogie boarder) and thinking they were ding repair gurus at the time, Mart convinced Rob to buy a really beat up Stewart Longboard for £200, a lot for what it was. Martin was convinced (and convinced his brother Rob) that he would be able to repair it. Now admitting that they still have it and it is still as dinged and delaminated now as it was then, although it has a cool Apocalypse Now paint job, one of many crazes. “Rapanui is just another craze; it’s just got completely out of hand” says Mart.
Mart has also taken to shaping his own surfboards with biofoam, and was very proud to show me some pics as we became side tracked talking about shaping boards. I’ll will definitely be going back for a few tips.
The 90’s were a time when surfing had become really popular bringing many people to the sport but it also brought a lot of negativity with it, fuelled by more advertising and commercialisation of the sport. The boys started to look for other spots to surf and really enjoy looking for places to surf; surfing around the South of the Island became a popular spot to get away from the crowds. Surfing alone or just with a couple of friends and searching for waves is still something they love to do today.
Surfing had started to influence life decisions and Martin admits that his choice in University – Falmouth, studying Renewable Energy Engineering – was swayed by the waves.
One day on a monster day at Godrevy Lighthouse Martin paddled out on a gun and spotted a guy take off pull into a “house size barrel” (it gets bigger every time the story is told Rob says). As the guy kicked out Martin said to him that it was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. The guy turned out to be big wave surfer Carlos Burle.
Carlos and Martin became friends and introduced Martin to the crew from Finisterre, an outdoor clothing design company in St.Agnes. From day one the guys at Finisterre took him under their wing. Mart admits that these four years in Cornwall with the Aggie crew helped him grow up massively and he continued working for Finisterre until he returned to the island in 2010.
Martin and Rob talked about how surfing had taken them all over the world and to many places they would never have visited had it not been their passion for the sport.
It’s crazy how a hobby can take young lads from Lake around the other side of the world. “The unique thing about the Island is that we’re a small community, but if you surf you actively have to search out new places, broaden your horizons a bit. This makes Island surfers much more adventurous and takes what could easily be a small-minded place into a bunch of quite well-cultured people.” Rob and Mart have bumped into Islanders all over, but say the highlight was in New Zealand. “We said to some matey that we were from the Isle of Wight. Next thing you know, there’s real loud singing – yes my son, they’re the Pompey scum – and this chap pops out and goes – ‘alright lads, I’m from Whitwell’ – classic”
Through surfing they saw and experienced the changing environment and climate at the Island’s local beaches. This inspired them to go for it with Rapanui – and try to use the power of fashion and branding to make sustainability cool.
The brothers recognise the importance of the Island surf community – They have organised beach cleans; one at Grange Chine (which was a UK record beach clean, quoted by the Marine Conservation Society as the most rubbish ever collected in a non-disaster event) and sent the rubbish to the ‘energy-from-waste plant’ in Newport.
They also donate profit to charities, including the Marine Conservation Society via their special edition MCS tee, and to Leonard Cheshire Disability through the Rapanui FC staff football tournaments.
Recently, Rapanui has been proud to support the Isle of Wight Surf Club. The brand contribute to the club financially, making rash vests and giving away all the clubs prizes, and their web development guys made and maintain the clubs site. The Surf club was re-established after the lads started chatting to Matt Harwood, local hero, who came over to wish the boys good luck when he heard about Rapanui – back when the company was still run from a bedroom. Along with Oli Harvey and a bunch of other Island surfers, Rob and Mart are excited about the recent positive happenings on the island surf-wise – “the surf club, the beach cleans, and other projects like Wight Surf History celebrating the Island surf culture is not just interesting – it really contributes to what we do at weekends. More friendly line ups, more mates and more waves. Island surfing has given us so much and these kinds of projects really do give something back, so we’re stoked to be a part of it”