What’s It Really Like To Work At Finisterre? We Spoke To The Female Driving Force Behind Our Favourite Surf Brand

We spoke to Debbie Luffman about feminism, moving to Cornwall & if it's really alright to bunk off work to surf in the Finisterre office...

Photo: Finisterre

Finisterre are different to pretty much every surf brand I’ve ever encountered.

If you’re not already acquainted with them, they make beautiful high-quality clothing for coldwater surfers, but their insulated jackets and merino base layers appeal to anyone who loves the outdoors.

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Even today, it’s hard to find good quality technical outdoors gear for women. Most big name brands shy away from womenswear, either sacrificing technical qualities for style – or going for the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach. Not Finisterre.

Their jumpers, jackets and base layers made by British surfers for other coldwater surfers – and they’ve kept their integrity even as the brand has grown over the last ten years.

Photo: Finisterre

It was started by one man – Tom Kay – who sold his Devon-made fleeces from his flat. Now Finisterre has grown into a successful British surf brand with four shops dotted around the country and an ever-growing band of loyal customers.

Tucked away in the tiny fishing town of St Agnes in Cornwall, the Finisterre HQ is exactly how I expected it to be – a large shed on the site of an old mine overlooking the turbulent Atlantic Ocean.

There are wetsuits hanging out to dry by the front door and inside a dog is asleep on the sofa. It smells of coffee and wood, and I can hear the buzz of chatter around the open plan office.

I’m a raging feminist. There’s no reason why a sporty woman who loves the outdoors shouldn’t have the same products as a man

It doesn’t feel like an office in a traditional sense. There are only around 25 employees. Downstairs is your typical open plan office, while upstairs the loft is kitted out like someone’s living room.

There are comfy sofas, surf magazines strewn across the coffee table and surfboards on the ceiling. A huge mood board is hung on one end of the room with fabric samples and designs for the upcoming season. I take a sneaky peek.

I’m here to meet Debbie Luffman, the production director at Finisterre. Debbie started working here as the womenswear designer back in the very early days – when the company was so small, everyone lived (and worked) in the back of this exact shed together.

Photo: Finisterre

Debbie is in charge of everything to do with Finisterre products – what it’s made from, where it comes from and what it’s purpose is.

“We don’t pump things out. There’s got to be a reason behind making it,” explains Debbie. “The person that buys that jacket or jumper is buying it for a reason. Working and improving these things is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Have you always worked in fashion? What brought you to Cornwall in the first place?

I used to work in London in the high street fashion industry a long time ago. I didn’t enjoy it and I found myself in an industry that didn’t inspire me.

I studied sportswear design at Kingston University. I’ve always been really sporty – I love surfing, running, cycling. Suddenly I found myself in London wearing high heels and designing sequin tops. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Then a friend from university got in touch, who was the then-designer for Finisterre. They were looking for a womenswear designer. I got on the train to Cornwall with my portfolio, dressed all nice. I was picked up from the station by three guys in wetsuits. They gave me a wetsuit and we spent the day jumping off rocks into the sea.

That was the interview. I didn’t even open my portfolio. I already knew I loved it. So when I heard I’d got the job, I moved down with a backpack and we all lived together in this shed.

Photo: Finisterre

What were the early days of Finisterre like?

I couldn’t believe it, on the first day, I came in on Monday morning at 9am and no one was there. They were all surfing.

It was really chilled back in the beginning. This was 2007. This shed was just four walls and a roof. It was freezing cold. We all answered the phones, we all packed the orders. We probably sold one thing a day – and it was really good.

There was so much passion, ideas and drive. Tom was the designer at the time – he was really conceptual in his view and I was more commercial, but we were both equally obsessed with fabric.

At Finisterre, you’re not going to get your arse kicked if you’ve decided to go surfing. It’s not that kind of place

What is it like working here now? Is it as great we think it is?

At Finisterre, you’re not going to get your arse kicked if you’ve decided to go surfing. It’s not that kind of place. If you don’t turn up at 9am, no one is clock watching.

I’m not going to say it’s a family – because it sounds so cheesy – but it’s more than a job. You’re buying into the lifestyle. You work in an incredible location. People bring their dogs to work. I’ve got a daughter – I brought her in every day until she was one. It’s not a conventional place – but it is a business.

Personally, I was always frustrated at the beginning. I was like, ‘Why don’t we all just work a little bit harder and we won’t all have to live together at the back of a shed?’

It’s grown up as much as we have now. At the time, it was beer, money and great to be out in the sun surfing. I think we were more tanned then than we are these days. But we’ve got families now. There’s still a good work/life balance.

Photo: Finisterre

The thing I love about Finisterre is it has such a wide range of technical gear, made specifically for women – which so many companies seem to bypass. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s something I’m really passionate about. I’m a raging feminist and I can’t bear it when things are boiled down to men and women. It’s just such an archaic view.

There’s no reason why a sporty woman who loves interacting with the outdoors shouldn’t have the same products as a man.

Too many companies think it’s fine to de-spec women’s clothes because they want to look nice. I can’t bear that! You cannot dumb it down for women.

I find it interesting that men tend to label themselves as one thing – I’m a surfer or I’m a mountain biker – but women are much more fluid with who they think they are, right?

Exactly. I’m sure if I asked you, are you a surfer? You’d say yes, you get in the sea but you probably do loads of other things too. I’m sure you get on a bike sometimes and you go snowboarding.

You might need a jacket to walk your dog, but it would be quite nice to wear that same jacket when you get out of the sea and you’re getting changed in the car park – and when you’re going snowboarding.

The Finisterre woman doesn’t want to look girly. She doesn’t want androgynous clothes, she wants a feminine feel to it….

Versatility is really key to how we design womenswear at Finisterre. You don’t necessarily need to buy a whole new wardrobe because you fancy doing some yoga. You just choose something that works and is comfortable in lots of different environments.

In the past, there’s been pressure for active sportswear brands to be about being staying fit to look good. Actually you’re doing these sports because you love the outdoors or you love surfing.

It’s just like women don’t all go to the gym, just so we can look great for our fellas. We do it because it makes us feel good. That’s what we feel is different about Finisterre.

Photo: Finisterre

Has it been a success? Are there women wanting to buy these high-end technical pieces of clothing?

Definitely. That’s the really inspiring thing. We have found that the women’s technical product is outselling the men’s. I think we’ve got a really die-hard outdoor customer.

Who do you see as the ‘typical’ Finisterre woman, if it can be defined?

She’s active, outdoorsy and definitely interested in lots of different activities. Quality and ethics are important to her.

I’ve really struggled with this word but I’ll put it out there – she’s slightly grown-up tomboy.

She doesn’t want to look girly, which doesn’t mean she wants androgynous clothes, she wants it to have a feminine feel to it. She is confident, self-assured, independent and most importantly fun-loving.

Photo: Finisterre

Finisterre is obviously all about responsibly made clothes – from sourcing recycled fabrics to making products that are built to last. Was this always something you were interested in?

Completely. When I was at university – in around 200o – it was around the real rise of cheap fashion brands.

Rather than just creating new disposable fashion, could we actually look back and find a natural fabric that works just as well? That was my obsession at uni.

You have to have ethical values built in at the beginning of a company. If you add it later, it’s just green wash. I couldn’t find what I wanted in London. Whereas at Finisterre, this has always been part of the DNA from the very beginning.

I hate it when people say you’re an ethical brand, it’s just part of what we do. As a modern brand, you can’t ignore these issues – especially a brand that’s in love with the sea.

Photo: Finisterre

Surely it’s been tough trying to stick to these environmental and ethical values?

It has. If we were to say everything has to be organic or recycled, then the product wouldn’t be durable enough – but we also want to stick to our values of making innovative products that are built to last.

If you make a waterproof jacket from organic cotton, it will last one season and it won’t perform. That causes more waste in the long run. If you stop wearing it or give it to a charity shop, it’s a mockery that it was made from organic cotton in the first place.

We’re always going to go for durability and performance first, over sustainability

Every product has to be considered differently. It might be the absolute best thing to make one product from man-made polyester or nylon, for example.

With nylon, we make sure it’s been treated the best we can find. We’re constantly searching for better ways to make our products. Nobody wants to put out high toxic stuff for the fun of it.

People think it’s about cost and it’s not. We’re always going to go for durability and performance first, over sustainability. Which sounds crazy but it’s not. If you stick to one stance, you can have too close-minded view of making the best product.

Editor’s Note: This interview was taken before Finisterre announced they were moving some of their production to China. We think the points Debbie makes above are still very relevant now. If you’d like to read more on the ethical side of Finisterre, check out Tom’s interesting and insightful blog post here

Photo: Finisterre

We loved this summer’s collection with the swimsuit addition. What’s next for Finisterre, particularly for women?

Finisterre menswear has been going for ten years now. Womenswear is now becoming its own beast, which is exciting!

It’s not about dumbing down the female consumer. We want to find technology that makes products really work for women.

It’s a really exciting time in the world to be a woman. It’s the most empowering time ever. You can do anything you want. You don’t have to get married. You can be absolutely independent.

It’s the most empowering time to be a woman – you can do anything you want

It’s funny, whenever we make a marketing customer profile for Finisterre – who is ‘He’ and who is ‘She’ – we used to just naturally marry them off when we talked about them. Like Mr and Mrs.

When you stop and think about it, they’re not actually married. They don’t have to be. She’s absolutely independent. It’s actually really limiting to think about him and her like that. It’s not representative of the modern active female.

There’s more clarity now and we’re more excited about the opportunity to grow our women’s collection. She’s divorced him basically! The Finisterre woman’s just got a divorce. It’s liberating!

Thank you so much to Debbie for giving us this real insight into the workings behind one of our favourite surf brands. Find out more about the Finisterre winter collection on their website.

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