At the ages of just 19 and 21, brothers Martin and Rob Drake-Knight embarked on a mission to redesign the clothing industry, while taking steps to solve the Island’s youth unemployment problem.
It was 2009 — there was limited awareness of the sustainability of the clothing industry. Plastics and synthetic use was at an all-time high and young people on the Island were struggling to find rewarding employment.
The brothers were passionate about creating a circular economy which changed all this. They had learned a lot about business while working on Sandown Beach deck chairs for ten years with the infamous Kenny Kemp. He’d taught them to be up and out early each morning and had given them both responsibilities which encouraged them to want to succeed.
Rob had studied business and Mart had experience as a wind turbine designer, so they had the skill set which pushed their business idea forward.
With just £200 in their pockets and a garden shed to call their office, Rob and Mart pooled their money into getting their business under way — a brave move, but one that would ultimately pay off.Their first goal was to make a range of clothing from organic cotton in a renewable-energy-powered factory — with little scope for failure, the brothers designed and created their first T-shirt, and Rapanui was born.
Like any small business start up, mistakes were made along the way.
The first design was embroidered the wrong way up, nearly half the funds were blown on letter headed paper and there was a slight mishap which involved accidentally wiring the office into the neighbours’ board and blowing up their fridges — which became slightly more serious, when they remembered the neighbouring building was a morgue. Learning as they went, Rob and Mart had soon expanded
their premises to Weaver’s Yard, Bembridge — which was only possible thanks to the help of Terry Weaver who negotiated a discount. Rapanui had grown from a team of two to five or six — and the plan to provide attainable employment to young undergraduates had started to come together.
“We find it especially rewarding to watch young people doing well,” said Mart. “We’ve seen some exciting talent in so many of our apprentices. Rapanui has been a team effort right from the start. The growth of the business has only been possible because of the people who work here.”
Word about Rapanui started to spread, and in 2010, the way in which Rob and Mart did business was described by the press as “game changing”. A number of momentous orders arrived from the likes of Sky Sports, Red Bull and Lush and enough money was made to give the business a good footing. The dream was starting to become a reality.
The production method was by now well researched and practised and fit well with the ethics of the business. Responsibly sourced and traceable organic cotton clothing was made in wind-powered factories, which were subsequently screen printed, to order, in house. Printing to order hugely reduced wastage. Even the ink used in the printing methods is completely plastic free — and, incredibly, some of the wind turbines used in the factories in India were made right here on the Island, by Vestas.
Over time, the Rapanui team developed a number of efficient systems, which assisted the smooth running of the warehouse, such as user-friendly packing programmes, robotic machinery and real-time, intelligent order printing.
“What we are trying to do with technology and sustainability requires new ideas all the time and a lot of energy. We find young people are great for this sort of thing. They don’t need to be qualified or experienced, they just need to show passion and capability — we train them to do the rest,” said Mart.
From Bembridge to Cowes, the business continued to grow, before a devastating fire took hold of Medina Village, where Rapanui was based. Unlike other businesses, who lost everything, Rapanui escaped with most of its equipment but the building was destroyed and the business needed a new home.
In 2016, the business took over the old Co-op store, in Freshwater, where it now employs 45 full-time members of staff and 25 part time — all of whom are from the Island. Over the past four years, Rapanui has trained up 12 apprentices, who have all gone straight into a permanent role. The average age of employees is 24 — although the actual age range is from 17 to 65. Approximately 75 per cent of the management team were originally trained in house — and, impressively, one of the current directors and shareholders was an apprentice just five years ago.
As the increasing success of Rapanui would not have been so easily achievable without the help of various businesses along the way, Rob and Mart wanted to pay it forward — and now offer an additional string to their bow for start-up businesses. Teemill works by providing all the manufacturing, software, professional imagery and warehouse services of an established business, to start ups with their own t-shirt design. 15,000 small businesses around the world already use the programme, which cuts out the many hurdles that small businesses and start ups have to overcome.
Rapanui also offers £5 for every used T-shirt that is returned when no longer in use. This material then goes back into the production process and is resold soon after as a recycled T-shirt — the epitome of a circular economy. Solar panels on the roof also power the Freshwater factory. Plans for the future include building a larger warehouse, ideally nearby in Freshwater. Rob and Mart have come to love their newest office location, describing it as a: “Silicone Valley job in a nature reserve.” They are very happy living the Island lifestyle, surfing down at Compton during their lunch breaks and have no intentions to move the business away from the Island.
“We’re so excited about the future of business on the Island,” said Mart. “There seems to be a great momentum of small businesses doing cool things at the moment. We love seeing them do well. Together, with the rest of the Rapanui team, we’ve managed to create one of the most advanced clothing factories right here on the Island. It proves living on the Isle of Wight is no barrier to success.”