North Sails was founded in 1957 by Lowell North, a world-class engineer and an Olympic gold medallist whose vision was to create the best sails for sailing in the world. Today, 65 years later this ideal is still front and centre for a company that continues to evolve and innovate. Here, RLI speaks with Marisa Selfa, CEO of North Sails Apparel to learn more about this ocean-positive brand.
The inspiration of Lowell North lives on within North Sails Apparel, which since its inception in 1987 has been designing and developing products so that consumers can focus on what’s important – whether that is taking on the sea or just navigating modern life.
The continuing vision for the business is to be the first ocean-positive apparel company, meaning that the ocean is their playground and the place where they want to focus all of their efforts because the ocean is so relevant for the rest of the planet, health and people.
“We currently operate 24 stores, with the vast majority of these situated across Italy. Our main flagship is situated in Milan, with another key site in Genoa which is well known as a fantastic place for sailing,” explains Marisa Selfa, CEO of North Sails Apparel. “Outside of Italy, we have stores in Saint-Tropez, France and Palma de Majorca and Barcelona in Spain with our own stores and we also have franchised stores in Italy with our partners. We are now looking to expand and this is one of my main priorities, to make the brand more international because we are well known in Italy due to the history of the brand, but we are not so well known outside of the country.”
Their store in Saint-Tropez is one that has been there for many years, but last year an opportunity presented itself for an additional pop-up store in the harbour, which worked fantastically well due to its exceptional location. The timing could not have been better, because their current store is slated to become the tourist office of Saint-Tropez. So what they are doing is building a new and bigger store at 200sq m on the site where the pop-up was, and this will become the home of the North Sails group and be ready for customers next year.
Speaking about the development pipeline for the coming months, Selfa explains that there are different pillars of their operation, with a key one being sustainability. Their current collection is made up of 95 per cent sustainable materials, a huge increase from Selfa’s arrival at the end of the spring summer 21 collection was made up from 30 per cent of sustainable materials.
The second pillar is the internationalisation of the business Selfa touched on earlier. “Right now around half of our business is done in Italy. Our best markets outside of our home country are Spain, France and Germany and in total we have 1,300 points of sale including multi-brands, department stores and our own stores.”
Selfa goes on to say that whilst Europe can still grow, the UK market is a market in which they are not very present and want this to change moving forward.
“We are now also having some good conversations in areas like the Middle East and the US, and places such as Australia and New Zealand are obvious places for us to go to in the future. However, whilst we are looking to grow, we want to grow responsibly and sustainably and not rush it, we want to grow organically,” Selfa highlights.
While Covid is by no means gone, the retail world is returning to something resembling pre-lockdowns around the world. As things are now opening up, the brand is once again in a position to engage with customers in additional ways to help build loyalty and ensure repeat visits. They have launched the ‘Adopt a Coral’ initiative, meaning whenever a customer purchases something from North Sails, the company will plant a new coral. They are also looking to host mini-events in some of their flagships, for example they have invited the Founder of Coral Gardeners Titouan Bernicot to come to their Milan flagship to give a speech on what is happening in the oceans.
“We want to begin incorporating these little events because we want to invite people to come and get really aligned with the philosophy and values of the company, brand and connectivity,” says Selfa.
Moving forward, social media is an area where North Sails is looking to grow and in the last year they have pushed in this area and want to expand more in the future. Previously they had not had a team focused on this aspect of marketing but this has now changed, and social media presents the brand with an opportunity to talk about multiple facets through their channels, such as water sports, ocean conservation, sustainability and fashion.
When discussing sustainability, Selfa highlights that their philosophy is that they look for progress not perfection. They now produce items with less water usage, they have cut out the use of toxic dyes and they have reviewed the code of conduct with suppliers. So while perfection is impossible right now, they are making great strides in the area of sustainability.
The brand has seen considerable success over the years, and the CEO of the apparel division feels that this can be put down to its Italian consumers that are incredibly loyal to the company and have grown with the business over the years.
As she looks to the future, Marisa feels that the challenges that face North Sails are similar to the rest of the companies in retail, as companies today ask themselves, how do we achieve sustainable growth?
“This is not about the sustainable materials; it is about opening in the right place at the right time with the right partners. The other challenge is omni-channel and finally is continuing to build the right business model for the future,” she explains.
“As for me personally, my challenge moving forward is to make sure our team is really motivated and happy to be North Sails as we continue to grow.”