Upstart Merlin Takes On British Patriarchs Belstaff And Barbour

Waxed cotton and leather goods worthy of Steve McQueen buffs everywhere

guy sitting next to his motorcycle
Merlin is taking old-school waxed cotton and making it affordable.Photo: Merlin Bike Gear

In the dead-center of England, on Cobbett Road in the Chasewater Heaths business park of Staffordshire, England, James Franklin responded to a few questions I had about Merlin, the six-year-old motorcycle clothing company making waves with its Belstaff-influenced waxed cotton and leather goods. As brand and product director, Franklin's job is to develop and evangelize, and he shed light on Merlin's origins and long-term plans for the US and beyond.

How does Merlin sell such affordable gear?

Merlin is a partnership; each person within Merlin owns a part and therefore is committed to the brand and its success; this structure is extremely rare. We have no bank ownership that puts pressure on profit, nor drives us with unreasonably heavy targets. We also have no huge desire to be the biggest brand in the world, so we together make the right steps for the product and people connected with the brand from suppliers, employees (partners), customers, and distributors.

merlin bike gear logo flag
Merlin Bike Gear is a six-year-old British motorcycle clothing company ready to take on Belstaff at its own game.Photo: Merlin Bike Gear

Behind the scenes our model is extremely complicated, and there’s no doubt that the whole team puts in a great performance and so much hard work to achieve stunning retail price points. Simply put, we buy smart (sourcing over 60 percent of materials and components directly), focus on the end user, work extremely hard, and focus on the details.

Who are the owners/founders?

In 2011 Merlin was founded by five partners, the senior partner being Steven Franklin. These five partners each brought their own skill set and experience to the development, build, and sale of motorcycle clothing in our brands Route One denim jeans and Merlin. Each of the partners were passionate riders and felt that together as a team they could create product that really excited consumers: stylish, well specified, great fit, and importantly competitively priced.

This year the five-partner structure was adapted to reflect the growth and development of the brand. Myself as a lead designer came on board as director and two non-executive directors joined the board: Richard Ash, founder of Green Room Design, the UK's leading retail design agency and brand consultant working for the likes of Nike, Asics, Timberland, and Oliver Howl, who has over 20 years of experience in talent recruitment across Asia and the UK.

merlin atlow waxed cotton motorcycle jacket
The new Merlin Atlow waxed cotton jacket comes with shoulder and elbow armor, YKK zippers, and a removable tartan thermal liner for $349.Photo: Revzilla

Waxed cotton seems to be enjoying a renaissance here in the US, with several start-up companies offering jackets and pants.

With the café racer, custom, and retro scene bang-on trend, more suppliers have tried to turn their hand to waxed cotton. Our long-term Scottish waxed cotton supplier Halley Stevensons—with whom we have exclusivity for the motorcycle market—really sets us apart from the crowd, and then it comes down to our exceptional build quality, technical accessories (Italian armor, Korean waterproof membranes, Scottish tartan liners), and styling.

VIDEO: Halley Stevensons

Halley Stevensons’ P270 8-ounce Silkwax is more robust, heavier, stronger, and will last longer than other fabrics on the market. The waterproofing effects are almost double, and Halley Stevensons’ wax formula is far more durable than our competition, which means it will dry out to a much lesser degree, offering greater performance and ease of use. Not only does our competition offer a lighter-weight cotton but one that absorbs moisture quicker and will require reproofing sooner with less durability and longevity. Chinese and other Asian waxed cottons are specifically inferior to those produced in Great Britain.

What is Merlin’s plan to expand in the US? I see you’re working with Revzilla.

Merlin enjoys a great partnership with Revzilla in both our Heritage and Tech Wear collections. Revzilla tested the market in the first year with a few selected garments and with great sell-through for a relatively new brand; we will have more than tripled the number of lines stocking in the next year. The US market is large so it's a tough one to tackle, but with our step-by-step, steady build approach, we've just gone through an internal restructure with a new international sales director (previously UK director) in Andrew Hunt being appointed. Andrew will begin to actively develop the US market in the coming months.

merlin hulme waxed cotton motorcycle pants
The new Merlin Hulme waxed cotton pants come with hip and knee armor, YKK zippers, and a removable thermal liner for $279.Photo: Revzilla

Only last year we presented our collections outside of the UK for the first time since founding in 2011 at the Intermot show in Germany. Subsequently we expanded our export market from a couple of customers to over 14 markets which include Australia, New Zealand, Korea, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

merlin waxed cotton fabric details
Waxed cotton is the new wonder fabric for younger riders.Photo: Merlin Bike Gear

I bring you back to the first point around pricing; we have no huge desire to be the biggest brand in the world and therefore want to focus on making the right decision for the product. We’re all about product, and the product seems to be winning in any market that commits to it.