MOST of us hate the Irish rain, but fashion photographer, Miki Barlok, has grown to love it and it has inspired a new business venture.
Miki, who moved to Cork from Slovakia 15 years ago, is a keen outdoors adventurer who goes mountain climbing and mountain biking.
But having been soaked so many times while indulging his hobby, he came up with the idea of producing a high-quality, environmentally friendly adventure clothing brand, which was recently launched.
Crucially, the clothes are waterproof and Miki says the jeans he produces can be worn by anyone, whether hill walking or for work. His line of adventure wear is called Gnarly Peaks.
Miki, a former architect with a good eye for design, used to do a lot of rock climbing in Slovakia. It’s a bit of an obsession for him.
“I was always up in the mountains. I’d swap my work hours and would sleep four hours a night so I could do the architecture work as well as the climbing.”
Temperatures in his native country could hit 40C in the summer and -20 in the winter in the mountains.
“Then, when I came to Cork (initially for six months to launch himself as a photographer), it was raining all the time. I got a mountain bike because I needed a bit of adrenaline. I love Ireland. But when I compare shops selling outdoor gear in Ireland and Europe, there can be 20 or 30 brands of adventure clothing in Europe while there are very few brands in Ireland.”
Having spotted a gap in the market, Miki discovered that there was no Irish company doing technical outdoor clothing.
“There’s a lot of companies doing leisure wear, gym wear and yoga wear but no-one is really catering for the rain.”
Miki always had the idea that he would design some kind of clothing. He started his project before lockdown and travelled to all the trade shows in Europe, sourcing the fabric. (He says the provenance of the fabric he’s using is a trade secret.)
Although he had a designer on board, he was left waiting for two months before he decided to make a prototype himself. He planned on using a seamstress, but realised he could do it himself and bought a sewing machine. He also made the patterns himself.
“My idea at first was to produce the clothing in Ireland, but I couldn’t find anyone who could do seam sealing. That’s using special tape that goes on the seams in order that the garments are waterproof. I wanted it done professionally. I was talking to various manufacturers and trying to keep the business in Europe.
“I eventually found a factory specialising in waterproof wear. I sent them my prototype plan, my patterns and fabric. But it took them three and a half months to do the prototype - and it was way worse than the one I had made myself. So I went back to the drawing board.
“Luckily, the fabric manufacturers I work with pointed me to a really good manufacturer in China. They made me an incredibly good quality jacket. I care about quality and this was the best quality I had seen. Also, communication with them is instant. And they’re BlueSign certified, which means they’re environmentally friendly. The clothing is made with 100% recycled polyester.”
Miki says there was always a “bigger culture of climbing mountains in Europe, such as the Alps. But now, in Ireland, it seems everyone is going up the mountains which is great. All the mountain bikes are sold out. People are posting pictures of hiking on Instagram. More and more people are hiking up the mountains rather than going to the pub.”
Miki has had some scary incidents while climbing in Slovakia.
“Once, there were about five avalanches falling down and I had to run away from them.”
In terms of achievements, Miki climbed 5,000 metre high mountains in Tibet.
“It was more walking than rock climbing. I’ve done all the mountains in Ireland. I don’t do rock climbing here. But I do it every year when I meet my buddies from Slovakia. We could go to Cyprus or Malta or somewhere.
“We go climbing for two weeks. It’s great fun. In Ireland, I do mountain biking because I can do it in the rain.”
Combining his new venture with photographic work is not a problem for the energetic Miki. The 44-year- old says that, for years, he wasn’t really sleeping while working as an architect in Slovakia and climbing all day. He used to start working on his computer at 5am, having slept for a few hours.
“I’m quite used to that. If I have a random day off, I sleep for 12 hours. I can get by on two or three hours’ sleep.”
As well as fashion photography, Miki does commercial and PR work. His plan for Gnarly Peaks is to bring technical clothing into the urban market. “It’s not just for the mountains,” he explains.
His range includes an ultra light, compact, fully waterproof and breathable jacket made of 100% recycled polyester. It has an extended back panel and hood that fits over a helmet. His waterproof jeans offer freedom of movement and comfort thanks to a 4-way stretch. They’re comfortable for everyday wear as well as for a mountain hike or rock climbing. Tested in Alpine environments, Miki’s clothing is tapping into a market that hasn’t been catered for. Onwards and upwards!