Our friends at SPARTANAT sent us this interview with Helikon-Tex. We appreciate their efforts to keep the SSD readership abreast of happenings in Europe.
HELIKON-TEX belongs to the stars in the European constellation of gear manufacturers. Good equipment at a good price – so the Poles have made a very good name and conquered a mark throughout Europe. Together with Grzegorz Mieszczak, CEO of Helikon-Tex, we talked about the company’s history, the standards of Helikon-Tex and the expansion into the USA.
SPARTANAT: Helikon-Tex comes from Poland and is now an international gear manufacturer. When and how did you start?
HELIKON-TEX: Our company was founded in 1983. Back then though our focus was mostly on importing camping equipment from Sweden – for example, Mora Knives of Sweden, with whom we’ve done strong business for over 30 years. When it comes to military side of things, it began just after the fall of communism in 1989. The borders were open at last and there was a rapidly growing demand for Western military surplus. Under Communist rule civilian ownership of any kind of military gear was strictly prohibited – so wearing Western military surplus became quite a big counter-culture fashion trend. We jumped at the opportunity and started to import surplus on a large scale; good-quality US GI M65 jackets were worth their weight in gold back in those days.
This business went well through the 90’s, but as we stepped into the new millennium the golden age of surplus started coming to an end. Sources of gear began to dry up, fewer sizes were available, some items were no longer obtainable, etc. So that set us on the search to find a manufacturing capability in order to make some of the best-selling items ourselves in a full range of sizes. And that’s how we moved from being a surplus dealer to becoming a manufacturer and distributor of tactical and outdoor clothing and equipment.
SPARTANAT: We want to know who your buyers are. Airsoft, military, outdoor…and why they purchase Helikon-Tex.
HELIKON-TEX: Just about every type of user of tactical and outdoor clothing and gear has been buying and using our products – from soldiers, law enforcement, PMCs and special operations forces, to hikers, campers, explorers, survivalists, preppers, shooters and airsofters. We’ve also seen our products featured in movies (‘HALO: Nightfall’) and TV (‘House of Cards’).
The reason they buy seems to be pretty simple; we provide the user with the quality and performance they require, the features they need, the colors and camouflage patterns they want. Of course, different people buy different products for different reasons – some folks buy messenger bags in camouflage patterns because they like the visual ‘look’, not because they want to conceal themselves. But whatever their specific trigger is to buy the product, folks always want the price to be economical – so that’s the space we look to occupy, quality gear at an economical price, and then we just try to keep up with the ever-growing demand.
SPARTANAT: You have a lot of camos to offer; e.g. PenCott®. We see in particular a strong trend for GreenZone® in Poland. Why?
We cover a lot of countries, most of which have their own distinctive national camo pattern, and military guys usually want stuff in their national camouflage pattern so they can use it in the field. Airsofters also like to create a country / unit-themed load-out or to have every part of their loadout in their favorite camouflage print. So we need to run a lot of different camo patterns. We also monitor the latest dominant trends in the market with regards to fabrics, colors and camouflage patterns – that’s why we were the first large-scale manufacturer to work with the PenCott® camouflage patterns, as well as A-TACS and Kryptek.
Regarding PenCott®, to make a long story short, we were sold on its potential when we saw how well it works. GreenZone® performs very well in forests, woodland, mixed grassland-woodland and even in open green meadows and fields. It matches great with Northern, Central and Western European vegetation and from our observations, it is one of the best patterns for these regions for most of the year. We’ve also seen that it works great in many parts of North and Latin America too. BadLands® hasn’t been quite as popular as GreenZone® in Europe so far, but it works great as a late-autumn / winter pattern in deciduous woodland, as well as in dry and semi-arid regions – like in the US for example. Anti-poaching Rangers in Africa have also selected and used our products in the BadLands® pattern – as it has been seen to work very well in southern Africa too.
And of course, we are particularly pleased that we are one of the first to introduce the new urban camouflage pattern from PenCott – MetroPolis (pictured below) – in the equipment and present it at the IWA 2017.
SPARTANAT: You have a wide range of gear, from packs to uniforms. What are the best-selling Helikon-Tex products?
HELIKON-TEX: Some of our best-sellers are the classic and modern styles of field uniforms, other universal bestsellers are our UTP and OTP pants in different materials and colors, and our ‘Trooper’ softshell jackets in various colors is also a top seller.
We’ve also learned that the more original and functional the product is, the better it sells. That’s why we’ve set up our own in-house design team and are moving away from just making reproductions of surplus or issued clothing and gear. With our new ‘themed’ approach to product lines – Urban Line, Range Line, Outback Line, Patrol Line, Bushcraft Line, Medical Line – we are developing unique, specialized products for particular users and needs that follow our own specific style of design. We’ve also developed and introduced some proprietary colors of our own as well – ‘Shadow Grey’ and ‘Adaptive Green’ – which adds another element of distinctiveness to our products, as well as being very good colors.
Finally, we’re also stepping up more and more into nylon products, but garments and headgear remain the backbone of our business – and we’re adding more and more of our own unique and practical designs to the portfolio all the time. We foresee many of our newer products – such as the ‘Wolfhound’ light insulated jacket and the ‘Hybrid Tactical Pants’ (‘HTP’) becoming best-sellers as well.
SPARTANAT: Many companies come from the outdoor market and then sell to the military. You are going the other direction. Is outdoors a good market for a tactical manufacturer?
HELIKON-TEX: It surely can be. There are a lot of outdoor people how want sturdy, practical gear that doesn’t cost a fortune, and many of them – nature photographers, bushcrafters, urban explorers, survivalists – prefer subdued or earthy tones rather than the brightly colored and flashy styles offered by many outdoor brands. For such folks a design that has a ‘tactical’ heritage, with subdued colors, practical style and durable construction, is the natural choice. There is also a significant ‘cross-over’ market audience in the EDC, PMC, LE, Shooter and Prepper communities. These folks find our products well suited to their needs for practical and discrete carriage of personal items and tools – as well as having the robustness and weather resistance needed for vigorous outdoor use.
So our answer is definitely yes – the outdoor market can be a good market for a tactical gear and clothing maker, as long as the ‘tactical’ look is kind of low-profile and not full-blown ‘tacti-cool’. Some people have described the outdoor-oriented products in our portfolio as ‘tactical clothing for the outdoor gentleman’ or as ‘outdoor clothing for the tactical gentleman’ (and ladies too now). We think that pretty accurately describes our hybrid / cross-over design approach. Finally, our designs have a design aesthetic and ergonomic fit that seems to be resonating positively with users in Europe – and beyond.
SPARTANAT: Speaking of “in Europe – and beyond”, we hear that Helikon-Tex has launched in the USA. How is that going?
HELIKON-TEX: We’ve been attending the SHOT Show for a few years (we’re also now a corporate member of the NSSF), and with the size and amount of activity in the American market, we knew that it just made sense to expand into the US as well. Of course, it’s easier to say that than it is to do it. But we’ve been working steadily on getting everything in place to make it work. We’ve gone through our sizing charts and reconfigured everything to fit the American sizing model, we’ve gone through our portfolio of existing products (as well as the one’s on the drawing board) and decided which products will be offered in the US. We’ve also got a team of guys in the US who are working on getting the infrastructure and marketing plans in place to be ready when we turn the key.
The US market is a bit different from Europe of course – there are a lot more Shooters than Airsofters for one thing, and the tactical law enforcement market is bigger, and a very important market segment too. So we’ve been working on building brand awareness and product acceptance in the professional military and law enforcement communities through influential folks like Wes Doss and his Lights, Sights and Lasers Tour, and also with the Tactical Tracking Operations School and Deliberate Dynamics International.
At the present time we are working on getting things set up, ironing out the wrinkles, and starting to do some targeted marketing and product placement. We are live with our online store and making a lot more noise in the US market after that.
HELIKON-TEX, Zachodnia 9, 55-330 Miekinia, Poland. Tel.: +48 71 317 80 00