Liz Robbins, Royal Robbins’ co-founder and former head of design, fell into designing clothing simply because the gear that she and Royal needed didn’t exist. “I had never really designed clothing, and I wasn’t really interested in clothing, to be honest,” Liz says. “I started out by making belay seats and hammocks for Royal out of ripstop nylon on a Singer sewing machine in my daughter’s nursery. Everything I did was based on a functional and practical need at the time, which made the creativity part really fun.”
Liz was an accomplished climber in her own right (she was the first woman to climb Half Dome in Yosemite Valley in 1967, on the 10th anniversary of Royal’s first ascent), and as she got handier with the sewing machine, she started designing clothing as well as equipment. “Nothing was as flexible as Royal wanted,” Liz explains. “He always had to lift his leg as high as possible in case there was a rock around, even while we were hiking. And that’s where the Billy Goat® waistband came from: it allowed flexibility in the waist and the body without wearing stretchy, Polyester things.”
This ethos – functional need leading to creativity – was the inspiration for some of Royal Robbins’ most iconic mountaineering heritage pieces. We asked Liz to give us the background on four classic styles that are still available to adventurers today.
The Classic Billy Goat® Short
In 1975, Liz designed the Billy Goat® Short, the company’s first original piece of clothing.
“I was told by everybody in the industry that no one would ever wear a pant or short with elastic in the waist,” Liz says. “Elastic waists only existed in swim trunks and that’s not what I had in mind at all. It was a real effort to get the waistband to look the way I wanted it to: I had to do it with a single needle, over and over, to make the stitching look more masculine, to make the legs comfortably wide. It was just a good idea and it worked out really, really well. It turned out to be extremely popular, and that was the beginning of our business with clothing.”
Liz says that Royal insisted on testing every piece of clothing before it was put into production. “He would test it by going out hiking or standing in the office and picking his knee up to his chest. He’d say: ‘You know, this isn’t comfortable enough,’ or ‘It’s still not giving me enough room,’ and we’d work on it until it was comfortable. He’d tell us what the piece of clothing needed to do, and we’d make it happen.”
Another piece of clothing synonymous with Royal Robbins is the Lakes District-inspired sweater. When Liz and Royal traveled to the Lakes District in northwest England to go climbing, Royal would climb in any weather, while Liz preferred to opt out if it was raining.
“I loved the Herdwick and Swaledale sheep in the area – they were beautiful,” Liz says, “and I discovered in the village they had a little industry, with little machines in their homes, simple machines, and they were making beautiful sweaters, and I worked my way into getting to know people.”
At the time, Liz says there wasn’t a market for sweaters – from climbers or outdoor shops. “The shops wouldn’t even think about selling clothing products. They said they didn’t know it, didn’t want it, and they weren’t that kind of store. I said to Royal: ‘You know, if we call these sweaters tools, and if we change the design slightly, we might be able to get around it.”
Liz altered the shape slightly, added leather patches to the shoulders for carrying backpacks, and left the natural oil in the sweaters so they retained the “earthy” smell of sheep. And that, she says, got their product into stores. “We became really well known for our sweaters.”
Liz pulled a lot of inspiration for her clothing design from traveling. “We spent a lot of time in Europe, Royal and I,” Liz says. “First thing after we were married we moved to Switzerland. When you travel, you experience a different sense of style, color, fabric, how people dress.”
Royal Robbins’ flannel shirts were inspired by those early travels, and were brought to life with stubborn ingenuity.
“What is it about flannel shirts that make you reminisce? The first flannel we did was in Portugal. They had nice cotton flannels, they did a good job,” Liz says. “Because of the way I did things in those days, which was primitive, it didn’t occur to me to use flannel that existed. The way we created our plaids was to do them thread by thread to see what combination they made. The tricky part was that you didn’t know until you crossed colors what color you’d come up with. In the early days, we would sit on the floor with threads and do it by hand. Later, when we could do it somehow with a computer, it got a little easier. We did beautiful plaids. I remember them very clearly.”
The Go Everywhere® line
In the mid-1990s, Liz recalls things changing from the 1960s and 1970s when they first started out. “We had lifestyle changes,” she says. “That’s when we did a lot of traveling. For us, business and climbing and travel were always connected, and Royal wanted something he could keep his trail maps and climbing maps and passports in, so I went to work and made a shirt that suited that need.”
At the time, the style Royal preferred to wear collared shirts, so they took the newly developed washable, wearable synthetics, combined it with great pockets and built the shirt that became the Expedition, which is still in the line today. They quickly expanded with pants and shorts in addition to tops, and the Go Everywhere® line was born.
The lifestyle sportswear designs that had been so successful in cotton, were applied to new synthetic, performance fabric technologies. In many cases, the designs were almost exactly the same (the cotton canvas Bluewater Short served as the model for the Backcountry Short for instance).
As Liz and Royal’s own needs changed, their products changed. “That’s always been the essence of Royal Robbins: practical leads to creativity,” Liz says. “Function was always number one, I’ve always had a fundamental interest in it, and that’s where our tagline ‘style with mountaineering heritage’ came from. You have to try and keep your soul, keep whatever it is that has made you unique, in a world where that’s not easy. It’s nice to remember the beginnings of some of our pieces, it’s nice to know that they’re still in our range. I hope that will be the case for a long time.”
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