When Tom Kay gets on the phone, he’s just got back from a dip in the ocean. Whenever he has an hour or so spare in his busy schedule, he’ll nip down to the coastline a stones throw from his house in St Agnes, Cornwall.
The Cornish coast is rugged and windy. It feels prehistoric, a step back in time: it’s no wonder many refer to it as the ‘end of the earth’, or in shipping terms, ‘Finisterre’. It’s this coastline where Tom fell in love with the ocean, and where he launched and built his outdoor clothing brand.
The Finisterre brand is a tribute to this coast, to his affection for the ocean and the environment, and to the surfers and outdoor lovers that flock here throughout the seasons. But to call Finisterre a local, Cornish brand is to do it a disservice. Since its launch in 2003, it’s gradually become a highly respected, premium outdoor clothing brand not just for surfers, but for lovers of the outdoors: Britain’s Patagonia, if you like.
With a huge online presence, and with ten high street stores across the UK already, Finisterre firmly has its foot on the accelerator. But growing is only half the challenge: maintaining a responsible and sustainable business as they scale is central to success for Tom and his company.
Swapping bikinis and boardshorts for wetsuits and waterproofs
Tom’s affinity for being in the water dates back to childhood. He spent much of his youth in and around water, discovering surfing around the age of 15 and never looking back.
Chances are, if you’re picturing surfing, you’re picturing long haired, tanned surfers in tropical waters and balmy climates. If you’ve never been to Cornwall, it’s not surprising if you’d think this. This was the image of surfing that Tom grew up seeing in fashion magazines: but it was far cry from his actual experience. “It’s pretty wet, windy, cold, rough, wild, and dark—but on its day, it’s as good as anywhere in the world,” Tom says.
Time was spent trudging in and out of frosty waters, throwing on as many layers as possible while running to the car to warm up with air conditioning and a flask of tea.
Few brands spoke to this experience of cold water surfing. With brands like Billabong and O’Neill focusing on warm water Pacific surfing, few had the practical application to the experience he was having. “There was a real need for the product. Better wetsuits, better jackets, better waterproofs,” he says.
A few years at university in Bristol, and then working in London as a chartered surveyor, removed a bit further from the ocean. But the ocean never really left him. He was still fixated on building a brand that catered to this new type of surfer that was increasingly present in the UK. Moving back to St Agnes, the stage was set to launch his new clothing company.
“I didn’t have a business degree, I didn’t have a fashion degree,” Tom admits, “But I believed in what I was doing, and that there was room in the world for a brand like Finisterre.”
They started small, launching a waterproof, windproof fleece for surfers—but have now grown to a range much more broadly spanning the outdoors.
But the ocean has always remained central to their story. Their locations are often coastal—places like Brighton, Falmouth, and Hawksfield. They’ve had a long running collaboration with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI), with whom Tom is a regular volunteer.