John Polson founded Black Sheep Cycling with a friend out of his garage. Now, it's grown to be one of the premiere kit brands for racers and club riders alike. It's not easy to find cycling kit that's both performance oriented, fitted for the young racer or your average weekend rider, and stylistic enough for those with tastes we might categorize as a bit more "out there."
Stinner is always attracted to other brands trying to change the cycling environment, altering outdated cultural infrastructure without upsetting some of the more inelastic traditions. Black Sheep's design philosophy and culture of creating a product that's performance oriented yet aesthetically pleasing without being a sponsored up race kit is something to which Stinner was immediately attracted. The growing relationship between Stinner and Black Sheep has led to some enormous undertakings including the new Black Sheep | Stinner Elite Cycling Team in order to create a stronger hub of cycling and bike racing culture.
But how does one go about starting a kit company? There are lots of major kit companies out there, entering the market is certainly audacious.
With that, meet John Polson.
Stinner: First, what called you to bikes originally? What appeals to you about racing?
JP: I started racing bikes in my first year of my physiotherapy degree at university. From memory it was 2005. We were sitting in the pub one day, someone thought it would be a good laugh to ride a ridiculous distance, and the rest is history as they say. What I don’t freely admit is that I only raced bikes for a couple of years, before I was lured into triathlon. I ran track and cross-country in school, so it was only a natural progression. From 2008 to 2013 I competed professionally in both Olympic and Long Distance triathlons, in Australia and the US.
Anyone with an inclining for endurance sports are of similar mindset. We are attracted to the challenge, whether it is external achievements or internal improvements; we are somewhat self-absorbed; and most of us have an addictive personality. Now, deep into life with Black Sheep, I ride for the same reasons, just the proportions are a little different. I used to honestly believe that I was an all in, “only ride to race” type of person.
Nowadays, I still love to ride hard; you are hard pressed to get me to do anything hard and I am always the first one encouraging a stop at the coffee shop. It is a nice change.
Stinner: When did you start thinking about apparel and what was the sort of jumping off point to start Black Sheep?
JP: In my last couple of years as a professional triathlete, I started doing some part-time work in research and product development at a mass production sportswear manufacturer. I absolutely loved it. It was a job that required some knowledge of science, creativity, and experience as an athlete. There was never a day that I went into work that I dreaded or didn’t look forward to. Soon, I started to pull myself away from competition and expand my role within the business, eventually becoming their Designer.
What I learnt in my experiences pre-Black Sheep was that in clothing the person in charge, whether it’s the owner or the creative director, needs to be involved end-to-end in some form, especially in sportswear. It’s not like selling a t-shirt.
These products are backed by some serious science and innovation, all of which is useless without it being marketed and sold in an equally innovative way.
Whether it was ignorance, arrogance, or a combination of both, I felt an overwhelming sensation that I could do it a lot better.
Stinner: What did early Black Sheep look like and how has it evolved?
JP: Black Sheep started off in my garage, just myself and a friend, Shane Barrie. Right from the start we were driven by two key areas; quality and community. It took me six months to develop our initial kit, and it took Shane just as long to build a really solid social media platform to the point where we were relevant enough for people to be wanting our products from day one. Season One was released in November 2014 and sold out in a couple of days. Season Two was released in February 2015 and sold out in 24 hours. From that point on we knew we were onto something pretty special.
Today, Black Sheep is very different, internally and externally. We have had growing pains, like many brands that have come before. The stresses of rapid growth are huge and very unexpected but are ultimately a byproduct of our success. That is ultimately a huge positive.
Stinner: From a design perspective, where do you start, what general philosophy guides your aesthetic?
JP: It’s somewhat of a contradiction based on the designs I produce but I am actually a pretty simple guy.
My personality and my fashion sense are simple and understated. As a result, my design philosophy is actually governed by one simple mantra; restraint. The uniqueness of Black Sheep may be in the bold creations we produce. However, I genuinely believe what makes our designs so appealing are that we know when to stop.
It is easy to take artwork too far. One of my favorite artists, Anthony Lister, summarized it beautifully: “I can’t paint for anyone else. It’s all about having the courage to say this is finished. I have to be hard as fuck to fall in love with these things and let them go.”
Whether I am designing artwork that is representational, abstract, or non-objective, I have an overriding notion of restraint. In order to do this I do a few things. I employ a distinct colour palette, I obsess over the authentic and interesting elements, and I reduce any supporting elements. Everything else will then hopefully fall into place.
Stinner: What does innovation mean to you in regards to cycling clothing?
JP:Anyone that has had the privilege to delve deep into textiles, and in particular performance textiles, would appreciate what an exciting industry it is. We are in the middle of a development boom for polymers, fibers and yarns. Whether is in the areas of sustainability, moisture management, aerodynamics and sun protection, the gains that are being made are incredible. These developments are being driven by the active wear and running markets. As a sport, cycling needs to grow up and look to these markets for inspiration. Not necessarily to be inspired by the technology that has been produced, but to be inspired to start doing our own innovation. It is something that definitely excites me in the position I am in.
Stinner: Can you remember how the idea for an Elite Team was conceived?
JP: It was something that was talked about late last year. From our perspective, we are a company founded by two guys who once competed at an elite level, so it was always appealing to support like-minded individuals.
However, rather than start a “professional team”, what resonated with us were the amount of people that compete at exceptionally high levels whilst maintaining full-time work and families. It says everything great about our sport; the accessibility it has, the work ethic it requires, and the community it breeds.
What we wanted to do was to start a team based on these attributes and drive a level of awareness about what is possible outside of a simple results-based focus. The team will mainly compete in the Victorian Road Series, where elite races are held at the same time as amateur level races, instantly creating a connection with the community.
Our association with Stinner was natural. Firstly, we are great friends, we love hanging out, and we love doing cool shit together. Secondly, our respective successes over the last year or so have meant that we are now able to focus on giving back to communities that have supported us so well. A team gives us a platform to do this, whether it is as a tool to show that things can be done differently or a vehicle to promote significant change and improvement, or anything in between. Both of us, Stinner and Black Sheep, realize that the sport is so much bigger than any one person or any one brand. If we are able to give back in some way, to leave the sport in a better or a more diverse place than we did before our existence, then we have done our job.
Epilogue: Cycling is a sport that's been around a long time, and, as John stated above, we're not so naive to think that there is going to be a perfect product. But with brands like Black Sheep, we hope we can encourage dialogue between brands and cyclists, that can be truly deliberative. Perhaps through an open approach to design and style, we can get a little closer to that construct known as "perfection."