Chapter 16

21Nov12

[New readers: to start at chapter 1, click Archives / November 2012 on right hand side]

When Belacar told him that they were going to visit the country’s foremost outdoor equipment manufacturer, Ludovic had not expected to end up in Uxbridge. The company’s advertising was full of mountains, forests and beaches populated with rugged models, often in adverse weather. The head office was an unremarkable building on a business park.

The head of product development, Tom Kirk, was a better fit. He was muscular and bearded. As far as Ludovic could tell every item of his clothing carried the company brand and looked suitable for the great outdoors.

“Call me Tom,” he said when they were introduced. Everything he said had an urgent informality, which contrasted sharply with Belacar’s polite precision.

“I just wish you guys could tell me more about where you got this sample,” he said as soon as they had sat down in his comfortable office decorated with pictures of rock climbers, cyclists and campers. “Ever since you sent it through it’s been bugging me, and now I’ve had the lab report I’m gagging to know the back story.”

“I’m afraid it’s part of an inquiry and I can’t disclose much about the source,” Belacar replied calmly. “The sample had been buried and we are trying to establish where it comes from.”

“Well I’d love to know where it comes from too,” said Tom. “It’s given us a commercial headache.”

“Why is that?” Asked Belacar, opening his notebook.

Tom bent forward and looked at both of them in turn. “How much do you know about breathable waterproof outerwear?” He asked.

“It’s expensive,” said Ludovic, “and good to wear when you are digging in the rain all day.”

“Breathable waterproof membranes are the holy grail in our business,” said Tom, his eyes shining. “Ever since Bill and Bob Gore patented Gore-Tex thirty something years ago, we’ve all been trying to make it better and cheaper. Every few years someone comes out with something slightly different and uses it to gain an edge.” He paused and looked at them.

“We think we’ve got something a bit new, a bit different,” he continued. “We’re planning to launch it in the spring with a range of lightweight gear for the active outdoor enthusiast. There’s a segment we call ‘gearfreaks’. By this time next year they are all going to be wearing our new range.”

“What does this have to do with our sample?” Interrupted Belacar.

“That’s my point,” Tom opened his eyes wide. “Your sample matches a range of products we haven’t launched yet. That’s why I really need to know where you got it. Someone’s about to eat our lunch.”

“How do you know it’s your range of products?” Belacar asked.

“We looked at your sample in our product testing lab. All the manufacturing is done in China, but we’ve got a lab here full of boffins who develop our fibres and membranes. They had a look under the microscope, they had to peel apart the laminate first, and they saw that the pores, the holes in the membrane to let water vapour out are a particular shape.”

Tom drew a circle on a piece of paper. “Normally the holes in the membrane look like this, or like a lot of squares in a grid. But our new product has got a honeycomb pattern. It’s tiny, you can’t see it without a very specialised mircroscope. We’ve already applied for patent and this means that someone else has nicked our idea.”

“Have you got any examples of the sort of garment that might use this material?” Asked Belacar. “We’d like to get an idea of what it might look like.”

“Yes,” Tom said. “We made up several prototypes while the range was being developed. I retrieved them from the store as soon as I found out about the sample. Obviously we keep the prototypes hidden and locked away during the development process, but now that the manufacturing has started we just sling them in the store for recycling.”

He reached behind his chair and pulled out two black and green jackets. “I checked the records. These two are the only menswear prototypes. All the others were incomplete mock-ups. I left them in the store.”

He handed one to Ludovic. “You can try it on.”

Ludovic shrugged and pushed his arms into the sleeves.

“Very smart,” muttered Belacar turning to Tom. “So these are the only jackets of this type?”

“They were until a couple of weeks ago,” said Tom. “There’s probably thousands of them now. We started production in the Far East at the beginning of the month to build up stock for the launch. None of them have shipped yet, so at the moment these two are the only ones here.” He hesitated and frowned, “unless whoever made your sample is about to flood the market. Are you sure you can’t tell me where it came from? Was it in the UK at least?”

“I’m sorry,” Belacar apologised. “I’ve told you all I can.”

Ludovic tried out the zip on the jacket and put his hands into the various pockets. “It’s a nice coat,” he said. “It would be good for someone who spends all day working in the rain.”

Tom smiled, “glad you like it. I’m really pleased with the cut as well as the fabric.” He looked Ludovic up and down. “You can have it if you like. Everyone here has got more coats than they can wear and it’s only going to be recycled.”

Ludovic looked at Belacar, “is it ok if I take it?”

Belacar shrugged. “I don’t see why not. It’s certainly not my style, but it’s a lot better than your usual look.”

Ludovic pulled the coat back on to his shoulders. “OK, thank you.”

“Gearfreak,” muttered Belacar.

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