This month we chat to the brains behind Crewroom – Kate Giles. As a former elite rower at Thames Rowing Club, it’s unsurprising that the tideway has played a huge part in Kate’s life and is the catalyst that launched Crewroom back in 2001….
How did you discover rowing?
After growing up in rural Wiltshire I couldn’t wait to head to London to sample city life and ended up studying Economics at Kingston University. I actually started out playing basketball – apparently being 6ft 3" was quite useful in the sport! But I also discovered the River Thames on my doorstep and the boathouses on the embankment soon sparked my interest. I’d read about Thames Rowing Club so that’s where I headed and that’s how it all began.
Presumably you quickly caught the rowing bug?
Absolutely. Rowing was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I couldn’t believe that not going out on the water when there were high winds, rain or snow simply wasn’t an option – the training was relentless. I’d been used to training three times a week when I played basketball but rowing made that look like a warm-up. During the week we’d train twice a day which included ergos, Olympic weights, running and on water training. Then, at weekends, we’d lay down around 100km’s of work on the water.
I loved the sport. It was an obsession and every training session I focussed on how I could get better, how I could make the boat to go faster. Rowing taught me how to focus on every single detail but, most of all, it taught me that with hard work and absolute dedication you can achieve great things.
So why did you decide to retire from competitive rowing?
At Thames RC, I was really fortunate to train with some great rowers and mentors who encouraged me to train hard and start competing. Not long after I joined I started winning races and won a medal at Nationals that year. After racing at Henley I went on to train with the best athletes in the country. Unfortunately, during that time I became really ill with pneumonia having been caught out on the water during a terrible storm. I remember coughing so much that I ended up in hospital with fractured ribs. It was then that I realised it was time to hang up the oars and discover my next adventure.
Is that when you started Crewroom?
Yes, I was convinced that the poor quality of clothing I’d been training in had a part to play in falling ill. So, after retiring from rowing in 2001, I decided to set up a juice bar and kit shop. No one else was doing it and I really wanted a place where all the rowers could hang out after training. It soon became a regular haunt for many top athletes – on Boat Race day the crews would come in and completely clean me out of waffles!
Quite quickly it became apparent that there wasn’t enough good kit for rowers. So, in that year, working in collaboration with JL racing and their small factory making rowing suits in California, I sat down and with coaches and athletes (who would drop by in the juice bar) to create new rowing garments that performed to a really high standard.
From there I drove up, down and across the country selling from the back of my VW polo. Within the first few years we started to establish ourselves as the go-to premium rowing brand in the country, winning contracts with GB Rowing, GB Canoeing and The Boat Race.
You obviously have a very strong work ethic, where does that come from?
I started work on the family milk rounds when I was eight and went on to help my dad set-up franchises and was training staff by the time I was 14. I think the work ethic has always been part of who I am. I couldn’t really afford to go to university so I paid my own way by selling home baked cakes at Thames Rowing Club and cleaning there too!
Crewroom is now synonymous with rowing but how has the business changed over the last 18 years?
In the early years we were predominantly a distributor for JL Racing kit which is manufactured in the USA. During that time we were travelling up and down the country to various regattas and sporting events and, by listening to what customers wanted, we knew that there was the potential to bring new products to market. That’s when I knew I wanted to launch a Crewroom retail range.
Although I’d learnt a great deal about fabrics and knew which products would work I needed a professional designer and a manufacturer to help me bring my ideas to life. So, after approaching the London College of Fashion, I employed a highly recommended graduate and then ventured over to China to find a manufacturing partner. Ten years on and I’m still working with the same factory – as we’ve grown, they’ve grown – it’s a great partnership.
And finally, what’s in store for the future?
Rowing is my passion and, in this last year, we’ve increased the amount of regattas we attend as I know that being riverside, talking to customers is the best way to promote the brand and find out what customers want. We’ll be launching a handful of new rowing specific garments this summer so watch this space!
In addition to our own products, we’ve been fortunate enough to design and supply branded merchandise to the likes of the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon and, this summer, we’ll be launching the Henley Women’s Regatta merchandise collection. It’s very humbling to know that these prestigious organisations want our product.
On a personal level, my plan is to get back in the boat. Running your own business is obviously pretty demanding and doesn’t leave you with much free time, but I’m determined to pick up my oars and get back out on the water this summer.