We talk to Colin Campbell, the man behind Sunray Sportswear, producer of the highest quality and best-fitting t-shirts we've ever found.
Written by Jenny Garcia
Photography by Tayla Nebesky for Maze.
Colin Campbell, the founder and designer of Sunray, clearly has a deep rooted love for what he does, but more than that, it comes from a place of priority, honesty, commitment and passion to produce the absolute best for people and planet. There is no part of Sunray that is not considered, slow and thoughtful. Garments are made with ‘excellence as standard’, which touches every part of the brand, from the back neck labels, to the packaging, the manufacture, yarn, design and final garments.
This week the Maze Journal has turned the spotlight on Sunray, who we are proud to have partnered with for two years. There is always so much more to a brand than the clothes they produce, which is why it’s always such a great pleasure and an honour to do these interviews. We hope you enjoy Colin’s words and insights as much as we have and that they help you fall a little bit more in love with this thoughtful brand.
When did you start Sunray and what were your hopes and dreams for the brand?
It started subconsciously probably back in 1976 when punk became a thing. The energy and the clothes were amazing, that era really allowed me to express myself and be the little anarchist that I am. Such was the disdain by the masses for punk, my mum made me leave the house via the back door as she did not want the neighbours to see me dressed in such a way. Anarchy in the UK! The whole punk movement probably sparked my interest in clothes, style and fashion but I never imagined that I would be involved in the clothing industry.
Sunray had no real dreams or hopes at concept, I just needed to find a high quality, well fitted, plain T-shirt that also has thought for our planet.
There are still no dreams as such, other than for people to see that a very well made T-shirt and sweatshirt are true design masterpieces. They are incredibly hard to produce and even harder to produce consistently well.
However, if Sunray can plant a few seeds into people’s minds, to question what they buy, where they buy it from, how is it made, will it last, and does it offer more than a green washed marketing veneer, then it will have served its purpose. Equally we hope that people get to appreciate how superbly well made our tees and sweatshirts are.
Who or what originally inspired you to design or create your own garments?
After leaving the military I became involved with clothes via many different avenues and was constantly being told to ‘design my own label’. Not being formally trained meant it would be a further 30 years before I was ready.
The project initially was being launched from Portugal, but every day there was a problem. Then whilst on a surf trip I was reading the book called ‘Let my people go surfing’ by Yvon Chouinard, the man behind Patagonia. As a brand, they experienced unbelievable problems with many different production factories and a sentence in the book jumped out at me and changed the path of Sunray forever.
The sentence read, “don’t expect a bad factory to be a good factory for you”. Profound!
I cancelled the contract with Portugal within the hour, leading me down the path that if I am going to produce this high quality T-shirt, it had to be made in Japan and on the old circular knitting machines. This is the ultimate of the plain white tee.
Have you always been a creative person?
I am not sure that I am. I’m blown away by how creative some people are, so given such high levels of creativity on offer, I would prefer to say that I am not.
Coming from a family of engineers, (I am definitely not an engineer), I suppose any creativity comes from the more systematic and functional side of design and maybe this is why Sunray has so quickly become a favourite. It was not designed with artistic flair or via a formally trained designers’ eye and was therefore not influenced by the whims of a designer or the formal design process. For me it was quite simple; it had to be the perfect fit, be beautifully made and allow the supposed simplicity to be the actual design. Does that make me a design engineer?
Designed in Cornwall, produced in Japan, what's the story?
My contract with the military came up for renewal. I was already hooked on surfing and its lifestyle so we relocated to Cornwall, where we opened a small surf shop and then fell into distributing US surf and skate brands.
In Japan, where excellence is standard, it is unheralded to request they change that. I needed them to change their perception of excellence, I wanted to change what they thought was the perfect fit of a T-shirt. Their fit was very good, but only if you are Japanese.
My fit was for the European male, so requesting changes to what has been decades in the making, took a very long time in an exercise of trust. I eventually gained that trust and have proven to them that my idea was a good one.
That’s the Cornwall Japanese link. I can tell you that they love Cornish organic fudge and Cornish grown Earl Grey tea, which we send every season to thank all the sewers, the pickers & packers and everyone in this tiny family owned factory. We honour them with some Kernow. Now we will educate them that a cream tea is always ‘jam first’.
What is Sunray's approach to sustainability?
I’m going to get a bit soap boxy now, so I apologise early. Homo Sapiens are not sustainable. As a race we plunder our planet wearing short sighted dollar tinted glasses and this is not sustainable. For me the word sustainable is a marketing departments latest catch phrase to generate sales.
Too many brands offer ‘organic this, organic that’, but fail to actually produce something that is well thought out and fit for purpose. Not enough time is given to the actual product, rendering it less planet friendly than ones that are without the green tag line.
We use the word ‘thoughtful’. Everything we do is thoughtful. Thoughtful to the planet, thoughtful to all the people who are involved with Sunray and thoughtful to the customer who join the Sunray family.
Since day one, we have been as planet friendly as possible, and we are constantly cajoling everyone we work with to go further.
We have never used plastic. Our bags are made for us from potato starch, which is 100% compostable.
90% of our tees and sweats are produced using a very special recycled cotton Ochiwata. When cotton is first combed, it leaves short and very fluffy fibres. The Japanese are skilful enough to take these little fibres and spin them back into yarn, which then becomes our jersey and is also knitted into the face of our sweatshirts. This Ochiwata produces a wonderfully soft and downy feel.
All our neck labels are produced using 100% recycled polyester.
All our hang tags are produced using 100% recycled card, printed using vegetable inks and from a carbon neutral printer.
The wool that hangs these tags comes from an organic herd of rare breed of sheep that graze on Dartmoor.
Our packaging tape is 100% recycled paper that uses vegetable glue and the document envelopes that are attached to the boxes are made of compostable potato starch.
All our shipments are climate neutral.
As a partner based brand these relationships must be very important, what drew you to Maze?
We put a huge amount of emphasis on that word partnership and work hard to ensure it is a long term one. Without a set goal of what we ever wanted from Sunray, finding the right people to work with was essential. Maze was perfect on so many levels, from the brands they buy, to how beautifully the stores are designed and merchandised with the Maze team being both personal and knowledgeable. It is a collection of many different parts that are wonderfully put together and Maze do it very well. Priceless for any brand, especially a fledgling like Sunray.
My design ideas just come, no conscious thought, they just arrive and without warning. I need to add I have a permanently fizzy brain. Firstly I research fussing over every little detail, ensuring that the finished product is fit for Sunray’s purpose. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).
Sunray is a husband / wife team, and we do the whole lot. We have help with our administration and a very experienced friend Céline, recently came on board to help nurture our or new little baby, Sunray Spirit, our soon to be launched women’s collection.
I had to really think about this. I don’t think I really follow a brand and then buy that brand accordingly. Great design, well produced (hopefully not in China) and then selling via beautifully curated bricks & mortar store is a very good start for me. Uni Works, Engineered Garments and Orslow are great men’s brand and deserve a mention.
What are you currently reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
Being an ex PE teacher, I love sport and miss playing, so anything sport on TV gets my attention. I recently watched ‘The Queens Gambit’ and thought it was mesmerising on many levels. Gorgeous colour palettes, incredible sets and styling, I was absorbed. I find reading equally as pleasurable. Give me a good book that makes me drift away to somewhere else whilst sitting on a beach, with my family, throw in a few surfs in between, this is probably as close to heaven as I could get.
How would your friends describe you in 3 words?
Tenacious, friendly, considered.
What or who makes you laugh?
Micky Flanagan, I am in tears when I listen to him. Also my son, his one liners are that good that if I wasn’t his dad I would be applauding him, but as I am his dad I have to hide my smirk and correct him.
Best bit about running your own business?
Freedom! That it’s in a nut shell.
Biscuits, cake or savoury?
Do you believe in life balance? If so, how do you try to achieve it?
This is essential. If I did not have this, my ideas which appear to come from nowhere, probably would not happen.
I adore nature and everything it offers. It never ceases to amaze me what our planet has to offer. Our SP23 colour inspiration comes from the colours that are inside your body. These colours are absolutely stunning. To help capture the colours we are adding the following words;
'If you aren't overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, you're not paying attention'. Too many people are not paying attention and that’s a shame.
I also surf as much as I can and when not surfing, I will plough lengths in the pool and / or practice a strong form of yoga 2 – 3 times a week. I can’t sit still (sorry Emma).
Tea or coffee?
Always a coffee, however a great cup of tea will always beat a poorly made cup of coffee.
Top sustainable tip?
Easy, don’t believe the hype, dig below the veneer.
Cat or dog?
Dog, their loyalty is priceless and unconditional.
5 year plan or get through the day?
Never had a plan, always just did it. When we moved to Cornwall to open a shop, everyone thought we were mad. They said that Cornwall had nothing and that we knew nothing about running our own business. We just did it and as hard as it has been, we would not change it for anything.
Sunray doesn’t really have a plan other than stay humble, sincere and be honest. Maybe that’s the best plan of all.
Is there anything else you would like to share with Maze journal and its readers?
When you smile at someone, watch how infectious it becomes. Try it.
Thank you Colin for taking the time to talk to us and give us a deeper insight into the fantastic brand that is Sunray. Hit the button below to explore the range.
I have absolutely no idea why I started to read this article other than I once had a friend called Colin Campbell. The more I read, the more convinced I became that this Colin Campbell is the same Stubbington punk that I used to hang around with in my youth! If it is you I’m more than happy that you are happy, thriving and above all still alive ….
A wonderful inspiring piece, thank you so much for interviewing Colin. I have always been an admirer of Sunray and am delighted that they are launching a range for woman, when will it be a available?