No longer the newest company on the block, RAEN is hitting its stride, with a seasoned staff and premium eyewear product

A couple weeks ago, Transworld Business took a tour of the RAEN office space in South Oceanside. When interacting with brands, particularly those that are so influenced by design, sometimes it can be hard to know what to expect when imagining the space a brand occupies daily. There are times when a brand misses the mark. Then there are instances when a physical space so accurately reflects a mantra, a credo, a vibe, if you will, that it is uncanny. This is the case for the office space of RAEN.

The brand itself is the product of creative passion, influenced by of a wide-ranging curiosity—art, vintage items, fashion, and the ocean are just a few of these elements, making the brand’s focus a combination of function and fashion; beauty and form. The office space RAEN occupies is just the same.

The space is filled with items that, as Co-founder and Creative Director Justin Heit puts it, "have followed him around from office to office." Occupying the more than 13,000 square feet are vintage motorcycles and suitcases, mid-century modern furniture, and quirky details, like the drum set in CEO Jeff Fitzhugh's office, or the snack teepee that often times is filled with Doritos and other goodies. The layout of the office is open—from its floor plan to its ceilings. “The ceiling used to be really low, like this ’70s kind of vibe. And I wanted to raise it. That was just a straight design aesthetic, and I didn't care. I ripped out everything, and what I realized after I ripped the ceiling out, was that now you can hear every single conversation. Because there's no insulation left. So there are no private discussions in this building. Pretty funny.”

But openness is part of the brand’s DNA. And that unapologetic visualization of one's interests—that's exactly what makes RAEN the success story that the brand is. And with the addition of a few industry heavy-hitters, such as Jeff Fitzhugh, and much more recently, John Gothard as VP of Sales, the brand has fused its creative faculties with comrades who have the knowledge to elevate the brand even further.

RAEN is transforming from a local company, started by three young entrepreneurs, to a global powerhouse. The brand has factories around the world, with plans to build a new location in France, where 2017 product will be manufactured. RAEN sunglasses are distributed in more than 40 countries worldwide, and they’re just as popular on their home turf. Everywhere from Los Angeles to New York, and especially their hometown of Oceanside, CA, RAEN has never been more popular.

Justin Heit & Jeff Fitzhugh

Justin Heit & Jeff Fitzhugh

Transworld Business caught up with Heit and Fitzhugh at the brand’s headquarters to talk about RAEN’s past, present, and future. You can read the full interview below.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 Justin, can you tell us about RAEN’s brand journey and where you started, and where you are now, and how you feel the brand has progressed since its inception?

Justin: RAEN was definitely a creative passion that came out of our camp from Libre Designs. Libre Designs was a design agency that we started in '05, and it really was our creative vision, and the goal was to focus on really high quality design. Growing up in the surf industry, my brother and I always talked about having this brand, and giving back to this industry that gave so much to us, and that was huge for us. Being into fashion, design, photography and surfing, really all the things that we were really into and inspired us, as designers, poured out into this brand. Fast forward eight years: RAEN has a cult-like following now, and we've put our big boy pants on, and we're a 'real' brand now: globally distributed, and geared up to really go to the next step in a brand's life.

How have you seen the retail landscape change since you started RAEN eight years ago?

Justin: I think it was a blessing in disguise, because we chose the select retailers we wanted to work with. We wanted to work with the coolest boutiques, the best surf shops. We were crafting this design movement and this kind of change- the design curve was really fashion-forward for 2008. Our retail strategy wasn't like "Hey, let's grow this brand as big as we possibly can and sell it." It was, let's work with the coolest retailers and boutiques in fashion and optics, and then grow from there. And so that's what we did, and we had a lot of success working with select retailers and a like-minded brand. The landscape has definitely changed over the last eight years, dramatically, but I also think there's this whole new audience, and people are looking for well built, designed product.

…Everyone says retail is down. And it's really not. It's that the consumer is finding what they want somewhere else right now. There's just as many people on the planet that are buying shoes, buying shirts, buying hats, buying eyewear. They're just getting it from a different place…

There's been a shift, especially with millennials. They want a brand they identify with, not a brand that all it has is a brand name. They want a brand where they're like "I would take that Instagram photo. I would wear that."

Jeff: I think you're right. It's interesting, because everyone says retail is down. And it's really not. It's that the consumer is finding what they want somewhere else right now. There's just as many people on the planet that are buying shoes, buying shirts, buying hats, buying eyewear. They're just getting it from a different place, like RAEN. For me, it's hard to fall in love with a brand when you're shopping it online. You get the experience when you go into a store—when you go into a surf shop and smell the wax, and you get the sense of what a brand is all about. When I was a kid, that's how I fell in love with brands, and I feel like that's what we need to figure out, for retail. How do we capture the consumer in the stores, and keep them there? Instead of going into the stores, and seeing a product, and then buying it online.

Justin: Right now, the new audience definitely has an emotional connection to a brand.

Jeff: They do! And we don't want to lose that.

Justin: It's brands that are telling true, authentic stories rather than just manufacturing, and saying "Oh here's an ad campaign."

If you imagine a pendulum, we're swinging from over here where it used to be mass marketing, just pushing product to customers: no story, no feeling/emotion in it, and now we're swinging in the opposite direction, back to an economy where these smaller, niche, artisan and boutique brands that actually stand for something can succeed. It kind of feels like the beginning of our industry a little bit. Where action sports brands come from.

Jeff: I agree. I've been around a long time in this industry, and you can sense it immediately— what's authentic and what's not.

Justin: You hear these stories where everyone's down, and we're actually growing pretty rapidly, so for us it's a super exciting time, where for other brands, it's a little scary. It's definitely shifting, but we've stayed true to our brand, and the momentum is there.

And you feel like you have the same brand vision that you did when you started?

Justin: The DNA has never changed. We've never flip-flopped from a trend- the morals and values of everything this brand has been built on have not changed from day one. From our storyboards of building the brand, from our ambassadors to our product, to brand values, and I think that's why we're having the success. It's true, and it's real; RAEN is a real brand. And everything that's occurring right now, that you're identifying, like the idea that consumers are not into anything that's not authentic, or well-built, that's resonating right now with retail.

So, turning to you, Jeff. With your extensive experience in the industry, from Oakley to Sanuk, what are you bringing to RAEN, in terms of your position?

Jeff: When you start in a new position, you have to treat it sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. Beginning a jigsaw puzzle, you don’t just start putting pieces together. You set all of the pieces out, and you kind of figure it out. Then you start putting the borders together, start building from there. And coming into RAEN, it was the same thing. It was almost like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Clearly, what a cool brand RAEN is. What a great opportunity- the product is amazing. But operationally, we weren’t firing correctly. So I came in, and I found some opportunities of where we could get better. I felt that we could improve operationally, and we did. And we’ve streamlined a lot of things. We’ve developed numerous systems that have really turned our company into a finely-tuned, well oiled machine that operates very, very well.

What kind of values do you think you’ve brought to the company?

Jeff: Discipline is a huge value that we've brought to the table, that we agree is very important. We felt we needed to be very, very disciplined, on many fronts. One is, we need to be very disciplined with our brand, disciplined with our selling, who we sell to, disciplined on how we release product.

I really believe that, I don’t care how good your product is, I don’t care how good your marketing is, that if you can’t operate, then you can never grow as a company. You have to operate, and you could have the best product in the world, and if you don’t get it shipped on time, nobody is going to want it.

Do you feel that your attention to your product, and attention to detail are what set you apart from other sunglass brands? In such a saturated market, what do you do to stand out?

Justin: Product is key. And so our huge point of difference is making premium, handmade product. The attention to detail is there, and the consumers are fully aware of it. We stand behind our product and feel proud of what we do, and that’s how we’re able to live in these different distribution channels, being women’s fashion, optical, and surf. So in order for the brand- and that was always our plan, to live in all three distribution channels, and I think by having really high-quality, handmade product, we can do that successfully.

What's new for the brand in the next six to twelve months? Does RAEN have anything big coming down the pipeline?

Jeff: Washers and dryers. [laughs]

Justin: You gotta be careful what you say. I got on the podcast and said we were making refrigerators, and we got like three emails like "You guys are really making refrigerators??" Like are you guys that f****** stupid? [laughing]

To be honest, I have not been so excited seeing a round of sample out of our factories as I was with our Spring Summer 2017 samples. The quality is so damn good. Some of the women's frames, I'm so excited about. That's our focus, and we're going look into different product categories, coming up here, for next year. But right now, I couldn't be more thrilled with this new collection we're about to drop.

When does this new collection drop?

Justin: Spring 2017

What's the next step for RAEN as a brand?

Jeff: Well, continuing to expand the brand and maybe to look at taking the RAEN brand into other avenues. Where from here, we don't know, but that's something that Justin gets on a whiteboard and starts to draw, and he goes in his back apartment area back there and starts to figure it out.

Justin: We've been working with our friends, ambassadors, and just having fun and growing authentically that way. But also, pushing the brand to newer heights. Getting a little brand permission. As a brand grows, you get a little more brand permission to do more, and it's just exciting times right now.

Right. It's almost like a resurgence of the first growth, like the industry growth. It's like getting to new levels; you're poised to take that next step.

Justin: Yup.

Jeff: It's pretty fun. I've been lucky through my career that I've been with some brands that weren't all that large and then became large, big players in the industry. And to watch that, and be lucky enough to be part of something like that, it's an amazing experience, because it's a feeling like no other. It's like: “Strap your seatbelt, and get ready because the rocket's going, and you're on it,” and it's so fun. We're getting to that point right now, where we're about ready to buckle our seat belts. You can feel it, it's infectious. The whole building, everyone in here is just ready to go. Everybody's fired up.

Justin: We have such a passionate team. From the early stages to now, it's really like a family atmosphere.

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