Oi Polloi

Interview: Ark Air and the fascinating world of camo jackets

Published: Thu Aug 13 2015

You may have already noticed, but we’ve just taken delivery of some mad camouflage jackets from a company called Ark Air. Ark Air is the civilian-wing of Arktis — an English company who’ve been making serious gear for serious military outfits since 1985.

As a firm fan of snooping around in army surplus shops, there’s a few things I’ve always wondered about military clothing, and camouflage stuff in particular.

Luckily Tim Holden and Will Jarrett from Arktis are fountains of camo-based knowledge, and were more than happy to answer my questions with ultimate military precision…

First of all, can you explain what Arktis is?

The word means Arctic in several languages.

You lot have been going since 1985. What is the story behind it? How did you start?

The company began a few years after the Falklands War, offering British kit superior to the standard-issue contract-purchased uniform that had proved inadequate during that struggle.

How has military clothing changed since then?

Largely speaking, military clothing has improved to the extent that it is generally adequate for fighting the last war. The nature of tender purchasing is that it is cumbersome and slow. Most UK tenders are now awarded to companies that manufacture in China, and UK manufacture is now a rarity. Much of the new clothing is in fabric that is predominantly nylon or polyester and these contain an element of melt hazard that is ignored by current procurement thinking.

Who does Arktis supply jackets to? Have you got any good military-based stories you can tell us?

Arktis has a long list of prestigious customers. Among them are the French Foreign Legion, Special Forces in the UK, elite units in Australia, the Royal Marines, Special Forces in Denmark, sharpshooter units in the Netherlands, the US Presidential bodyguard, HART ambulance teams, US Special Forces, Everest mountaineers, secret services and many specialist units throughout Europe.

On your website you mention delivering smocks straight to soldiers waiting on an airfield. What was going on here? Is there a large amount of pressure on you lot to deliver?

A considerable amount of our business goes to special units that undertake specific missions at short notice. On occasion we will manufacture with very short and urgent lead times that are planned down to very tight manufacturing schedules. In such instances everything requires acute logistical timing.

Different militaries use different camouflages for doing the same things. British camo is fairly ‘woodsy’, whilst Swedish camo is a lot more abstract. Is there a ‘best camouflage’ out there? And what’s stopping one country using someone else’s camouflage?

Until recently, camouflage was designed for the dual purpose of concealing the user within an ambient environment and also to allow for ready recognition of your own forces. There is nothing to stop anybody from imitating another country’s camouflage. The recently introduced British MTP (Editor’s note: MTP stand for Multi-Terrain Pattern) is in fact a close copy of a commercially available pattern.

A little mentioned footnote to the British introduction of MTP was that elements of the Taliban were already wearing it when the British proudly arrived in Afghanistan wearing their new uniforms.

Some camouflage doesn’t look particularly camouflage, if you get what I mean. Can you shine any light on what that mysterious red camouflage is for that you sometimes see in army surplus shops? And what is digital camouflage for?

Camouflage patterns cause some controversy within the industry. Our belief is that many are designed in an office on a desktop computer by people who are unaware of the basic need of the soldier. Camo needs to work over a distance where there is an imperative to conceal — in other words they may look good at ten yards, but they won’t conceal anything at range. The camouflage therefore actually needs to be effective within rifle range and not within bayonet range.

Small detail camouflage is therefore fairly irrelevant. At fifty yards small colours tend to blur into a single shade. Far more important is the disruption of body shape, this being achieved by range of shade contrast within the print.

The issue of actual colour may well have to do with the consideration of the ambient background in which the user is wearing the print. Therefore camouflages for urban environments should be different to camouflages for woodland or for the desert. Patterns that contain some red are justified by their effect at 50m-100m range. These can disrupt body shape in some cases.

It must also be remembered that the visible camouflage pattern works in the daytime. Constituents in the actual ink used in the print can be effective at tricking detection equipment at night time.

Digital patterns are no more than a fashion phase. Military tastes have transient vogues, as with most things.

Who came up with all these patterns in the first place?

Most sources attribute the main introduction of camouflage patterns to French Cubist artists in late 1914 and early 1915 in response to heavy casualties suffered in the early part of WWI. The initial application of the patterns was to artillery pieces – breaking up the distinctive shape of gun barrels.

The B110 and the B310 are probably Arktis’s most famous designs. What were these designed for? And what are the differences between them?

Both items were designed for military use, providing a functionally pocketed outer garment. The important thing is for the pockets to work and for the garments to last. The B310 is a waterproof and the B110 is for use in dry climates.  These jackets do come back to our factory here for repairs some 20 years on, so the durability is good.

Who does Arktis supply jackets too? Have you got any good military-based stories you can tell us?

I’ve forgotten a lot of the tall stories I have been told — other than my own of how we first came into contact with our biggest customer, at a point when he was trying to buy a jacket whilst under sniper fire in Kosovo.

What is Ark Air?

Ark Air provides ranges of our classical clothing to a market that does not necessarily need to crawl through ditches, but still favours functionality and quality.

The connotation of the word ‘Ark’ is that of something that provides refuge and preservation, this harmonising with our overall intention of protecting our user. This was combined with ‘Air’ in memory of some of favourite customers who of course shall remain nameless.

How does designing jackets for civilians differ from designing jackets for the military?

If you deliver robust quality the consumer is unlikely to complain. People like pockets and generally find something to put in them.

Are the camouflages on the Ark Air jackets all real-deal military camos?

We develop four or five camouflage prints per year. All are real deal, but prints we select for civilian use may be coloured differently to the ambient environments for which they were originally designed.

I think that's pretty much all my questions now. What do you lot get up to when you’re not making military clobber?

Politics, alcohol, fishing, making short movies, girls, arguing about art and everything else.

See the Ark Air jackets here

Visuals hoiked from a few old Arktis catalogues.