The concept of merging into the natural background in an attempt to close-in on quarry is hardly revolutionary. After all, the original tweed patterns, woven in the 19th century, were designed to blend into the vegetation of individual Scottish estates. So, when in 1983, American bowhunter Bill Jordan sat in his front yard in Columbus, Georgia, and sketched the bark of an ancient oak tree with a view to printing it on a T-shirt, he was trying to do what many hunters had done before: render himself invisible. He believed that by layering the images of twigs and leaves over a vertical bark background, he could create a three-dimensional appearance that would match a variety of terrain, while making his pattern distinct.
The industry bought into it and the business Realtree was born. However, nobody could have foreseen the phenomenon it would grow into. As Realtree?s popularity enhanced, alongside competition from other camouflage manufacturers, such as Mossy Oak, so the goalposts shifted. It was no longer a case of using the patterns as an aid to get closer to the creature you wanted to shoot, Realtree morphed from a simple tool into an identity symbol. It became a statement of who you were and what you liked to do in your spare time. A look at the new products section on the company?s website, where other companies that have been granted a licence to use Realtree patterns may advertise, reveals all you need to know about how the brand has expanded.
Items that might alert a deer or turkey to your whereabouts are there, such as coats, waders, blinds, gloves and binoculars. And you can just about see the argument for, say, a camouflaged watch, knife, duck call, cooking stove, compass or Thermos flask. However, this is just the thin end of the wedge. How about a matching accessory set for your car with steering wheel covers, floor mats and seat covers? Dog food, writing paper, mouse mats, golf clubs, baby-grows, energy drinks and ceiling fans are all available in Realtree. There is a camouflage bible for long nights of soul searching in a hide and a guitar that allows you to be heard but not seen. Also, as the website says, after a long, cold day in your tree stand, nothing is better than crawling in to your warm, cosy bed and settling down for a good night?s sleep. Now you can dream about that big buck you barely missed while surrounded by bedding in Realtree or Advantage camouflage patterns. Just make sure you ask your wife first.
?The Realtree patterns have a huge brand following in the US,? explained Donna Hildich, director of European business at Realtree. ?They are like Manchester United or Liverpool football clubs. If you hunt, then you can show that off to your friends by having a loo seat or sofa with your preferred Realtree pattern on it. We are proud of the affinity value with Realtree. We want it to say something about you. It says, ?I am a serious angler, so I don?t wear DPM (Disruptive Pattern Material) I bought from an army surplus store?. ?Donna believes the reason for Realtree?s recent success is down to the attention to detail. ?We are only as good as the product that we grant a licence to,? she said. ?For example, we are seen as accountable if a knife with our pattern on it falls apart. If something goes wrong with a product, then people say, ?Your jacket fell apart,? while, of course, we had nothing to do with the manufacture of that jacket. So, before we grant a licence, we pull the product apart first to make sure it works. We will test the fixing, stitches, waterproofing, zips, Velcro, durability, so that it is of a high quality. We need to retain a high-prestige brand. We turn down far more companies than we accept.?
Part of this drive to improve and maintain the brand value is an active campaign to stop companies using the Realtree designs without permission. The patterns are the intellectual property of Realtree and therefore protected by copyright laws. Donna is head watchdog in this country, visiting major public and trade shows to enforce the zero-tolerance policy. ?At a big trade show like the IWA Fair in Nuremberg, we might find 20 or 30 companies that have illegally used our designs,? Donna stresses. ?We tell them in no uncertain terms through our lawyers to cease and desist. All their products must be recalled and destroyed, and we will bill them for legal fees until they have done that. We want to be as aggressive about this as we can be.?
And what constitutes a copy? ?Anything that has not been sketched entirely from scratch,? the spotter-in-chief replied. ?I can spot a Realtree-based pattern from a mile off. It?s quite sad, to be honest. I think I?m going mad at times. After that it comes down to the opinion of a judge. We invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in researching and designing patterns that will work in every possible environment and all those patterns are registered designs. If other companies simply steal our designs, or parts of them, we will pursue them.? Every new Realtree design takes months to achieve.
The original purpose of breaking up the human outline is still the objective, but the company is forever researching new ways of achieving that goal more effectively. ?With a basic camouflage jacket, the hunter will still look like a man-shaped blob, unless the pattern has three-dimensional depth,? said Donna. ?Perhaps the most important aspect of the design is what you don?t put in ? the bare spaces, because the forest canopy is not one mass of green and brown.?
Once the design has been agreed, then the testing starts. With so many different licensed products, from cotton neckties to polycarbonate binoculars to fleecy fleeces, Realtree must ensure that the design will transfer in a uniform way to every material imaginable. Like it or not, the revolution has started. Indeed, more and more shooting households now own an item with a Realtree or Advantage (its sister company) logo. But will we soon follow suit with our American cousins?
?The European taste has always been more conservative,? Donna reassured. ?But these trends may come over in the next 10 years. We must look to move with the times. There will always be a place for traditional products like tweeds, but things change, they evolve. Realtree is part of that evolution.?