Last spring, Carrie Klassen, a writer and mother who lives in the east end of Toronto, was in search of a rain poncho. She had been looking online when she stumbled upon Rainkiss, a new company in Amsterdam that makes stylish, sustainable and unisex ponchos. As happens any time you’re online browsing, soon after “these pretty poncho pictures followed me around the internet,” she says.
At the time, Rainkiss was having a promotion, offering a discount on the purchase of two ponchos, so Klassen posted a callout to 1,500 like-minded people in a private second-hand fashion Facebook group.
“Anyone want to order a rain poncho with me to pick up from my place and save shipping costs from the U.K.?”
Klassen got 365 comments on that post, which yielded 50 poncho orders, including her own. The response was so enthusiastic, she continued to make bulk orders, and her home became what she dubs “Carrie’s Porch of Poncho Pickups.” It seemed like a small, practical way to do something nice for neighbours, many of whom were mothers of small children and were dealing with virtual school and working from home during a provincewide shutdown. Members of the Facebook group collected for neighbours and delivered to each other. Then they reached out to local retailers with requests to carry them locally. It became a communal effort to get ponchos into each other’s hands.
What was all the fuss about? No one expects a rain poncho to be cute, merely practical. In its simplest form, a poncho is simply a large sheet of fabric with an opening in the centre for the head and an extra piece for a hood. Rainproof models tend to have fasteners to close the sides once the poncho is draped over the body, with openings for the arms. They can often look like garbage bags. IKEA has a popular one that resembles a flimsy DIY Darth Vader costume.
But once you see a Rainkiss poncho, its appeal is unmistakable. The coats come in a range of modern, Dutch-designed patterns, from classic neutrals to fun, colourful prints such as “Snakes on a Poncho” and “Pink Panther.” They’re one-size and full coverage, below the knee to ankle-length depending on your height. The well-cut (hello, actual sleeves!) shape is easy to fold, with a built-in storage pouch, making it great for travel. You can also layer a Rainkiss over warmer coats that aren’t waterproof. And they’re made with certified 100-per-cent recyclable polyester from plastic bottles. At $109 a piece, the ponchos aren’t meant to be tossed like the cheaper versions picked up at dollar stores during a downpour.
When Klassen posted her callout, she unintentionally created what Dawnn Karen, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and author of Dress Your Best Life, calls a “fashion tribe,” people dressing in a distinctive style to express their belonging in a community. As one Facebook group member said, wearing it out has become a sort of “secret handshake” for this group of east-enders.
Many things were happening last spring to create the perfect poncho storm, including the dreary weather, a spate of pandemic-induced “revenge shopping” and longing for community and being part of something fun, even if it was just a piece of clothing. Klassen sparked the shopping spree in Toronto, but sales also took off in other cities around the world, such as London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Tokyo.
Trends catch on for various reasons, and the Rainkiss poncho hits the sweet spot, says Kate White, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, whose research focuses on social influence. “It’s super functional. You can use it in different circumstances and you can pack it up, so it seems to have something desirable about it to start with.”
The poncho proliferation is also an example of broader pandemic shopping trends. A recent McKinsey & Co. industry report names athleisure as one of the fastest-growing categories in many markets around the world. “People have become so accustomed to wearing their “COVID causal” clothing during the day, the notion of simply throwing over a rain poncho when one needs to go out likely held some appeal,” White says.
Then it has the fashion element. Wearing the poncho feels like a statement, even in a neutral pattern such as “Clouds,” which uses a traditional Japanese print technique to create subtle two-tone, camo-inspired gold and brown dots.
And of course there’s the social network effect, White adds. At least in Toronto’s east end, the poncho created a sort of insider community. The “secret” Facebook group, called the Great East End Closet Edit, is invite-only. Caroline Starr, who started the group, says these types of forums tend to get impersonal when they expand to upwards of 2,000 members. Keeping it more intimate means they’ve had very few conflicts.
Rainkiss launched in July, 2020, in just five stores in two countries. The design was inspired by the owners’ business travels to Indonesia, where, caught in rain storms, they’d end up buying single-use plastic ponchos.
“In Amsterdam, the biking capital of the world, it’s about being flexible. You go biking, it may rain spontaneously, and then it’s sunny the rest of the day, and you think, ‘Ah, why am I in my rain jacket all day, right?’” says the brand’s global e-commerce manager, Shane Lakatos, who’s based in the Netherlands but grew up in Huntsville, Ont. “The idea was to be able to put something on or fold it up in a little pouch that fits in your purse or backpack and you’re not committed to this fashion statement all day with a rain jacket.”
In the past six months, Rainkiss’s sales have exploded. As of September, the brand was selling to 750 retailers in more than 15 countries. There are now 14 Canadian retailers carrying it in cities including Calgary, Winnipeg, Fredericton, Halifax, Montreal and Toronto. Vancouver is also one of the brand’s biggest markets – the ideal environment for a rain poncho.
When the ponchos began to reach members of the Facebook group Toronto last spring, they “started posting weather forecasts in the group, celebrating rain. All of it was just simple delight, when there wasn’t a whole lot of it to go around,” Klassen says. They also fostered comfort and kinship. “When we spot ‘ponchos in the wild,’ we wave, even if we don’t know each other. It’s a nod that says, ‘We went through this thing together.’ I have a lot of fondness for the first 49 people who said, ‘Yes, Carrie, I’ll go in on an order with you so you can have the poncho you want.’”
This fall, the poncho is barrelling toward a more mainstream presence, with free shipping, biyearly new styles launching in Canada and the unveiling of a kid’s collection.
Rainkiss is also planning a recycling program where customers can return a poncho if it’s damaged or they want to replace a style, and the company will repurpose it into bags and other accessories. Some people in the Facebook group have already started thrifting it back to each other. Says Lakatos: “We want to try to change the mindset about what you do with something when you no longer want it.”
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