Both of these kitesurf brands are familiar sightings on any water sports beach, and with a fair share of loyalists on both side of the groyne, they are separate brands in their own right. Both North and Duotone share an intriguing history. Starting back in the 70s, the albeit unremarkable story has evolved to form one of the great commercial duals of modern-day kitesurfing; perhaps not a bad thing in a market where innovation is the golden goose.
The story began in the 50s, when North Sails was formed under the vision of Lowell North. His cloth company spearheaded the sail industry with a range of innovations and manufacturing techniques that produced sails paralleled by few others. The brand garnered further notoriety when their products became the propulsion of choice in the globally renowned Americas Cup races – a position they enjoyed for decades to come.
Fast-forward to the 70s and the next great innovation in water sports was being drawn out of vans and constructed in car parks. Windsurfing exploded in onto the scene, and North Sails formed North Sails Windsurfing to catch the wave of opportunity. The sport proliferated on coastlines around the world, and with its inclusion in the Olympics in 1984, it soon achieved a stature equal to inshore sailing.
It would be another 30 years until once again the world of water sports would be turned on it’s head. The new kid in town arrived in the late 90s, and thrilled onlookers as riders arrived with little more than a backpack, tacked on the water with ease, and propelled themselves to 20 plus meters into the sky. Windsurfing was swiftly superseded, and kitesurfing was propelled into the mainstream by a considerable influx of riders from a frustrated windsurfing fraternity.
As with North Windsurfing, the formation of North Kiteboarding was North Sails’ response, and in 2001 they launched their gambit with a full kitesurfing product range. These formative years provided ample opportunity for innovation, and many brands pitched themselves against each other to develop the best kite performances and most effective safety systems.
However, much of the work was already done for North Kiteboarding. With an already well established network of outlets and loyal customers, they settled into a crowded room with a comfortable share of the market. High advertising budgets, extensive pro rider teams and continuing innovation became the hallmarks of a brand that enjoyed a conspicuous stature in kitesurfing.
It was plain sailing for the brand until the early 2000s, then it all got a bit mucky. A rift was growing in the North outfit. Since it’s formation, North Kiteboarding paid royalties to North Sails for using their name; an arrangement that was highly lucrative for the parent brand.
In 2018 North Kiteboarding did not agree a trade agreement, and they left the North Sails table to pursue their own agenda. The team of former North Kiteboarding (Boards and More, based in Austria) took with them branding rights, product names, their established network of warehouses, factories & distribution and renamed the brand, and so in 2018 they amalgamated with old time snowboarding brand Duotone to begin afresh.
With its familiar branding and innovations, Duotone entered the market buoyed by loyal ex-North Kiteboarding riders keen to have a go on a refreshed favourite. They solidified their position as soon as their new products hit the beach.
Meanwhile, a UK based investment company saw an opportunity to capitalise on the former success of North Kiteboarding. They teamed up with water sports apparel & accessories brand Mystic to play Duotone at their own game.
In a fortunate turn of events, Cabrinha suffered a poor year of slumped sales following the brand’s selling by former CEO Pete Cabrinha, in part due to an over-zealous R&D department that had created solutions looking for problems. Their overly complicated 6 line variant of the Chaos kite was not a hit with loyalists, and replicated such failures like the fireball connection system.
The stars aligned for the new North team. In a move to save the ailing brand, Cabrinha was reacquired by Pete Cabrinha in 2020, and in a bid to streamline processes and minimise costs the organisation underwent a considerable restructure that put many industry experts out on the job market. North jumped at the opportunity and opened its doors to the set. They quickly built and relaunched a brand that could take on the likes of F-one, Airush, and of course, Duotone.
North was back on the beach, and has since enjoyed a popularity reminiscent of its previous standing.
Kitesurfing brands often wax lyrical about how an affinity with riding is integral to their identity and development; a claim that many could be forgiven for thinking is just marketing puffery. The North/Duotone tale is perhaps an example of how the competitive spirit of kitesurfing runs in all strata’s of the sport, and is indeed a sure sign that there is a fine line between innovation and obscurity.