Back in October, Mike Lewis (senior editor of Transworld Business,) hit us up about doing an article on our upcoming double decade anniversary. It was a busy time and we were in between a lot of stuff, however the good folks at TW have always had our back, so of course we were into it. When it comes to interviews, I’m personally not the best. What I mean is that I would make a terrible politician as I call it like it is. I’m still in denial that someone actually wants to hear what I have to say. I’m just a dude, with a dream and passion to create things all the while trying to have fun. If you have 15 minutes to check out what Transworld wrote, check it HERE
or I’ll make it easier and ready below
(©2011 Transworld Publications)
It’s late October, and the air is beginning to take on a crisp in Southern California. While the Rockies are getting their first major storm, it’s still far from jacket weather outside in Orange County, but inside the doors of Santa Ana’s Granberry studios, it’s full winter. An all-star cast is gathered trying on hundreds of first layers, softshells, and outerwear pieces lined up on dozens of racks for the 686 20-year anniversary catalog shoot.
Current team riders Patrick McCarthy and Forest Bailey clown with photographer Mike Granberry and 686 VP of Marketing, Kristin Cusic, as former 686 riders and partners including Ethan “E Stone” Fortier, Stephen Duke, Gaetan Chanut, Kevin Zacher, and Chris Engelsman catch up and pose for the upcoming 300-plus page catalog commemorating the double decade of the brain child of one of snowboarding’s most creative minds, Michael Akira West.
Planting The Seeds: Inspiration In Three Acts
While 686’s story begins in 1992, its seeds were planted 20 years prior. Mike West coined the brand’s name from the date June 6, 1986 (6/86), when his grandmother from Japan showed him an antique design, that inspired him to start something for himself in life, and for his age when he launched the company (6+8+6=20). Growing up in Manhattan Beach, California, Mike found his first true passion in skateboarding in the early ‘80s. Skating grew to engulf all of West’s free time, with days spent hitting parks and street spots from Huntington to Venice, sessioning with the likes of Jason Lee and Ed Templeton, and taking notes on what Steve Rocco was doing on the business side of the skate industry as West skated for first Santa Monica Airlines and then World Industries.
In ’86, West was introduced to his next driving passion—snowboarding, and while he hated on it at first for not being skating, he quickly realized the potential of adding speed and bigger jumps into the mix for creatively expressing yourself sideways. He began riding more and more, and eventually took a job at Goldmine Resort, a little place east of the city that would eventually become Big Bear.
West had always been interested in fashion and became intrigued by the independent looks and styles he saw on the hill. “Bear in the early ‘90s was really where it all started,” says West. Mike Parillo was building the world’s first park, Outlaw, the best snowboarders were there pushing each other, and West met people like Tom Sims and Plain Sane Founder Mike Maceda, who were actually making a living through snowboarding by not just creating products, but by setting trends.
At the same time, West was commuting from LA where he was in USC’s Entrepreneur Program. During his senior year, the pieces of the 686 equation began to add up as part of his senior project – -to create a business plan. While most of his peers worked on traditional businesses, West took to heart advice from his professor, Mack Davis. “He told me to do something you love, that you’re passionate about,” says West, speeding between meetings in Carlsbad and Manhattan Beach sitting at the helm of his matte gray wrapped Land Rover. The message that combining work and play could mean getting paid to do what you love, struck a chord and what was once an academic exercise turned into an actual business plan for JIB 686 Enterprises.
One of the entrepreneur program’s main features is bringing successful graduates back to speak to the class, and in 1992 a young USC grad named Steve Klassen, who had started a shop called Wave Rave in Mammoth Lakes, California, came to speak to West’s class. West had begun making T’s and beanies in November of ’92 and visited Klassen’s shop shortly after.
“My project in that class was to launch a snow clothing brand,” recalls Klassen, “but I started a shop instead. Mike came in and reminded me about meeting in his class and told me he had launched a brand. I gave him a $1,000 order on the spot.” West delivered an order of JIB branded Tee’s and hats and they checked. “I still have one of those shirts around,” says Klassen. “They would still probably do good today.”
Rolling The Dice
Driving through LA’s garment district on the way to the launch of 686’s 20-year collaboration with Scion cars, West lights up as he points out the factory where he made his first Tee’s, and the buildings where he sourced the materials. In a world of outsourcing, where you can start a brand by sending a wire transfer and a graphics file, West built 686 by hand, literally, sourcing, sewing, and creating the first several lines in his LA backyard.
The second profound lesson West learned at USC was that your 20’s and 30’s are a golden age in business as they’re the age of taking risks, a time when it’s okay to fail. “For a professor to say ‘it’s okay to fail’ was amazing,” says West of the advice of Mack Davis, who also taught Mossimo Giannulli, Podium’s Dunlap brothers, and Tom Knapp.
At the time, no one believed you could build technical outerwear in the US, but West decided to roll the dice and take the risk. He sourced fabric in Portland and sewed the product in LA for the first two seasons. Living in an apartment in South Central Los Angeles, West was entrenched in a grittier environment than most snowboarders and brands, and that, along with a pride of place and his self-taught aesthetic, translated into lines that helped land 686 its first accounts domestically and in Japan.
Another major lesson West took away from Davis was the fact that cash flow is king. “It’s the essence of every business, but especially snow since it’s so seasonal,” explains West, who not only knows the creative side of the business inside and out, but has paid his dues on the financial side as well—a critical piece in growing the business. West is the sole owner of 686 to this day, and he is rightfully proud of his status as one of the few remaining large owner-operatored run brands in snowboarding.
“He’s been a great representative for the industry,” says Klassen. “We need people like Mike and Jake [Burton], that bring personality to the companies. Having owner-operators is incredibly important. That’s why I haven’t sold my shop, and I think that’s a big part of why those guys haven’t sold.”
The Birth Of The Collab
During the first decade of the brand’s existence, West, who describes his role as to constantly challenge his team, continually pushed them to see where they could take the outerwear category. From developing the now iconic Smarty line, to launching one of the first eco-focused outerwear products in ’96, to pushing the envelope with technical fabrics and fabrications, every 686 piece has a story to tell by design.
While these developments helped 686 cement itself within the industry, a new idea they hit upon in 2005 would take them to an entirely new level. One of the other speakers that came to his USC class was Tom Knapp, founder of Club Sportswear and Honolua. At the time, Mike was making tees and wanted to expand. “Knapp shared that creating relationships in business is one of the best things you can do to build and grow,” says West of a lesson he has definitely taken to heart.
In 2003, West saw a growing artist movement in LA that would evolve into the street-wear culture of today. “Snowboarding was lacking the street vibe and I wanted to present it in a way where I could use my inspirations, so I created the Artist Collaboration Effort (ACE),” explains West.
ACE brought together artists Shepard Fairey, Wes Humpston, Andy Jenkins, and Scott Hersk in its first season and has added countless other artists since. “I had these circles of friends that I brought together and amazing things came out of,” smiles West, adding: “I thought why not bring together companies?”
Today, new collabs drop weekly, if not daily in the industry, but in 2005, they were unheard of in snowboarding. West approached Will Howard, Dragon’s founder and a fellow owner-operator, a crucial aspect of the endemics 686 chooses to partner with, and launched snowboarding’s first co-branded package– a goggle and jacket that were sold together.
“Mike is one of the most creative and energetic business owners of the last 20 years,” says Howard, who was taken with the idea and is partnering with 686 again for its 20th anniversary collection. “We always look forward to collaborations between Dragon and 686. Mike has an innate sense of what will work best.”
“We had no idea if it would work, we had to learn a whole new set of rules working with another brand’s expectations, but it kick started things,” exclaims West, about taking off the blinders of what was possible. But work it did, and the floodgates opened. “Two or three years into it people started to catch on to what we were doing,” says West.
Collaborations are an exceptional way to expose your product to a new demographic, but they have to be approached correctly to ensure a proper fit, maximum benefit to both brands, and to build your company’s allure by partnering with brands with a similar message and reputation in their space.
“We only want to work with people we have personal relationships with and are leaders in their category,” adds West of who he partners with. “Every year we up the ante and it’s all about finding the right partners.”
The brand has definitely continued pushing the bar, and has worked with a vast array of both endemic and non-endemics with similar ethos including Hello Kitty, Vestal, Dakine, Levi’s, Famous Stars and Straps, KR3W, New Era, New Balance, and HUF. And that’s just the start. For its 20th anniversary, keep your eyes out for the 686-Scion collab car, as well as products from Dickies, Freewaters, GoPro, Union Bindings, Plain Sane, Boa, Blind Skateboards, Bern, and TransWorld SNOWboarding.
The key, according to West, is finding partners that help 686 better explain who the brand is and convey its message. “We’re not about collaborations, we’re about telling our story,” says West. “It’s not just products, it’s stories that people can relate to that don’t dilute our brand message.”
Today, West’s passions and inspirations run the gamut from art, to cycling, surfing, blogging, photography, and just about everything else with its roots firmly planted in classic, creative soils, and along with this broad horizon of interests is a seemingly bottomless well of energy and ideas that he brings to his companies, 686 and Westlife Distribution.
Westlife was founded as a holding company for 686. However, as the company finishes the build out of its new 42,000 square foot offices and warehouse, plus external artist pods, in Compton, Westlife is coming into its own as a driving part of Mike’s growing vision.
Westlife recently partnered with Canada’s NRI Distribution, which distributes numerous brands including Quiksilver, Volcom, and 686 north of the border, on a new E-commerce fulfillment service to brands in North America. The partnership will run out of Westlife’s new offices and provide third-party logistics services such as pick and pack, inventory management, vendor compliance, freight, returns management, as well as E-Commerce solutions that include web design, studio photography, merchant services, shopping cart maintenance, and customer service.
Along with this push, what was once just a shell company is rapidly filling with partners. West nods that he’ll be announcing some other large distribution deals in January, along with Herschel and Terry Kennedy’s Fly Society who are already on board.
And that’s just one piece of the pie. Situated outside the warehouse are a number of metal silo units that will be work spaces for numerous small brands as the Westlife campus develops into a kind of mini-incubator for LA-based action sports and streetwear brands.
Incubating An Industry And Individuals
Life is a series of meaningful events that shape your direction. To some, these seem random collisions that send you pinballing on a new course, but to the more introspective, key events are decision points that allow you to refocus your trajectory towards that next game-changing moment.
West definitely tends towards the latter, and along with that reflection, works to help be a game changer for other creative, driven individuals in the industry and beyond. Through initiatives such as ACE and Westlife’s incubator-esque model, West believes it’s essential to give back to the next generation of designers and innovators.
As part of this, 686 developed the Reclaim Project, a contest that challenges three up-and-coming designers with creating an item from factory scraps. Winning designs are incorporated into 686’s line, and it’s a great way to focus on the need to design more sustainable product in an intelligent manner through upcycling versus recycling.
The idea around Reclaim began back in ’96, when 686 began using recycled plastics and materials like hemp and bamboo, and came to fruition last January at SIA where the contest played out. This season, 686 is dropping its first line of Reclaim product at retail and for each product purchased 686 will give one item away to people in the US, Taiwan, China, and Japan – areas that have impacted Mike and 686 personally, a fact he’ll follow up on by making thousands of donations personally this winter.
He also firmly believes in the importance of giving back to the sport that helped make 686. “You’ve got to ask, how does your footprint further push where snowboarding needs to go? Do you just make product? Do you sponsor local resorts? What is your part? There’s only one company that’s done it significantly in snowboarding and that shouldn’t be the case.”
West, who also sits on SIA’s board, finds his role in giving back to local resorts, causes like SOS, and going back to speak every year at USC.
The “I” Word
Walking through the framed-out future offices of Westlife Distribution, our voices echoing off the 2x4s and plywood frames, West paints a picture of its future in a way that vividly takes shape through his ability to translate this blank canvas into a functional, well-designed headquarters.
“What’s next?” is a key refrain in Mike’s life. In a constant pursuit to push himself, his brand, and his team, West is focused on the future while building off the past. “Everything you do now is leading up to the next thing you’re going to do,” says West, who changes up most of his collab partners annually to continue pushing towards “what’s next?”
“Mike is incredibly inspirational as a leader; every project he comes up with and we bring into fruition as a brand and as a company usually starts with one of his ideas,” says 686 VP of Marketing Kristin Cusic. “686 is all about innovation, progression and doing things differently, and Mike lives by that mantra both professionally and personally. He truly is a creative genius hard at work.”
West is hesitant to use what he calls “the I word,” innovation, but over its 20 years, there’s no denying that 686 and its founder have moved the needle on what he describes as an incredibly personal term. He prefers to focus the discussion on “Kaizen” the Japanese term for “change for the better,” and a business philosophy of continuous improvement.
“Change is constant. Smart business people embrace it and challenge themselves to evolve and constantly move forward,” says West, who knows we’re not out of the economic morass yet, but believes that by focusing on what’s next and not resting on his laurels, he’ll be better positioned as the world turns. “Where do you want to be when the dust settles?”