I recently came back to review a skiwear brand that has successfully evolved with time. 686 celebrated their 25th anniversary last winter (winter 17/18 snow season) year, but few realize that the little outerwear brand from the edge of Compton remains one of the oldest, independent, technical outerwear specific brand in the U.S. Founded and still owned by Michael Akira West, who remains at the helm as creative director. The brand has evolved a lot since its early days as a pure snowboard brand. It’s gone on to collaborate with everyone from Toyota’s Scion division to creating the first snow fat tire mountain bike line of apparel with specialized and licensed products with the likes of the iconic Motorhead. Their line has been refined recently into two categories GLCR (appealing to a more technical user, interested in back/side-country and resort riding) and 686 (aimed at the fashion forward park and freeride crowd). Two years ago they broke away from the snowboard apparel moniker and started sponsoring skiers, including Parker White, which is a huge step for any brand that until recently, was known as just being for snowboarders.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
In the Spring of ’17 they launched their first 3-season jacket (a real 3-season jacket that you could be on snow in when conditions are rough… not just one that “kind of works” on snow – https://vimeo.com/209685185) and this year introduced a capsule collection of gear that includes more multi-season apparel, as well as an innovative travel pant for men that has 10 pockets, packs up into itself and has an RFID protection pocket for the ultimate in security. This year their history of innovation continues with the Hydrastash system, incorporated into their men’s and women’s reservoir jackets. These jackets provide seamless access to hydration that skiers and snowboarders can access as they move down the mountain or rest on the lift. Quite frankly, there’s never been anything like this techno-advanced product to have hit the sloped before.
Michael Akira West: I founded the company as a student at USC and combined my passion and innocence with the main goal to innovate apparel from a rider perspective. I worked at the local mountain in Big Bear (outside Los Angeles) as an instructor so I had a direct relationship with the customer and just as importantly, I was the customer. I felt that I knew what others had no idea of. Being on the inside of the growing freestyle snowboard scene, having my finger on the pulse and channeling its raw, youthful energy was an intangible that I believe helped create the authenticity within 686. My on-mountain experience combined with my college business plan laid the foundation for our launch. The DIY ethos I learned in my youth through skateboarding helped me explore the things I didn’t know and eventually grow the brand. Mix all of that plus the perfect timing of where the industry was about to go, and that made all the difference for success. My own personal growth experiences also directly affected the products and the brand in those early years. For example, early on I still had really no clue what people outside of Southern California needed. During my first trip outside the sunny snowboard parks of Big Bear to Banff Canada, my life, and subsequently the future brand, changed. It was unbelievably cold and I was completely ill prepared. I realized right then that I didn’t know how to layer correctly and there were probably a lot of people out there just like me. This is where I invented the “IT” product that’s still a leading product industry wide –The Smarty Cargo 3-in-1 Pant that has interchangeable pant liners for warmth and après. Twenty-two years later and while materials, design and construction have changed; our current SMARTY Cargo Pant is still very similar in scope to the original.
JD: What has been the brands greatest challenge and how have you dealt with these challenges
MAW: The greatest challenge is to operate as an independently owned and operated brand with a single seasonal business. It’s been a blessing and a curse as we do it on our own unique terms with the limited by the resources we have. We are one of the last brands to do it for this long and we’ve done it by choice. Each year we try to make the smartest decisions that we can that insulate us from a bad season, bad weather or anything else that may be out of our control. With more seasons, each little thing that goes wrong theoretically would hurt us less, but then we would also be making decisions that may not be as profitable as the ones we can make for our single season. Yes, we take risks, but we also provide stories that are totally unique. We like to build our own “moat around our castle” and try to insulate ourselves and our success from invaders. We do this primarily through unique products. Examples of these would be our product collaborations and licenses we do seasonally that are in high demand, our proprietary technologies and features like our new patent-pending Hydrastash system, or our current trademarked features that set ups apart from competitors. We have found that focusing on leading through products that we believe in and not chasing other brands successes seems to be a great road to seasonal success. Another challenge is our size. From the outside looking in, we get compared to many others who in reality are 10x bigger than us. It’s flattering when people think we are as big as some of our competitors, but we simply are not. We have to be smart and witty to compete. We’ve managed to lead and be relevant because we make our own path and don’t chase what others are doing.
JD: How have your licenses help develop the brand
MAW: We license some properties, but for the most part the bulk of our collaborations are actual collaborations where we work hand in hand with the collaborator (brand, artist or property) to develop the product. The partnerships that happen organically are always the most successful. These collaborations begin a connection to myself, the brand or the lifestyle that will compliments the product or capsule and end with everyone working towards the same goal of putting out something very unique into the world. We started collaborations back when almost no one was doing it. Around 2000, we launched our first collaboration with artists. Back then no one was giving artists credit, they were most background and we wanted to change that. Shepard Fairey (now famous from the Obey and Obama HOPE visual campaigns) was a mutual friend and we started ACE (Artist Collaboration Effort) with his collaborative jacket. At this time showcasing visual artists in technical apparel was completely new. We then collaborated with eyewear, watches, denim, footwear, music, automobiles, work wear and more. We always wanted to surprise people with our collaborations. We teamed up with brand leaders and icons that were equally passionate to create something entirely different. A few of the ones that come to mind are Levis, New Balance, Dickies and Toyota.
Levis, we created some of the first waterproof and breathable denim for the mountains. Levis sticks out because not only was the product amazing and coveted, but the actual innovation was a small part of what later became the Levis commuter series. For Dickies we created weatherized versions of their work wear for three seasons. This collaboration was super fun and successful and we only ended it for the simple fact of keeping it quarantined to a concrete place and time and limited in nature.
New Balance started out as a collaboration capsule with a shoe, jacket and snowboard boot (something very unique for New Balance) led to us licensing the New Balance name and technologies for 5 seasons of a full snowboard boot collection. The relationship also led us to developing New Balance’s first weatherproof running collections, the Olympic Opening Ceremony jackets for Ireland through New Balance and being a part of founding New Balance’s skateboard shoe line “numeric” in conjunction with Black box and New Balance.
Lastly, Toyota was an interesting one because it really was outside of winter apparel. We first created a concept Scion xB for Scion’s booth at SEMA. Then a few years later we were invited to create a limited edition production xB with Scion. Scion fittingly limited the number of cars available in North America and Japan to 686. It was a dream come true to design the aesthetics of a production car with Scion. These are just a few highlights and we are grateful to every brand, artist, athlete, musician and anyone else who has shared in collaboration with us.
JD: You recently developed a hydration jacket; talk to us about how this caters to consumer’s needs in today’s market.
MAW: We are very excited to introduce our new Hydrastash system this winter. About 4 years ago, I was on a snowboard trip and while on a chairlift we started discussing “what if’s” about outerwear. One of the ideas that came up was, “What if you had water on you and could constantly be drinking?” We all probably realize that we don’t drink enough water while skiing and snowboarding on a resort. Yes, everyone does a water break or a lunch, but with the amount you are exerting, you probably need more water than you are drinking. The only reason you don’t drink more water is because it is not really the standard currently. Water bottle cages on bikes, hydration bladders in backpacks and runner’s hydration vests were also not the norm at one point. Someone had to come along and invent them out of necessity. We feel that is what we are doing for winter sports. The beauty of Hydrastash, and the reason it took so long to develop, is that we had to find a way for you to carry 25 oz. of water with you without negatively impacting your experience on the mountain. The trend in hydration packs is to move the water lower towards your true center of mass. We take this one step further and actually wrap and suspend the fluid weight around your waist, effectively reducing the sensation of weight to almost nothing. The reaction by our team of professional athletes and testers last winter was overwhelming. We expected people to have positive experiences, but to actually have athletes tell us that they felt fresher and stronger for longer than a normal day of riding was amazing to hear. That is the physiological response we hoped would happen, but hearing that from professional athletes really put a smile on our faces.
JD: How has technology been implemented in product development.
MAW: We utilize technology to our advantage in a few ways. First, we implement the most advanced technology in all of our products. Each season we search out the newest technologies in fabrics, zippers, insulation and waterproofing. In this manner we usually work collaboratively with our suppliers to develop, test and implement the newest technology. Staying on the forefront of technical apparel is very important for us. Take our newest “Everywhere Pant” for example. The 4-way stretch poly fabric we use is one of the longest lead-time and developing fabrics we ever have. Most consumers will take the insane amount of stretch for granted, but they will never realize the hours that went into making sure this pant not only had the stretch, but the rebound and durability not often associated with the amount of stretch we put into the fabric. The result is a long lasting pant that retains it shape even though it has a massive amount of stretch and comfort. We expect consumers not to notice most of the technology we employ. That’s the goal – to seamlessly improve the user’s experience. We also use technology during the development cycle of all of our proprietary products and features. On any given day our 3D printer will be printing a prototype of some small part that may go into our Tool belts, Hydrastash or other products. We also use technology to visualize our 2D drawings for apparel into 3D as early in the process as possible. Apparel is traditionally a 2D design world, but we are working as fast as possible to visualize our designs in 3D to cut down on development and sample time and costs. We also are employing tech to help speed up our workflows in color merchandising and with our sales force. Becoming faster and more accurate in all aspects of our business is very important for a brand of our size.
JD: What makes 686 unique. What is your comparative advantage ?
MAW: For years, I have believed our advantage has been a combination of the people we hire, the products we create and the risks we are (and aren’t) willing to take. The people are paramount. Since day one, we have been our own customers. We use the products, we participate in the lifestyles and we take pride in our daily work. We constantly strive to stay connected to our core customer through interaction, both in person or online and their is nothing like a trip to the mountains with co-workers to recharge the mind and body. Most of our true innovative ideas have come during trips together. We think of ourselves as an innovation company, not just another apparel company and we continue to push boundaries and create innovations – big or small that we can add to our stable of products. I am a true tinkerer and not a day goes by that I’m not putting some challenge or idea out to our design crew. We also have the advantage of being a smaller, independent company and can pivot much faster than big companies. Over the years, being able to quickly shift our path, products and business has definitely been an advantage.
Joseph DeAcetis: What is the greatest achievement at 686
MAW: Our greatest achievement isn’t our products, but the community of incredible people, riders and retailers we have created over the last 26 years. To us, the people and the experiences far outweigh the innovations and products. We are most proud of lasting 25 years independently in a tough seasonal business and feeling like we are setup for 25 more productive years. There are a few products that come to mind as great achievements, but they pale in comparison to the community and culture built and all the people who have been a part of our little family over the past 26 years.
JD: What are your day-to-day job duties
MAW: Over the last year I have actually shifted my day job duties quite a bit. Up until last year, I used to really be heavily involved in everything. My title was CEO and President, but in addition to that I was creative directing the brand and product, leading all innovation and product design and development and trying to aid in marketing and sales. Last year I made the decision that business could be more positively affected and I could be a stronger part of the brand, and ultimately happier, by focusing where I felt most effective and into the tasks that gave me the most joy – innovation, creative direction and design. I promoted our CFO to president and he has taken a lot of the business analysis and strategy work off my plate. I have always heavily trusted my marketing and sales teams, but now having a business team I trust has freed up a lot of my time to be creative and ultimately drive the brand forward through product. I still am involved in every department at a high level in some form of another to ensure that every department is cohesive with the brand vision and engage with every person in the building daily – keeping them on their toes and driving them forward. My motto is “today, not tomorrow” because tomorrow is never guaranteed and I continue to push everyone with the motivation like its our first year in business.
JD: If you had the choice of one famous person wearing 686, who would that be and why.
MAW: Warren Buffett – He would bring some sort of Wisdom to our story and make it last a lifetime, the Warren Buffett way.
JD: Where do you see the brand in the next 5 years?
MAW: We continue to keep our eyes on the horizon and we see big things. Of course I can’t give everything away but I see Hydrastash being adopted by more people and growing into something much larger and with a wider breadth than most people may see right now. We are starting to tackle other seasons with new innovative product and a fresh perspective and I hope in 5 years to have a much stronger year-round offering than we currently have. In five years we will be much closer to the end user in terms of physical contact, speed to market and customization. Most importantly I see an even happier and healthier internal team that continues to get outside, explore the mountains, valleys and oceans that we have been gifted and a professional team of athletes and advocates that continue to push the boundaries of what can be done on snowboards, skis and in nature in general while taking advantage of our apparel and innovations.