As I jockey for position to exit in Los Angeles traffic, I realize I don't much about the guy I'm headed to interview. I know plenty of the brand he's built but little of the mind behind it. "I mean, Mike's interesting. He's climbed Mount Kiliminjaro. He's done all these interesting things, but he's never positioned himself the same way some founders have," 686 Vice President of Marketing, Brent Sandor, tells me. "No one knows he's hiked Mount Kiliminjaro except for fifteen or twenty people. He doesn't tell anyone. One time he went to Russia in the dead of winter with the clothes on his back, wearing a pair of Vans Slip-Ons. He had a blog on Hypebeast. It was tight."
It never goes as planned. Such is Mike West's story. Twenty five years in with a brand going strong is by all measures a success, but West explains, "It was never like, 'I'm going to start this and this is what I'm going to do.'" We're chatting in his office, in a building that sticks out like a modern thumb in Los Angeles' industrial Compton neighborhood, the walls lined with archival 686 products, many of which are collaborations with other brands--Union, New Balance, Dickie's, Dragon, Levi's, and a recent one with Pabst Blue Ribbon. West loves collaborations.
Compton is an atypical location for an outerwear brand to be headquartered. But Los Angeles is home for West. He grew up here in the '80s, South Bay to be specific, skating with the local crew. World Industries founder Steve Rocco was around at the time and put West on the team. It's a theme in West's story. He's been surrounded by people playing critical roles, though perhaps he and they were oblivious at the time. They were doing what they wanted, whether it was skateboarding, snowboarding, or creating art, and have gone on to become revered individuals within these respective cultures. West is one of these types as well.
It was here in Los Angeles, during a particular session in Hermosa Beach in the mid '80s, that snowboarding appeared on West's radar. "Wow, what? You can skate on snow?" West recalls his initial thoughts on this budding offshoot of skateboarding, three decades ago. "The first thing I saw about snowboarding was actually in Thrasher Mag in high school. It was Damian Sanders and Steve Cab in Tahoe," he explains. So West made the drive up to a place called Snow Forest, near Big Bear. "It's not even there anymore," says West. "Snow Forest was probably '85, and '86 I went to Snow Summit. The second day I went to Snow Summit I was struggling. This guy in a bright jumpsuit was like, 'Just lean forward and twist your body.' It was freaking Tom Sims. I didn't know. He had this mustache and this bright hat."
This was in high school. A few years later, Mike got a job at Big Bear and became one of the first snowboard instructors in the US. "There was only a handful, like seriously a handful. I was there in '89 or '90, something like that, and Mike Parillo showed up in probably '92, maybe around there. From then until '96-'97 was when that whole thing was coming up. That's where I met all those guys. Parillo, Bobby Meeks, Ryan Immegart was there, Todd Proffit was there--all these guys were doing this stuff. Guch [Bryan Iguchi] was there, and [Jeff] Brushie was there. I was just working there, not knowing what was going on."
During this time, West did a couple years at a community college then enrolled at USC in the entrepreneurial program, which, as much as he'll say he didn't learn from his business curriculum, he explains provided a foundation for his ability to found and run a brand. "I wasn't really a smart kid; I just worked my ass off," he says. The people, the connections, and the inspirations he took all played a role in taking West to present, the CEO of a 25-year-old and thriving brand. "At school, we'd have guest speakers. One guy came in named Steve Klassen, and he was like 'I graduated from here too, and I started this shop called Wave Rave.' I was like, 'Wow Steve, I have this clothing company I started.' He said to send him a catalog, and he'd buy some stuff. I was like, 'what's a catalog?'"
At this point, 686 was a t-shirt and a beanie. And it was called Jib 686. Why the prefix? "A friend of mine used to work at this cool store called ET Surf. He said 'jib', and I was like, 'Oh cool, jib. I'll just call it Jib 686.'"
And the number? "It's interesting; for the longest time, and still to this day, people don't really know what it means. I didn't tell a lot of people. I was 20 when I started the company, so 6 plus 8 plus 6 is 20. June of '86 was also important for my grandmother. We didn't say anything about that though. So people used to come up with these ideas of what it meant. I read all sorts of things, but the funniest and most consistent was that it was when I lost my virginity. I remember in the lift line in Tahoe, probably in the late '90s, I hear people talking about like, 'Oh that's when the guy lost his virginity.' I was like, 'What the fuck?' I also heard someone say I killed someone on that date. It was weird. People have also said I'm some kind of satanic worshipper." This is likely due to the number being one digit off from the occult-associated 666. "We used to get a lot of hate mail back in the day," Mike says. "But we came from skateboarding; we definitely weren't accepted. Snowboarding in the '90s--people didn't like us. So I didn't give a shit."
By the time 686 had dropped the jib prefix, snowboarding was hitting its upswing. "Throughout the '90s, shit was freaking blowing up. Then it dropped. There were too many brands. I couldn't even get into the SIA tradeshow, because it was too crowded. We had a hotel room outside. It was that crazy that we had to go on the show floor and go, 'Hey, come to my hotel room.' When I see that something is going too good, I know things are going to go the opposite way."
It wasn't until the '99 - 2000 season that West says 686 turned a profit. And up to that point the brand's full-time employee count was at three or four. One of those people is the current president of the company, Doug Sumi, a longtime friend of West from their days at USC. West hired Sumi out of necessity. "He was always more worried about making product, getting product delivered, and building the brand than a lot of other aspects of the business, and that's a big part of how I started working for him," Sumi says. "He was like, 'I need to file my taxes; what are we gonna do?' We just started going through one envelope at a time trying to figure out what everything was."
Sumi recounts West's frugality, "Because we really had no money, he was always very conscious of trying to save money--what I always called stretching a rubberband. He had this thing where he wanted to have zero waste. He always thought we could use everything. We would cut out garments at cut houses. They'd cut out the pattern, and there'd be leftover pieces, kind of like the remaining part of a sticker sheet, and he would say, 'Dude, bring all that back to the warehouse, all these cut Velcro pieces, all these little scraps. We bought it; we own it.' And we'd bring trash bags back and pile them up."
This is around the time that 686 was in the same building as Plain Sane. "We really didn't know what we were doing. We were making everything up as we went. We took a lot of stuff from Plain Sane--knowledge, supplies, concepts, vendors, and everything else we could," Sumi recalls. Where West's frugality comes from I can only speculate. Maybe it's something he picked up on from his upbringing; perhaps he learned it in business school. But his concept of prudent allocation is something that without a doubt has pushed 686 to where it is today. While many brands put every spare dollar into marketing athletes, 686 has always diversified its spending. At first, it's easy to conclude that a snowboard brand should spend the bulk of its marketing dollars on the team, in the interest of supporting snowboarders. But the longevity 686 has achieved through this fiscal responsibility is undoubtedly part of the reason they're still around and now able to pay a team of ambassadors that includes Forest Bailey, Sammy Luebke, Tor Lundstrom, Matt Belzile, Phil Jacques, Riley Nickerson, Mary Rand, and Parker White-- the first skier to be added to the program. White's addition to the team was something that happened organically through Forest Bailey. The two grew up together on the East Coast, and when 686 felt it made sense to include a two-planker, Bailey put Sandor and 686 team manager Pat McCarthy in touch with White. To be an outerwear brand and not market to skiers is not to tap half of your potential market. Again, it's an example of 686 stepping outside what may be considered "cool" at the time. In ten years, however, how many brands in this space will be marketing outerwear to solely and respectively to skiers or snowboarders? Less than there are now, that's for sure. Mike West has never been especially concerned with what's cool. And somehow that will always be inherently cool.
This isn't to say 686 never emphasized its team. Leafing through back catalogs, there are staples like Shaun McKay, Charlie Morace, and Pat McCarthy, who's now 686's team manager and has played a critical role in building the brand. McCarthy remains based in Washington, and his cabin near Mount Baker, 1200 miles from the office in LA, provides the home base for 686 during the extensive R&D sessions that go down at the sloppiest location in the US. He explains 686 from his perspective: "Many of the people who work at 686 have been at the company for 20 years plus. Every season they always make time to get out on the hill together and put boots on snow. When I go to the office it feels like a family reunion walking the halls and saying hello to everyone."
But before McCarthy's generation, there were other noteworthy names that graced roster. Kevin Zacher, Dean 'Blotto' Gray, and Ethan 'E-Stone' Fortier are each among snowboarding's most marked photographers and all rode for 686 at some point. Has another team in snowboarding turned out that many successful lensman? Probably not. Is there any significance in that fact? Hard to say. Maybe West is drawn to those with creative vision or uncommon drive more than athletic talent alone. "Blotto and E-Stone, those guys are hustlers," he says. "Kevin, Blotto, E-Stone, they taught me a lot. Zacher and Blotto helped build this creative aspect that pushed me ahead, for sure. They influenced me." Then he remembers another influence who once rode for 686. "Travis Parker. He was just a creative, quiet kid, who really made an impact."
It seems what West and 686 have derived from the team has always been about more than marketing to the consumer. Their direct influence on the brand and product itself are equivalently important to their involvement. E-Stone, who outside of his photographic endeavors has worked behind the scenes with brands of his own, makes clear the value that West puts on the team. "Mike always wanted to hear the team riders' feed back about current product and ideas for new products. I remember Blotto and I would spend all sorts of time sketching out jackets and planning new pocket ideas that were more efficient for snowboarding, and Mike would listen to us. We would see our ideas implemented in future lines. It was a rad feeling to have a sponsor that actually cared to hear your ideas and took them seriously."
Blotto echoes E-Stone and McCarthy's sentiments when he explains his time riding for the brand. "Mike and his team took good care of us--on the road, when we'd visit the office, at events, you name it. They treated us like family," he explains. When Blotto recalls who else was riding for 686 around that time--the mid to late '90s--two names aside from E-Stone pop up: Josh Zickert, who went on to become a professional skateboarder and found skateboard brand Natural Koncepts, and Jesse White, who has managed the business side of his younger brother Shaun's business empire for the better part of the past decade. It's always been an eclectic and enterprising bunch at 686. "By the early 2000s, we were getting notoriety, but we were just from LA doing our thing. The collaborations became a big part of it too. Back then, the brighter focus was on your team. 'Who do you have?' We never really went heavy in that. We had great guys, but we weren't the hype. I just didn't have the money to spend. So I wanted to create things that were true to us. I started with artists that we knew of, and then with brands. It resonated because no one had collaborations back then. I think we were the first in our industry to do that. The first collaboration was with Shepard Fairey." Fairey is yet another example of someone influential who West just happened to know.
When 686 was getting off the ground, Fairey, the founder of OBEY, would've been sketching his now iconic "Andre the Giant has a posse" graphic. He would later go onto create his most iconic piece, the HOPE poster for Obama's first presidential campaign in 2008. Meanwhile, the snowboard industry was hitting its recession with the rest of the US economy. 686 weathered that storm.
West then had the vision to extend these collaborations to other brands. "The first brand was Dragon," West says. "We did a goggle with Dragon. We made the jacket match the goggle and put a goggle pocket in it. The pocket was shaped like the goggle. It went crazy." At this point, nothing about this sounds original. A collab? Sure, everyone does those. A goggle pocket? Those are stock. But in 2005 it was a novel concept, and this collaboration perhaps sparked what has become ubiquitous today. "Hell yeah, we want to work with cool people and cool brands," West says.
It's not just collaborations that make 686 an innovative brand. Three-in-one, zip-in-zip out pieces also fall into their realm of originality, though West admits, "Columbia did that before us," 686 is the brand that brought it to snowboarding. The toolbelt however? "Yeah, we claim that," he says.
A toolbelt and zip-in-zip-out tech didn't carry 686 to a quarter century. Certainly smart management of finances and strategic hiring decisions have played a major role, but I'm curious what West attributes his brand's success to. "I was able to work in a little bit of an uprise. I was able to get loans from people and pay them back. It's a lot more difficult now," he explains before continuing, "More than anything else, like I said, different shit works." And now West is the one speaking at USC. "Any time I go back to talk to the kids, I'm like, 'Fuck yeah, man. Do it.' I love going back to USC and speaking. I was in that same seat. I was that kid in the back, just falling asleep."
E-Stone sums things up well, "Mike West is a G. He's a very smart and genuine guy. It's amazing that he was able to start 686 25 years ago, as a college student at age 20, and turn it into one of the largest outerwear brands in snowboarding. He did this all with his original partners, keeping it an independent rider-owned company. He grew the brand right and has kept it legit 25 years later. This is something to be proud of." E-Stone is right.
"It was cool hearing that conversation with Mike," says Sandor. "He's like, 'We just did us.'" And that's what I've gleaned from talking with West. At every turn he's done what seemed right, despite that it wasn't necessarily written into the playbook. In fact, it usually wasn't, and that is the mark of great brands. How many success stories are based on following the crowd? If the first trend in accomplishment is that it never happens as planned, this is the second. A quarter century in, 686 fits both archetypes. I can't predict what's next. But I'd guess Mike West will be at his desk in Compton, collaborations on the walls nearby, and I'm sure he'll head up to McCarthy's cabin when the snow gets deep.