We headed to L.A. to scope out the independent snowboarding brand and pick the brain of Founder and CEO Michael Akira West.

Writer: Carly Terwilliger

A visit to 686 Technical Apparel headquarters gives you the fun kind of whiplash associated with a particularly gnarly roller-coaster. One minute you’re standing outside in the summery L.A. sunshine, among the palm trees, the next minute you’ve stepped inside and are immediately immersed in the wonderful world of snowboarding.

Officially, 686 is part of Compton-based Westlife Distribution, which is also home to Matix clothing. The man at the helm of both brands is Michael Akira West (pictured above), a skateboarder, snowboarder and entrepreneur who hatched the idea for 686 nearly 25 years ago.

On November 13, 1992, the man with the plan officially launched Jib 686 Enterprises, a small collection of denim, technical outerwear and accessories. What began as a class project during his time at the University of Southern California became 686 Enterprises as West began to explore larger mountains. “I always thought, oh, insulated pants, I don’t need those,” he remembered. But during a trip to Whistler in 1995, he changed his tune. Using his ingenuity and a foolproof sweatpants-plus-Velcro equation, the first Smarty 3-in-1 Cargo pants were born. “I went to Canada and needed warmer pants,” simple as that, said West.

As 686 continues to stretch its legs and explore other categories, West is responding to the evolving ways that his customers are thinking about technical apparel. For its anniversary, 686 is introducing the versatile Multi Jacket (pictured above), a schizophrenic take on outerwear that’s designed to live in your go-everywhere pack. “It’s hard to tell that hill-to-city story in general, but especially in snow,” said West. The Multi is “lightweight, packable and breathable” and comes from an organic place within the company and its founder. The series represents “a different way of thinking,” commented Sandor, “but it’s something Mike’s been working on for years.”

It’s clear that both Sandor and West personally revel in trying new things and smashing up preconceptions. Throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks is part of 686’s history, and everyone’s very committed to making sure it’s the best spaghetti possible. “We hope customers will follow us when we come out with something new,” said West, “but we have to do it right first.”

The path of 686 has run through a string of collaborations, from Diesel and New Balance to Specialized and a particularly rad Scion xB 686 Parklan Limited Edition Walkaround, one of which currently lives in a (difficult to open) shipping container at the 686 headquarters. “We’re pretty picky about partnerships,” said Sandor, but “That’s what Mike is all about – reaching outside the industry.”

So when an opportunity to work with Smith, PBR or ’47, to give a few more examples, comes up, “it gives us a place to design something unique.” Additionally, Sandor continued, “It’s all about relationships.” For example, “Mike knew the guy at Specialized,” and that led to a “youthful, fun” fatbike collaboration.

For his part, “I liked working with Levi’s,” added West, “because it was the beginning of working with a global company. Their design team was great to work with, and it was both enjoyable and financially beneficial.” In the realm of collaborations, he noted, “Those things don’t always go together.” But the idea that financial success is the reason to collaborate misses the point, said West. “It’s not a sales thing; it’s a branding thing that pushes us forward.”

Looking to the future, both West and Sandor foresee a renewed focus on fun that’s long overdue in the snowboarding world. “In Asia, you see people just carving, and that’s what’s important to them,” Sandor said. “Fun is right in our wheelhouse. Core riders want to have fun.” West agreed, adding that he likes the idea of “people having a great experience. As a company and an industry, we want to make sure that happens.”

Lead photo by Carly Terwilliger, additional photos courtesy 686 Technical Apparel