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.
686’s identity as an independently owned and operated snow brand that was created and continues to live in Southern California gives it a unique perspective. The company’s headquarters even features an onsite skateboarding ramp – not to compensate for the lack of snow but rather as an homage to its roots. “L.A. brought a lot of creative inspiration from the beginning,” said West. “The grittiness, the rawness, the imperfection of that mixed with the perfection of Mother Nature” is at the heart of everything West and his team dream up. “Skate mentality is more, I can do it myself,” he observed. “From this building to making clothes, it all comes from doing it our way.”
Or as 686 Director of Marketing Brent Sandor (pictured above) described the company’s independent spirit, “I don’t want to say, ‘No parent, no rules,’ but it is kind of like that.”
Although “25 years is just a number like everything else,” as West put it, the company and its founder have seen snowboarding culture change a great deal over that time period. The sport has gained respectability, for one thing, allowing companies like 686 to explore more diverse opportunities. “We’re a brand that’s never been put in a box,” said West, so branching into hill-to-city apparel and even broaching snowboarding’s historical nemesis, skiing, felt natural.
Last season, the team took a chance and signed freeskier Parker White (pictured above) as its first non-snowboarder brand ambassador. “A lot of skiers were already wearing our stuff,” said Sandor, so it seemed like a good time to put a face on that part of the consumer base. 686 launched an Instagram campaign that invited its followers to guess who the new ambassador was – with the face in the photo blurred out – and then revealed it was White. “Thank you, Parker White, for opening our minds,” read the tagline for the video revealing the skier’s identity.
“When we opened to skiing, we had questions. I had questions,” said West. “We never want to say, ‘We need to change.’ It needs to make sense. If it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t work.” But in this case, White “fit right in,” said Sandor. The ambassador team “spent so much time together, it wasn’t an issue.” The team has since added other skiers to the lineup, proving that signing White wasn’t about pandering or lurching off-message. “Anything that beats water, that’s who we are,” West explained, and skiers need water-shedding apparel just like riders do.
But that doesn’t mean that 686 is suddenly going to start rebranding as an action sports catch-all company. “’Action sports’ is such outdated terminology now,” said West. “We all surf, but do we want to force ourselves to be a surf brand?” It all comes down to the same question – does this make sense?
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