Mike's Mash | July 2012
Michael Akira West is the Owner and Creative Director of 686 Technical Apparel. The following are some of his experiences inside and out of the industry across the globe. *Add Comments at Bottom of Page!
Keep it tight
July 27, 2012
I have a lot of people that contact me and ask how I started 686.
I gladly tell them my story and offer suggestions that would reflect their own personal goals and dreams.
I also tell them that there’s no right or wrong way to do your own thing.
In fact I encourage everyone to learn from others and pick the right concept, people and most importantly the right time.
The definition of what that exactly means is for you to decide.
My homies at HYPEBEAST did a little write up on how I did it back in the day.
If you’re interested, check it HERE.
Hypebeast Trade: Michael Akira West of 686 Technical Apparel
In November of 1992, apparel brand 686 was born with the goal of providing fashionable as well as technical outerwear inspired by the unique Los Angeles appropriation of street culture and its nearby mountaineering lifestyle. Doing the unheard of in the technical apparel industry, Owner Michael Akira West manufactured his early lines entirely in the United States. However having understood the best materials for its ski-lodge-dwelling consumers came from Asia, 686 soon outsourced many of its production to Japan and Taiwan. Since the transition, the progressive outerwear purveyor has grown into an internationally sold label, offering year-round collections ranging from technology-driven snowboarding apparel to stylish base layers and unique collaborative efforts. Still managing his brand now with the help of a strong staff of 25, Founder and Owner Michael Akira West sat down with Hypebeast to discuss the humble beginnings of 686, competing with the better-known brands while maintaining its founding ideologies, Asian production, research and development, and much more.
Can you introduce yourself and your role at 686?
My name is Michael Akira West. Owner, operator and creative Driver for the 686 technical apparel company.
Can you provide an overview of your company structure?
Westlife Distribution, LLC is the umbrella for 686®, which is comprised of 25 young, passionate family members. You live the lifestyle 110% or you don’t work here. Because of what we do, heads think we’re located in the mountains, but our global headquarters are actually in Los Angeles. We use our street and artistic roots mixed with the mountaineering snow culture to bring something different to the table. From LA, we take care of all aspects of the biz. Design-Development-Testing-Operations-Finance-Accounting-Sales-Marketing-Customer Service-Warehouse-Distribution. With the exception of actually manufacturing our technical garments, nothing is farmed out as we’ve learned to do it ourselves over 20 years in business. Our European headquarters is located in Montebelluna, Italy. We have about 30 independent sales agents which we work with directly in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, the UK and the Netherlands. From there, we have exclusive partnerships with distributors in Japan, Korea, Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Greece, Israel, New Zealand, Poland, Spain and Andorra. We also have exclusive collaborative agreements with New Balance®, Levis® and Dickies®.
You’re an extremely hands on guy that seems to oversee almost all aspects of 686. What are the benefits/detriments to this approach?
Coming from nothing, except a drive to create something different, I’ve learned how to start a business from the ground up. Packing boxes, sales, marketing, crunching numbers, design, cleaning the toilets, it’s what you do when you’re trying to make it. Along the journey, you figure out what you do best as well as who else can do it better than you. I have 4 incredible managers that help me drive the ship. Doug (Ops/Finance), Jono (Sales), Kristin (Marketing), and Julie (Product). They’ve been with me from 7 to 18 years so they know what’s up and what we need to do. Without proper people, you’ll fail. My primary role now is all things creative ( such as design, development, merchandising) and the vision of what’s next. I continually challenge my team to do things better, but I’d rather do it continuously over a long period of time versus peaks and valleys. The Japanese in me calls it “Kaizen.”
As one becomes overcome with a multi-million dollar business, how do you ensure that the creative core of the business isn’t comprised at the hands of the business side?
This can be very difficult at times, but it’s all how you approach it. When you’re young, you’re ignorant and naïve. You have expectations, but you don’t have experience. You learn along the way from the mistakes you make and the people you hang out with. If you’re lucky enough to overcome these mistakes, have a good work ethic, be a better listener than talker and get another chance, you hopefully approach it a different way. When I started, I had no design experience at all, but I had a drive to keep learning. I just knew what I liked and had an uncanny way of trying to figure things out myself. “Creativity” is a natural process that comes with time. Some sooner than others, but you have to recognize what you and the brand should stand for. Once decided, everything should flow from there. 686 is a “purposeful product” company, which means that we make product for a specific technical and functional purpose. Since we’re private and I’m the owner, product integrity takes precedence over any spreadsheet or financial gain. In my mind, without loyal heads and good product, you have nothing.
What are some of the most difficult things you’ve faced in the expansion of 686?
Too many to list. A few notables would be getting compared to other much larger, deep pocketed companies; “So and so brand does this, why can’t you guys?” Being a major fall and winter branded company, cash flow is king and the more you grow, the more difficult it is. The pressure to make sure you continually support your employees and their family’s future – We don’t hire that much and we don’t fire that much either. And finally, industry BS.
As an independent, how extensive can this “indy” tag be angled on a marketing level? In a time where fast fashion is so dominant, are people more often overlooking this aspect?
From the outside perspective, I don’t think it gets translated that well. What I mean is that at the end of the day, heads like to see what’s in front of them. If you turn out good shit, have good peeps that rep you and stoke out kids, that’s what people really want. People don’t care all about all the intricacies and politics of running a company. I don’t either, but what I do believe in is the owner-operator mentality of running a private company. I’ve always preached the INDEPENDENT nature of 686. 2012 marks our 20th year in biz and our mantra is to do things on our own terms without answering to shareholders or someone behind the curtain. 686 is not about being confined to a box. If we like something, we do it. Case in point was doing a special project for the heads at Cadence. Since my knees are shot, I don’t skate that much but like to get on my bike. Dustin from Cadence wanted to do something different, but also legitimate to the cycling world. We got together, flipped things up and introduced the Rain Project
How does the in-house testing and product development of the company work?
Technical apparel is a different beast than casual goods. Since we specialize in winter outerwear, we have to make sure every aspect of the development process is tested inside our labs as well as on the mountain in harsh winter conditions. From the fabrications we pick to the waterproof/breathable technologies we develop, such as our trademarked Infidry™ lamination to the extensive construction process, shit has to be on point. We have world class athletes that test our goods from the urban rails of Salt Lake City to backcountry expeditions in the Austrian Alps. In addition, I sign off on it in two ways where I test it myself. I head to the factories in Asia and do personal Quality Control (QC) inspections with my team. More importantly, I ride the gear. I just got back from a helicopter trip inside interior British Columbia and am about to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa in a few months.
Production in China has seen a consistent rise in pricing. But despite this, the southern regions still provide the most streamlined and logistically sound place for sourcing and production. At what point do you need to move your production elsewhere but at the cost of increased headaches?
I actually manufactured 686 garments in downtown LA back in 1992, which was unheard of in terms of making technical products in the US. I purchased shell fabrics from Oregon, polar fleece lining from Massachusetts, found my pattern maker in Alhambra, Cali and cut and sewed it all on 6th and San Pedro in LA. Not until my second year, did I realize I didn’t have all the proper resources or the right pricing. Winter technical apparel requires the most skilled labor (see video below) of all garment production. Over the past two decades, I wish I could say we’ve mastered all levels of production, but I don’t think anyone can say this. China is a monster (in good and bad ways) and they have the best skilled labor for what we do, but it’s unpredictable in the rise in costs and manpower. For close to a decade, we’ve stayed away from Southern China and pioneered our skill set up in the North. Our fabrics, materials and trims come from Taiwan and Japan which costs more, but we rely on only the best. The future is untold, who knows what will be next. Maybe a full circle back to LA?
Given the difficulty in acquiring credit the last few years, has this slowed any potential expansion opportunities?
When the economy tanked and shit hit the fan from 2007 on, we actually had our best years in business. This showed the strength in what we do, but it wasn’t always like that. There’s an old saying in biz, “banks will lend you money when you don’t need it.” It’s 100% true. In 1992, I borrowed $1,000 from my mom, which quickly turned into maxing out all my credit cards then eventually to my parent’s entire life savings. We didn’t have much and it was a tremendous amount of pressure to make it. The next step to finance the business was purchase order financing (which was more crazy than loan sharking, but the good thing was they wouldn’t break your legs if you couldn’t pay, they’d just take everything you had including the shirt off your back). The step after was factoring, which was manageable, then finally to present day, which is a large line of credit with a reputable bank. Because I didn’t have partners or a sugar daddy, we had to go through all these steps and luckily now have a strong balance sheet which will allow us to take the next steps of expanding the Westlife portfolio. One of them is to incubate young brands and creative minds to let them shine without the hassles of dealing with the business BS I dealt with. As a self-made brand head, how has the management learning process been for you?
I’m fortunate enough to be able to make it this far without the need to rely on selling out. However being self-made means you absolutely need to have the right team in place. In the early days, I micro-managed way too much. There’s a HUGE responsibility of having the final say. However in my mind, it’s better when you can have your managers and employees make the decisions instead. I don’t want to or need to be the final say, growing is being able to let go and empower the people that got you there in the first place.
Was it easier to start a company in the pre-Internet days where it was a seemingly less complicated landscape? It seems there was more room for error in the past?
I started 686 in my South Central apartment at the University of Southern California while working at Bear Mountain in the early 90’s. There was no internet, no email. I used my large Apple IIc desktop, an old roller Panasonic fax machine, a beeper, pen and paper, blood, sweat and tears to start something I believed in. There was no comparison and I was young and had nothing to lose. The good thing was timing was on my side and I learned how to run a business by just doing it. It was much more forgiving than it is today. Now, everyone has good shit – people are more financed, there’s more competition, more eyes on you, more expectations, and of course, more chances to fail. As soon as you’ve seen it all, someone will come up with something that will change your mind entirely. That’s what’s exciting more than ever.
Any last words you’d like to share about the business side of 686?
Anything is possible. Stop making excuses and learn from someone who’s done it. Set yourself apart by going the other way, do your own thing, live for today and plan for tomorrow. Be happy, be humble. Much love and peace.
Mr. West is in the building
July 26, 2012
On my way to Europe last week, I stopped at American Airlines security and showed my ID to an older TSA lady.
She says “Thank you for showing me you’re ID, Mr. West, you better catch up with your brother.”
I’m like “huh?”
She says, “Your brother, Kanye West.”
I looked ahead of me and Ye, dressed in waxed black jeans with a black hoody, was taking off his Nike Air Yeezy 2’s off for security.
I first thought, “Is this TSA lady on something or she definitely needs a new pair of glasses.”
Either way, I quietly moved on waiting for Kanye to get pass security when I quickly realized it was his chick, Kim Kardashian who was holding the line up ….
On the flip side, music producer, 9th Wonder is the king of mash ups on the world wide web.
One of his latest drops features Adele and Ye.
Eye of the Beholder
July 25, 2012
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Design falls into the same context.
Check out some random shots I recently took and you decide.
All for one.
One for all.
July 24, 2012
Count down, 115 days to something PRETTY SWEET.
Roland Sands Design
July 23, 2012
True craftsmanship begins with getting your hands dirty.
My homie, Roland isn’t afraid of doing just that.
In fact, he’s been doing it for a minute, growing empire Roland Sands Design (RSD).
Roland specializes in custom bikes, parts and also apparel.
RSD is only 7 years young, but his scope of work spans much longer.
I rolled by RSD HQ’s recently to say what's up.
At the front, his retail shop is filled with good stuff.
Towards the back is where the magic happens.
You like - -I like.
Yes he does.
Roland’s office-home away from home.
The man, the myth, the Roland (on the right) with Bondo from Spin-Imaging (on the left).
Roland was showing me his new iphone app he just developed.
Roland’s a busy man.
If you wanna custom bike, then you have to wait in line, unless he likes you or you’re the Prince of Qatar.
No really, this one is really for the Prince …
Everything is done the ole fashion way, by hand, including custom painting and pin striping like this one.
Support heads that support you.
July 20, 2012
July 19, 2012
To those close to me, it's no secret that I’ve always been fascinated with anything woven.
I like the process of taking a smaller unit and making something larger by simple engineering.
Companies like Bottega Veneta have built a luxury brand with the same concept.
In addition, German designer, Cordula Kehrer has done something similar, but flipped it at the same time.
Working with the Aeta villagers in Philippines, Cordula mashes vintage wicker weaving with modern plastic manufacturing.
Old with the New.
Breakfast with . . . .
July 18, 2012
I’ve said it before, but it bothers me when I tend to see quality heads at trade shows.
This problem typically falls upon me as it seems I haven’t been able to do much except work-travel-work-travel.
So when longtime friend, Trent Bush rolled into town, I immediately jumped to have breakfast with him outside the chaotic work environment.
Can I have my usual please?
Trent’s been around the design-snow world as long as I have, starting iconic outerwear brand TWIST with his brother Troy in the early 90’s-onwards to founding Analog, then to Sound and most recently running Nomis and Tech Nine.
Trent’s free to say that he’s finally “moved on” and looking forward to the next chapter.
Don’t call Trent, he’ll call you.
Cheers Mr. Bush.
Printing at the Speed of Light
July 16, 2012
I’m a closet craft geek and like to do things myself.
My belief is that by trying things and going through the experimentation process, it brings incredible insight.
Something that can’t be solely done on a spreadsheet.
I think that’s why I’m drawn into storytelling of heads who stumble upon their own little thing.
Check out fellow Angelinos, Jesse and her team introducing their LUMI Sunlight printing process.
July 16, 2012
Established in 2003 from San Francisco’s Bike Messenger Culture, Cadence Collection or CA DNC is in a world of its own, blurring the lines between Utility-Concept-Cycling.
Recently, the heads from CA DNC made their first hurrah into establishing a retail concept experiment down the street from my pad.
Let's take a look.
Dustin Klein is the founder and mad scientist of CA DNC.
He’s so slick, it's difficult to pin him down.
Can you pin D?
Handcrafted by D Klein.
Handdrawn by D Klein.
Handsigned by D Klein.
Only a few left.
Cadence is lifestyle cycling apparel.
Exploring boundaries between utility, concept, and cycling.
Cadence has established a strong following of style forward individuals & cyclists.
Established in 2003, from San Francisco's Messenger Culture.
217 Pacific Coast Highway
Hermosa Beach, CA 90254
Tuesday - 11-7
Wednesday - Saturday - 11-6
I’d like some Bread and Butter
July 13, 2012
The Bread and Butter tradeshow is probably one of the most energetic and inspiring shows there is in fashion.
Welcome to B & B in Berlin.
B & B is located in one of the largest airport hangers I’ve ever seen.
Halls of booths for miles.
The Temple of Denim was off the chain.
Come inside and see.
Dinner for 1,000.
Forget about ordering product.
How about some fruits and champagne.
Tommy Hilfiger literally brought a mountain top of grass as the entrance to their booth.
I saw some friendly faces.
NB Europe was in the house.
These three dudes were lost, I think it's time to go home.
Things are looking BRIGHT
July 12, 2012
Less than an hour flight from Munich, we arrive in Berlin for the Bright tradeshow.
Meetings, meetings, meetings…
I won’t bore you with the details, so instead, check out something a little more interesting - Impartial Objectives.
The MAN, the MYTH, the GONZ.
Legends in the making.
The art show and Bright is located in the former East German Secret Police Prison Building, The Stasi.
It had this cold eerie feeling.
Can you imagine some of the crazy shit that went down here back in the day?
It felt like someone was watching me.
Time for me to go outside, I’m gonna borrow this cruiser, ok?
I remember when ASR had things like this.
Down the road, we made a quick pit-stop to our friends at the Supra and KR3W private showroom.
Steve runs the European ops and also one of the most respective dudes in my book.
I love Berlin.
So much energy, things to do, places to see.
German design is on top of my list along with the Japanese.
However, I think this takes it all.
Stephane likes it so much, he’s about done for the day.
BMW vs. Audi
July 11, 2012
I’m on a roll.
Two countries in two days, check.
Today we head down the road and drive into Munich, Germany.
Had a few hours to kill - stopped by the BMW HQ to see some eye candy.
How’s this for candy?
This or the beetle?
What do you think?
A hop, skip and a leap away was Audi World.
How about this?
I haven’t found out anything I was digging so we peaced out and connected with our regional 686 agent, Jochan.
Now this is a nice ride, man.
An overall productive day.
So productive, I deserve this.
Good day Munich.
Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
July 10, 2012
Rise and shine.
We got an early start and hit the road from Italy to Germany.
Alps and Vineyards for miles, I think this beats traffic on the 405.
Hours later, we arrive in Innsbruck, Germany.
We stopped by to say hello to a few of our stockists in town, starting with X-Double.
What a coincidence: The bestselling denim at X Double.
Adi runs the show at X Double, tell him that Mike sent you.
July 9, 2012
I used to commute 50 miles each way from LA to OC for work.
On a good day, it took an hour, on a bad day, it took a few hours.
So each time I have to get on a plane somewhere across the sea, it doesn’t bother me.
I took a quick trip over the weekend and landed in Venice, Italy.
Our European headquarters are located about 30 minutes from Venice.
Our partners in crime.
Home away from home.
Meet Alda on the left and Stephane on the right.
Alda backs up our customer service, speaks 5 languages and can cook like no other.
There’s only one Stephane, besides running our direct European sales and marketing agents for the past 8 years, he packs more music Intel, from Rap to Jazz to House to RB to Blues and New Disco, than anyone I’ve met.
Plus he represents.
On the way out, Stephane had to get some milk for his kids.
I was fascinated on how they do it here.
Step One, insert coins.
Step two, fill your reusable bottle up.
Step three, bingo!
On the way home, we stopped by his friends place for a BBQ, Italian style.
Shitty place to chill, huh?
The Circus is in town
July 5, 2012
Got invited to watch my friends get hurt at the Nitro Circus movie premiere in 3D!
Just in time to celebrate the July 4th extended weekend at the world famous Chinese theater in Hollywood
Do I really have to put these things on?
Only in Hollywood
Work (still) in Progress - Insulation
July 3, 2012
It seems like we’re finally getting steps closer to finishing our headquarters in LA.
After the framing and rough mechanical, electrical, fire and air, we’re onto insulation.
Load Them Up
Start with the top
Make sure you don’t miss anything
Doesn’t look much now, but it will all make sense soon
Welcome to the FAM
July 2, 2012
View Previous Post & Comments:
May 2010: Part 1
May 2010: Part 2
April 2010: Part 1
April 2010: Part 2
March 2010: Part 1
March 2010: Part 2