Founder and CEO of 686, Michael Akira West on Community, the Outdoors, and Following Your Passion
"I didn’t have money nor design experience, but I did have a sense of curiosity and drive."
Everyone dreams of having a job that doesn't feel like work. To do that you have to take risks, work tirelessly, and immerse yourself in something that you're passionate about sharing. Michael Akira (Mike) West did exactly that with 686 Technical Gear. Read on to find out how Mike did it, what makes 686 unique, and what's on the horizon for the 686 community.
How did you come to found 686? What inspired and motivated you from the beginning?
When you’re young, you feel like you can do anything even though you may not have the professional experience. In Fall of 1992 I was going into my senior year at the University of Southern California’s Entrepreneur Program and I vividly remember my professor letting me know that it’s perfectly ok to go into something that you are passionate about. Something that you don’t call “work” and something you would have no problem doing 24/7. That struck a chord with me. This was a time when you were expected to graduate school, get a job, pay back your student loans and live happily ever after. There was no tech industry, no internet and we still had faxes! But I wasn’t passionate about any of the more “established” and normal jobs. I was working at Bear Mountain in Big Bear, Ca. on the weekends and winter culture and snowboarding were my passion. I didn’t have money nor design experience, but I did have a sense of curiosity and drive. This curiosity, combined with my pure passion to follow what made me happy, eventually led to the founding of 686 technical apparel on Nov 13, 1992, during my senior year.
686 is “independently rider owned and operated.” Can you tell us more about what that means?
In the raw form, it means that we are privately held group of like-minded men and women who live and breathe the active lifestyle. We don’t have a bigger brother or corporation or someone watching over us to tell us what to do. We do what we want and that is the most important. Equally as important, we practice what we preach. I grew up as a runner and swimmer and then found skateboarding which led to snowboarding. Everyone in the company has similar foundations of getting outside and interestingly enough it doesn’t involve team sports. In the end, it’s a business and we run it with a high level of ethical standards. Running your own business for a quarter of a century isn’t easy but it feels incredibly good when get to do it with people who make you happy and inspire you to be better.
Most of our members will likely identify 686 as a core snow brand, but your technical apparel seems like it could potentially appeal to a much wider audience. Is that a direction you're interested in exploring?
686 was born in the city and refined in the mountains. This juxtaposition has made us different in everything we do. We started off as a denim company and evolved into technical apparel in our second season. My original idea was to be able to use your denim in different climates from the street to the snow. I wanted to get the most purposeful uses out of one product. Because I came from the progressive skateboard scene in the late 80’s, snowboarding was my natural transition from the street to the mountains. Later I took a trip to Whistler, BC which blew my mind. The mountains were so big and the snow was so much different than California. It was deep, wetter and I realized you really needed some technology to stay dry and warm longer. This jumpstarted the evolution of 686 as you see it today. Highly durable and technical apparel, that still has notes of our original urban influences.
This is our roots but we’ve always been known for doing things a little “off,” or differently. We’ve experimented with projects for the past 16 years well outside our proverbial sandbox. Past examples would be the ACE project where we worked with world renown artists like Shepard Fairey and Andy Jenkins to create visual stories in our products to developing waterproof denim for Levis on a global basis, which eventually led to their Commuter series. We developed active lightweight winter wear and footwear for New Balance and introduced technical workwear for Dickies. From footwear, to timepieces, to goggles/eyewear to rainwear, I believe this is a testament that 686 isn’t afraid to work on projects well outside snow. The most recent projects are ones with Specialized Bicycles aimed at the Fatbike user as well as Cadence Collection aimed at cycling commuters. With every project we do our goal is to remain true to what we’re known for. Its this “purposeful” x “playful” x “technical” design approach we like to have our fingerprints on.
What are you and the 686 team most excited about right now?
So many things come to mind, but it really comes down to the PEOPLE we’re blessed to work with every day and the environments we are able to explore in our technical apparel. Our employees, team, reps, distributors, retailers and most importantly our loyal fans who keep us going. Hearing and seeing their experiences in the apparel and the outdoors creates and excitement and drive in us to create the next new product.
Bringing it back to the product, there are a few things that really get us excited to come to work. Our GORE-TEX SMARTY 3-in-1 Weapon Jacket and Pants have been met with overwhelming response. This was our first foray into GORE-TEX fabric and the success has us working towards even greater things in the future. We continue to work with Freeride World Tour Champion Sammy Luebke on the GLCR outerwear. Working with one of the best big mountain riders in the world is always amazing. We just launched a limited edition coach jacket with our friends at Keep A Breast to help support their education and awareness efforts around breast cancer and we are also launching our Cadence Collection collaboration in just over a month. Anytime we get to work with like-minded brands and people, it excites us. We also just launched our GLCR Project, providing unprecedented access to our brand for consumers. This is perhaps our largest intiative this season. Anyone and everyone has the opportunity to apply to become a wear-tester and advocate for our brand. We are getting some great applications from people who do so much more than the typical snowboarder we have worked with in the past and we are excited for the ideas and collaboration this will lead to in the future.
Outside that, I’m personally working on three new initiatives starting as early as next season which I believe will revolutionize the entire active and outdoor industry. Stay tuned…
We noticed you recently launched the GLCR Project. Can you describe what the initiative is and it’s importance to 686 and your community?
The GLCR project is a joint effort between our head of Marketing, Brent Sandor and myself. At the heart of 686, its all about a community that can bring the same passion and purpose to enhance their active lives. The GLCR Project provides equally opportunity and access to anyone exploring the outdoors. We feel, much like the Outbound Collective does, that anyone can enjoy the outdoors. Now we want to offer all those people the opportunity to apply for the same experience that once was only reserved for experts and professionals. It’s not always about the highest peak or deepest turn – its about the best experience outdoors that you can have. Sometimes it definitely is about progression, but in this case not always. Ha!
Our vision for the GLCR Project is to cultivate a diverse group of individuals who live the outdoor lifestyle and develop future forward GLCR products and experiences for others to share. Exploration is the core of GLCR and we believe we are better as a family to do this. We can’t wait to introduce the new team and products to everyone.
You can apply to be a part of the GLCR Project here.
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