Why so serious?
Throughout its 13-year-history, the common theme for snowboard apparel brand Airblaster is, without a doubt, “fun”. It’s certainly an apt descriptor of the brand’s products (see: base-layer “Ninja Suits” and the lightweight “Breakwinder” jacket), but the word finds its truest home in the story and spirit of the men who founded it.
Brought to life in 2002 in pro snowboarder Travis Parker’s basement by Parker, Paul Miller, and Jesse Grandkoski, the idea for Airblaster started like many brands do: with a feeling of discontent. But this discontent was not because of a missing product or category. Rather, it was born from the distaste of the dramatic shift of their favorite pastime. Having fallen in love with snowboarding in its early days of existence, the hyper-competitive spirit that had now developed felt at odds with the friendly vibes that marked the once nascent mountain sport.
“When we were learning to board on Big Mountain (now Whitefish Mountain Resort), snowboarding was just a fun activity,” says Grandkoski. “There was no industry. It was just an expression of freedom. We’d go up on the mountain, flip, spin, meet new friends. It was inclusive and communal. You would high five someone just because they were snowboarding too.”
But over the years, high fives had given way to glares. As many things do with popularity (and marketing), snowboarding’s fun-friendly ethos had begun to dissipate under the corporate landscape that was fast to capitalize on its growth. “We would coach some kids at camp, and it was clear they weren’t having the same experience I had when I was their age,” says Grandkoski. “‘Have fun’ had been displaced by ‘get sponsored’. There were kids who couldn’t do a half-decent toeside turn, but they could approach a jump from straight on and do a backside rodeo. Everyone was trying to be tough and look cool, wearing all blacked-out gear, looking each other up and down and comparing each other.”
To combat the unsettling shift, Parker, Miller, and Grandkoski came up with the idea of taking the ubiquitous “snowboard leash” (required by most mountain resorts at the time) and flipping it on its head. The result was the Air Leash: a comically oversized and brightly colored leg band that functioned to appease resort requirements while acting as a sort of banner to fly in the name of “fun”. With a production run of just 24 Air Leashes, Airblaster was formed.
“We started with an ideal,” states Grandkoski. “We didn’t even really have a business, just an ideal that we believed in…and we’ve built everything around it. The business just sort of followed suit.”
And business has done pretty well. Since the Air Leash that launched the brand back in 2002, Airblaster has spent more than a decade developing commercially successful collections of gear, all while pioneering their unique ethos. From the quirky videos they produce to the unique products they design (referred to by the team as OFPs, or “original fun products”) Airblaster knows a thing or two about not taking oneself too seriously. It truly seems that everything at Airblaster begins (and ends) with fun. But in the middle is a lot of hard work. Despite representing the less professional side of snowboarding, Airblaster has outfitted some of the most top-tier talent in the world. Because if the Airblaster team is serious about anything, it’s for developing highly innovative and technical products that deliver as much function as they do flair.
Take Airblaster’s hallmark product: the Ninja Suit. The first of its kind, the patented Ninja Suit is now a standard within the snowboard community regardless of company affiliation. Available in everything from stealth black to “pizza” (it’s exactly what you think), the suit wraps your body in a 4-way-stretch poly/lycra blend that regulates your body temperature, wicks moisture and, most importantly, keeps the snow off your skin. Unsurprisingly, they also make you look (and feel) like a ninja. “You put on a Ninja Suit for the first time,” says Grandkoski, “and you literally start jumping and doing karate kicks. It’s instantaneous.”
For those not in need of a functional base layer (or one that can double as a Halloween costume), Airblaster designs a wide range of snow-ready outerwear and street-ready jackets alike. The former are worthy of the most intense runs down the mountain while the latter deliver technical protection in a more democratic style — a concept that is of increasing interest to the Airblaster team these days.
“All of our lives have expanded over time,” says Grandkoski. “I have kids now, so I’m playing in the backyard as much, if not more than I am on the mountain.” With the realization that Airblaster’s “stay wild” ethos is not bound to snow-covered trails, the already robust catalog of mountain-ready outerwear is gaining a line of products that are technically sound while sensible for the city. “When someone is going out with friends, we don’t think they should have to decide between the jacket they love and one that works really well. They should be one and the same.”
This is easier said than done. There’s a reason for the broad gap between a rugged outfitter like Filson and a sport-technical one like Arc’teryx. The middle ground is a vast desert that many brands have attempted to traverse with little success. And while Airblaster may seem like an unlikely brand to do it, their functional design sensibility combined with robust manufacturing capabilities (and the right amount of crazy) is a worthy combination.
The result is best witnessed in their upcoming 2016-17 street collection (available next Fall), which we browsed in their Portland headquarters. The collection includes a number of urban-ready jackets, made primarily of custom fabrics that Airblaster has developed themselves. One of the most impressive fabrics looks and feels like waxed cotton, but features the movement and lightness of a tech jacket. Another offers intense waterproofing while still being highly breathable. And all of them feature that signature Airblaster panache.
Amidst a number of navy, beige, and olive jackets is a classic woodlands camo pattern that, upon closer inspection, features a number of silhouetted dinosaurs. “We call this one Dinoflage,” says Grandkoski. Of course they do. At the other end of the rack, a coaches jacket features an olive outer shell, while the inside boasts a quirky palm print lining.
After our meeting with their team (and a thorough examination of their product), it’s clear the Airblaster team has created something that is altogether unique. Be it a neon orange snowboard pant, a sweater featuring Sasquatch, or a slate gray vest, you’ll see and feel the lighthearted nature of the Portland-based outfitter. And lest you forget, there’s always the name — one that sounds more like the model of a Nerf gun than an outerwear company.
“So the name,” says Grandkoski. “It sort of brings to mind launching off a huge jump and getting some crazy air. And Travis likes to say that it sounds like something a kid would come up with, which it totally does. But then it also sounds like something you’d do with a lighter and a fart.”
“So there’s that,” says Grandkoski with a laugh.
So there’s that. The guys that built a brand around the mission of “having fun snowboarding with your friends” are certainly having a lot of fun while doing it.