4 Keys To Global Brand Success With 686 Founder Michael Akira West

Words: Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire

In short:
L.A.-born snowboarder Mike West is the CEO of 686, one of the largest independently-owned technical apparel companies in snow sports.

After a haphazard start in 1992, West took his brand international with a self-made catalogue and resulting product order in year two.

After 26 years at the helm, West has identified four philosophies that helped turn 686 into a full-fledged global lifestyle brand.

Michael Akira West grew up in Los Angeles, where the culture of skateboarding and snowboarding were two of his strongest influences. Inspired by this, West launched his lifestyle brand 686 in 1992. The company focuses on technical apparel and accessories for the snow sports industry.

Today, through a commitment to following what feels right and a deep connection to the lifestyle his brand represents, West runs one of the largest independently-owned companies in his industry, with hundreds of stockists across the U.S., Canada and Europe.

From a lifestyle to a business

As a die-hard skater in the 90s, West was eventually introduced to snowboarding and became an instructor at his local mountain, Big Bear Resort. When he wasn’t teaching or riding, he was attending entrepreneurship classes at USC. 
As part of a senior project, West developed a business plan for an apparel company with roots in the snow and skate industries. Then, a professor gave him some actionable advice. “He explained that you could go into a career doing something you can really enjoy, versus having two separate things: your career and your passion,” West told Grow Wire.

So West headed to the L.A. Fashion District, bought some blank T-shirts and made his first apparel concepts. For “market research,” he got feedback from friends on the mountain and his fraternity brothers at USC. The response was positive. Suddenly, West had two essential aspects of a real business: a plan and proof of concept. He named the company 686 as a nod to his age when he started (6+8+6=20) and because he found a meaningful antique from his grandmother in June of 1986.

Going international

In year two, the brand was still in its infancy. West craved more traction. 
“I wanted to get the company out there, but at the time all I had was a brand name and some products,” he said. “So I went to Kinkos, created a catalog, and headed to a trade show.”

West met a Japanese distributor who wanted to place a purchase order: 50 percent down and 50 percent on delivery. Thinking it may be too good to be true, West met the man at a local YMCA to secure the deal. The distributor purchased $100,000 in product and handed over a check.

Things took off from there: For the past 26 years, West has acted as CEO of 686, building one of the most respected lifestyle brands in the snow sports industry.

4 keys to a global lifestyle brand that lasts

West’s brand-building philosophy is laid-back, driven mostly by instinct and a desire to create quality products that connect to his community. He used four philosophies to build 686 into a global lifestyle brand.

1. Do what feels good.

Lifestyle branding is about following your gut. In doing so, you’ll remain true to the culture your product represents. The 686 brand aesthetic is an extension of its founder’s: a blend of raw, artistic city style and passions for the outdoors and innovation. These elements influence everything about the 686 brand.

They also make it easy to determine which partnerships and projects to green-light. 686 partnered with Levi’s, for example, to create a limited-edition denim pant engineered to withstand mountain conditions in 2008. Their next innovation, Hydrastash, is a system which holds water in the bottom lining of a jacket, then runs it up the collar for the wearer to drink on the go. The product launches next month.


2. Never forget your muse.

As customer tastes differ around the globe, retailers are often tempted to change their aesthetic in ways that don’t ultimately benefit the bottom line.

“Instead of trying to fit in,” said West, “find your own muse, and build everything around that.”

West knows his muse well. From the inception of 686, personal needs have guided him to build products that only he and his team are eager to use. Innovations include waterproof hoodies and Smarty Pants, which 686 dubbed “the world’s first 3-in-1 detachable layering system.”

West and his team are the customers for 686, so product brainstorm sessions happen on the chairlift, and testing occurs in the backcountry, ideally waist-deep in powder.

3. Live the lifestyle.

To survive over time, you must remember where you began and build a team of employees and partners who share the same passions.

“As the business grows,” said West, “staying connected to the lifestyle becomes even more important.” 

At 686, this means there’s mandatory time outdoors for every employee and a skate park inside company headquarters. The company culture is one that remembers its roots in skate in snowboard culture, lives life without limits and re-connects often with what’s important.

4. Give back.

Include your community in your brand lifestyle, introducing them to your products and letting them share in the company culture. 686 gives back through the Compton Surf Club, which keeps at-risk youth off the streets by “exposing them to new realms of art, skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding and design to broaden their perspective on the world,” per the 686 website.

Yes, there are business benefits to giving back, like engaging new customers, developing partnerships and spreading brand message. But that’s not the focus at 686, West said. He involves his community simply because it’s the right thing to do, and enjoys the resulting partnerships and brand loyalty as ancillary benefits.

He also gets sheer enjoyment from shaping his industry’s future. “Passing it forward is everything,” said West. “Embracing the next generation of creatives is critical to your own success.”

West remembers teachers and organizations who helped him on his path to success, and now, 30 years later, he feels a responsibility to guide other individuals and brands. Later this year, he’ll return to his alma mater, USC, to teach a class at the business school. The topic? “How to build a global lifestyle brand.” Now THAT’S a class that’ll keep the kids awake.

Words: Justin Biel, trends editor at 
Grow Wire

Photos: Erik Hoffman, 686 Staff Photographer and Graphic Designer