Yvon Chouinard: Fashion Adventurer

Surfer, climber, clothes manufacturer. Meet Yvon Chouinard, the 72 year old adrenaline junkie and founder of Patagonia clothing.
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Yvon Chouinard. Heard of him? He’s one of the good guys. A 72 year old surfer and climber. A die hard environmentalist. A former blacksmith turned climbing gear manufacturer who went on to found one of the most successful outdoor clothing companies in the world. Patagonia.

Mockingly called Pradagonia by some  - mostly those who baulk at paying the prices his products command – Patagonia manufactures first rate, functional, environmentally friendly products that stand up to years of abuse in the great outdoors. Whilst it’s true that prices are on the high side, smart folk sign up at www.Patagonia.com and wait for the annual sale that sees up to 50% knocked off the price of some top notch gear.

Organic cotton has been used by the company ever since they discovered the harm cotton, or rather, the pesticides used in cotton growing do to the environment. It might seem hard to grasp now but back when they made the switch, Yvon and Patagonia basically invented the organic cotton industry in America. More specifically, they created the demand and American cotton growers responded to that demand in the age old way of successful commerce. They supplied it. Recycling is also high on the company’s agenda. Indeed, one of their top selling lines, fleece jackets of various piles and cuts are all made from recycled soda bottles. Patagonia also makes a concrete commitment to the environment in terms of cold hard cash. One percent of sales or ten percent of profits - whichever is greater - are given to environment causes.

But let’s back track a little. Let’s go back to the late 50s and early 60s where we find Yvon bumming around California’s Yosemite National Park. A hardcore climber, living, at times, in the back of a beat up old car or truck, working, when necessary, to support his passion, climbing. Chouinard along with his contemporaries, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost were to become the fathers of modern rock climbing. Between them they put up many ‘firsts’, pioneering routes, on the 3,000ft tall El Capitan rock formation.

Fortuitously, Yvon was born to a blacksmith father and had picked up the trade himself. At the time, climbing gear was basic at best. While serious climbing is still a marginal pastime today, it’s hard to grasp just how minuscule the climbing fraternity really was back then. In time Yvon was designing and manufacturing his own equipment. His first company, Chouinard Equipment, was born in a rented tin shed (a shed that still stands today though it is now overshadowed by the headquarters of his current company) with the back of his truck serving as the store front from which his hand forged pitons and other climbing hardware were sold.

Chouinard Equipment became successful enough that Yvon and his employees, mostly fellow dirt bag friends, could shut up shop and take off climbing or hit the surf when the mood took hold. To this day, Yvon advocates as much time off for activities such as climbing, cycling, surfing and paid time off for environmental projects, as long as the work gets done. No wonder then that approximately 900 people apply for every vacancy that arises at Patagonia.

"A hardcore climber, living, at times, in the back of a beat up old car or truck, working, when necessary, to support his passion, climbing."

Tragically, Chouinard Equipment became somewhat a victim of its own success. In the mid 80s several lawsuits were filed claiming damages resulting - and this could only, really, happen in America - not from faulty equipment rather from inexperienced climbers and, one might safely assume, ambulance chasing lawyers claiming that the products were improperly labelled and failed to warn of the inherent dangers associated with climbing.

The products were good. Regarded as among the best available. Well made and environmentally friendly - manufactured from aluminum when it became apparent that the original steel pitons, which accounted for the bulk of sales, were detrimental to the face of El Capitan. Sadly, the weight of the lawsuits was enough to convince our hero that it was time to shut up shop. Yvon filed for bankruptcy protection. However, the remnants of his company survive to this day, purchased by the Black Diamond Equipment Company. A company founded by many former employees of Yvon’s. Such is life. More about that life.

In 1969 Chouinard and another man destined to become a major player in the field of outdoor clothing and equipment, North Face founder, Doug Thompkins set off with skier Dick Dorworth on a road trip from California to Patagonia. Surfing as they travelled and ultimately climbing 11,000ft Cirro Fitzroy with British climber Chris Jones. That might not sound like such a big deal to us now, living in a world where Sherpas will literally drag you up and down Everest, as long as you can come up with the readies. Conditioned as we are to seeing gap year students circumnavigate the globe, clutching Lonely Planet guide books but, to a large extent,  it’s people like Doug and Yvon who wrote those books. Not literally but you know what I mean. Their travels were documented in the now cult film Mountain of Storms. If you get a chance see it. It’s of it’s time but also timeless. There’s a short clip of it here:

Yvon pretty much became a successful businessman in spite of himself. Unwilling to compromise, he has kept Patagonia off the trading floors there by retained  full control of quality and policy. He has spent great chunks of his life away from his desk. Living life. Climbing, surfing and championing environmental causes. Speaking when asked on the harm our modern lifestyle does to the planet. He famously advocates cutting back. Trying to simplify life. Somewhat strangely for a man who’s company sells $60 board shorts, he has been quoted as saying , ‘Kelly Slater (champion surfer) wouldn’t surf any better in a pair of $60 board shorts than he would in a pair of cut off jeans.’

In 2008 life came, sort of, full circle, when American Jeff Johnson, inspired by the film Mountain of Storms, set off on his own trip.  Documenting his travels for Woodshed Films - the people who brought us the excellent White Stripes movie - in the film 180 South, Johnson met up with Thompson and Chouinard who both agree that he’s a kindred spirit. A real dirt-bag who could easily live out of his car - which seems to be the highest praise either of these two veterans of the adventure world could bestow on a person. They spent time together exploring the amazing nature reserve Doug and his wife have established in Chile - one of the largest privately funded reservations in the world. Jeff and his party arrived with the intention of climbing Cocovado a 7,250 ft peak. On a whim, Yvon and Doug set off with them. Ultimately, they fall just short of the summit. Judging, wisely, it would appear, that it’s too dangerous. But, by Christ, you have to respect a man who’s still getting out there at 70.


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