In 1953, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia®, began a love affair with climbing that has endured since. A deep, spiritual connection with nature shaped his thinking early and crystallised to become the central tenet of all the companies he has been associated with.
A vision conceived
Chouinard’s teenage years in California were spent rappelling sandstone cliffs at Stoney Point, but he and his friends soon moved on to scale the vast, imposing walls of Yosemite. Dissatisfied with the single use pitons of the day (made of soft iron), he invested in a secondhand forge, taught himself Blacksmithing and began working on plans for harder, reusable pitons.
Soon, Chouinard had set up a business in the backyard of his parents’ house. Despite the constraints and challenges that face any startup business, the portability of his equipment did allow for a degree of freedom. It meant that he could load his car up with Blacksmithing gear and surfboards and disappear on road trips for waves. In between sessions in the water, he would forge handmade steel pitons that he sold for $1.50 to a steadily growing customer base.
Setting a new direction
Even though the early days were tough, the passion was strong. Eventually, demand for his products led to a partnership with Tom Frost. Over the best part of the next decade, they applied innovative thinking and intuitive design skills to bring greater functionality and performance to almost all the tools at a climber’s disposal.
By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States. But with the increasing popularity of the sport, the company had unwittingly become an environmental villain as the pitons it was producing was damaging rock faces. The damage, which was particularly noticeable on popular ascents, forced Chouinard and Frost to stop and rethink.
At that time, pitons represented a serious slice of the business, so any change in direction posed a considerable risk. It’s a measure of the strength of the pair’s commitment to the environment that they decided to phase out their production of pitons. Being innovators, they soon developed aluminium chocks that could be lodged and dislodged by hand, leaving a negligible environmental footprint. Within months, the demand for pitons had shifted entirely to the new chocks.
A pure design philosophy
Looking back, it’s clear that Chouinard and Frost drew on ingenuity and experience to generate their designs. But there was always an underlying design philosophy of sheer simplicity that guided the way. It is a philosophy that is anchored in the musings of the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupéry:
Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent working over draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?
It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of the human breast or shoulder, there must be experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”*
* de St. Exupery, Antoine. Wind, Sand and Stars. Trans. Lewis Galantiere. New York: Harcourt Inc. 1967
Through dedication to simplicity of form and function, Chouinard and Frost created innovative designs that always aimed for perfection.
A brand is born
Innovation was not confined to the sphere of climbing equipment. The seventies also saw Chouinard pioneer new trends in the type of clothing that climbers would ultimately wear. It began with the trial of a team rugby shirt he acquired during a climbing trip to Scotland. Chouinard’s recognition of the resilience and capability of this fabric spawned a new technical journey in fabric development that continues to this day. To ensure brand clarity in the market, the name “Patagonia” was adopted for the new clothing line. Back then, Patagonia was a name like Timbuktu or Shangri-La – far off, interesting, not quite on the map. It spoke of adventure and discovery. Importantly, it was a name that could be pronounced in any language.
During the 1980s, technical innovations in Patagonia® clothing were accompanied by innovative fashion thinking. New colours and new patterns were introduced to match the individuality of the people that invested emotionally in the Patagonia® brand. We were riding the crest of a wave of popularity and the team was expanding rapidly. When the dark economic days of the 1990s arrived, it caused another rethink. The company still moved forward, but more cautiously. More modestly. In some respects, it provided us with a new perspective that saw us invest more time in our workplace culture. Since then, we’ve continued to develop a working environment that promotes creativity and holds true to our values and traditions.
One planet. One experiment.
The Patagonia® values and traditions are inextricably bound to Chouinard’s earliest connections with nature as a teenager back on the sandstone cliffs at Stoney Point, California. Even as a small company, we were devoting time, energy and money to the increasingly apparent environmental crisis. As we continue to grow, our commitment is unwavering. Despite massive operational challenges and financial barriers, we have rethought and realigned the use of key raw materials in our products to ensure environmental friendliness. We have campaigned on behalf of a range of important environmental issues across the globe. We have introduced intitiatives within our business that most won’t see, but still make a difference.
In the mid 1980s, we made a commitment to donate 10% of our profits to environmental groups. We have kept to this commitment every year since. Why do we do this? Because as humans, we are only going to get one chance.
Edward O. Wilson – one of the most brilliant naturalists of our times – put it best:
One planet. One experiment.
Risk. Soul. Reflection.
During the past thirty years, we’re proud of the fact that we have a reputation for making the best product on the market for outdoor pursuits. While we’ve made many mistakes along the way, that’s part and parcel of being a pioneer. In any case, we never tend to lose our way for very long. Although we first saw Patagonia® as a way to move beyond the world of climbing, we still pursue climbing and surfing with tremendous passion.
Today, as ever, Patagonia® is about activities that entail risk, require soul and invite reflection. We prefer informal travels with friends – doing what we love to do – over the camera-saturated event. We will never knowingly create a mediocre product. And we cannot avert our eyes from the harm done, by all of us, to our one and only home.Background Photo: by Terri Laine