Mada: There At The Start

Just up the road from the Dana Strand’s lineup and down the street from ‘CT surfer Pat O’Connell’s old address sits an inconspicuous house in the type of gated community common to the South Laguna stretch of coastline. That is, it would be inconspicuous were it not for the two cars–a shiny Benz and Beemer–parked in the driveway, each bearing the same black logo where the license plate ought to be. Under each logo–which looks like a distant cousin of the Madness logo–is the word Mada.

Welcome to the temporary home of what could be the next breakout action-sports brand. When Ezekiel Founders Vinnie De La Peña and Shane LaVoie split from that brand–after a management power struggle poisoned the well they helped dig–it was a sure bet that the two would try their hand at starting a new apparel label.

Now, five months into the Mada project, De La Peña is ready to reveal some of his plans. “It’s exactly like the phrase, ‘If I could do it all over again.’ Well, we’re young enough to actually do it over again, and it is different, says De La Peña, when asked how starting a brand this time compares to Ezekiel’s launch ten years ago. “When we started Ezekiel, we didn’t know how to do the simplest thing. Now, we understand production and have really good relationships with our manufacturers. There also are so many great retailers who’ve been receptive to what we’re doing. They’ve given us their verbal commitment that they’ll do whatever it takes to support us. For a startup company, the caliber of reps that we have is also unbelievable.

De La Peña and I are sitting on the patio in warm December sunshine. Inside, part of Mada’s M&D team–Jay Mitchell, Kevin Krazinski, and Shane LaVoie–are pouring over the nascent Mada line spread out across the floor of the living room. A large Sony is tuned to MTV.

“There are brands existing by default because there’s nothing new, continues De La Peña. “Not that if there’s a killer brand it’s going to be giant overnight, but there’s a demand for some newness. Mada’s catchphrase is ‘Putting the special back in specialty.’ We believe we’ll be able to achieve that.

He politely evades being specific about who is financially backing the new company: “I love to keep those cards pretty close to my chest. At the same time, I’m proud of who we’re dealing with. However he says he and LaVoie hold the majority interest in Mada and have taken the financial and management lessons learned at Ezekiel to heart.

“We know we have to do two things, he says. “We need to associate with someone incredibly experienced in reading those {financial} numbers and making those hard calls. Two, the hard calls have to be made. That’s something I haven’t done in the past–I’ll come clean. That’s why I’m in the position I’m in now. I had to bring in partners because of not being able to say ‘No,’ and I never want to do that again.

But De La Peña appears to relish this new challenge, and he’s satisfied with the team’s progress toward the April 1 launch. “The Mada line is a little bit edgier {than Ezekiel} and has a fashion element to it, he says. “Alex {De La Peña, Vinnie’s brother} is the designer. He’s also the original designer for Ezekiel. It’s amazing to come into this particular house and work with quality people who understand what needs to be done. There’s this incredible energy.

The line looks solid, and larger than I expected. “A lot of people are surprised that it’s as big as it is, says De La Peña. “It’s not the typical startup skate line of three jeans and two hoodies. We have seven jeans, six shorts, eight boardshorts, a slew of wovens, some knits, and a ton of T-shirts. We also have some amazing accessories. It’s our first line, so we don’t want to go too nuts, but we want enough product to be able to convey the brand message.

For now, the skate market will be Mada’s focus. “If you’re going to be more of a fashion brand, it’s important to have that skate presence, says De La Peña. “We”re also going to be an action-sports brand, so surfing will be a big part of Mada as well.

Indeed, the startup already has signed surfer Mike Losness to the team, and De La Peña says boardshorts are one of the brand’s most important pieces: “With Ezekiel it was always difficult for us to do good boardshorts. We want to make sure that’s not the case with Mada, and they’re amazing so far. It’s not hard–it’s just a matter of putting some priority and focus on them.

For now, the regional priority is California. Mada hired Tony DeAndrea as its NorCal rep. Mark Voight will handle the Orange County and San Diego territories. “With the names that I have and the interviews that are taking place right now, I’ll have a great guy in L.A. soon too, says De La Peña, adding that his budget gives him some time to ramp up other regions. “I look at Northern California, Hawai’i and Florida as being their own countries, he says, “so I want to develop a marketing strategy within each of those territories. I chose to do that for Northern California first.

Another priority is racks, P.O.P., and other in-store support items–all of which are part of the budget. “We want to come out with a presence, explains De La Peña. “This industry is a hard circle to get into. Retailers know what’s genuine and legit. One of my goals is to have my retailers know me and be able to call me up on my cell phone. I want that type of relationship.

“I believe we’ll get that opportunity, he continues. “There’s a mix of product out there right now that’s probably a small part of a retailer’s buy that’s not doing much. I think we’ll pick up that straggling real estate pretty quickly. I’m optimistic about reaching the goals we’ve set for ourselves.