Office Tours: Checking in with Southern California brand ambsn

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Ambition. Like many words that are tasked with the responsibility of explaining an abstract feeling or mindset to the masses, it's a word that means both something and nothing to everyone. If you asked for a definition or example, you would get a myriad of results, no two the same.

The idea of taking an abstract concept and marrying it with the production of a physical product is one of many reasons ambsn stands out as a brand. Their product alone will have you taking a second look, but it's the vibe of the brand that inexplicably joins both abstract coolness and tactile interest that has kept the brand rolling for 8 years.

It should come as a surprise to no one then, that the office space of ambsn is as on-brand as all of their other endeavors. Located in a midcentury modern building in downtown San Clemente, the space has a passion project for the brothers behind the brand. Inside is an open work area, filled with small details that on their own would seem inconsequential, but added together, bring ambsn to life.

Connected to ambsn is the coffee shop Wake Up! Coffee, which doubles as a showroom for the brand. Take a peak outside, and you’ll find a patio areas as well as outdoor event space. Merging with the community in an authentic way is incredibly important to the brothers, who hold workshops, events, and classes in the area.

Dylan and Dustin remodeled the entire ambsn office space themselves – a hands-on touch that permeates throughout the brand. Photo: ambsn

Dustin and Dylan Odbert know a thing or two about running a brand, after almost a decade of doing it all themselves. Transworld Business sat down with the brothers behind ambsn for a closer look at their take on business, the industry, and what’s next for retail.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has your distribution changed and evolved over the last few years?

Dustin: I think everybody knows that retail is just over saturated. There's too many places to shop, so as we've seen some of the bigger guys contract, these smaller, scaled-down, focused retailers are popping up and they're doing a great job. We've been able to grow in some areas, stayed the same in some others, as far as how much inventory we're selling per year. I think the opportunity is to keep selling to your really good retailers, and meanwhile, independent retail is going to be come cool again – not that it hasn't always been cool.

You think we’re making the shift back to specialty retail as an industry?

Dustin: I think specialty retail has become great again because small brands now are doing a good job, and they're staying very disciplined in what they do best, which is awesome, and retailers recognize that. You can't get all these brands everywhere, and all these bigger brands are going away, and that makes surf unique again.

The vision board behind the brand. Photo: Hayley Helms

Have you guys had to shift your ecommerce strategy at all? What’s your ecommerce strategy in retail to brick-and-mortar?

Dustin: We make pointed buys into what we think is going to sell and what we're seeing year-over-year move. We're starting to do these small marketing campaigns, but we don't have this huge, powerful budget to go out there and buy customers. I'd like to think we're getting customers because we're doing a good job at staying unique. We're not that much different than any other small, independent retailer out there. As far as our strategy goes online, we just keep putting it out there season after season, and it picks up little by little.

But are you giving your brick and mortar retailers something different than what you're offering online, or is it kind of a mixture?

Dustin: We're not in that sort of position to have a line differentiation where we can do that. We're selling what we sell, we're keeping it super tight, we don't sell new stuff at Amazon, we're not selling at walmart.com.

Call anyone out?

Dustin: No, it's just…

I wasn't even aware of that.

Dylan: Oh, have you not looked? They emailed us about selling online, and I just forwarded it on to Dustin.

Wonder how long that's been going on.

Dylan: They reached out to us about 2 months ago.

Dustin: I emailed them back, just to see what the setup is, and all that sort of stuff, but… I think Walmart is horrible for small businesses, and small towns, like mom and pops, it ruins places, and creates low wage jobs that people get stuck in, and it's hard to get out of it, and it tears towns apart. And I don't ever want to be a part of that.

Every corner in the ambsn office is curated to fit the brand’s vision. Photo: Hayley Helms

So the ethos of the brand stays the same, but with this new space, you guys are able to create more awareness, on a local level, which has been great for you guys. What has that done for the brand?

Dustin: I'm thinking more than local, but we did a collaboration with Chris Burkard last year, as well as a movie premiere.

Dylan: We had kids all the way from LA, San Diego, because this was one of the earlier stops on the movie tour, and we did a Q&A with Dane and Chris, and the other guys in the film.

Dustin: We had lines around the block, and so we had to do two showings, and Chris was awesome. He came and sat and answered everyone's questions, after the movie. He's kind of the ultimate storyteller, and he's really passionate, and he's got his gig pretty dialed. It was awesome.

We’d love to do more events with him, and other people. We're trying to do classes here, whether its macramé, or knitting, or whatever. That's what this space is, it's just kind of a place to come and learn something new, and do something fun, and that's what we ultimately wanted. It definitely adds a bit of extra work on our plate, to organize these sort of things, but it gets ambsn tied back to the community, tied back to other people that come through to teach these classes, to what Chris did. It's been awesome.

These hats are right at home. Photo: Hayley Helms

What do you think about the current state of the industry?

Dustin: The funny thing about this industry- for years there was this facade that 'Oh, things are always growing, and things are always doubling year over year,' and its so fake. The reality of it is that this is hard. From 5 million to 10 million, everybody's got their challenges, and nobody is sleeping at night, and if you are, you should probably worry about that, because something is wrong. As fun as it is, apparel is just a tough space to be in. But if you're unique and you have your own point of view and you're in the right retailers and you're OP/EX isn't out of control, you should be fine.

If you're not trying to project this crazy growth that isn't really there right now, then that keeps you sort of grounded. I think it's hard not to get tempted into that though. But at the end of the day, what is that going to do to your brand? At what cost?

Dustin: I think that also has a lot to do with the private, or the equity or the banks that have come in to own these brands. At the end of the day, they're trying to stuff more into the pipeline. And the pipeline is shrinking right now, it seems like. But there's tons of room for brands like us.

The middle size brands that have been around for a while that people are starting to recognize.

Dustin: It almost feels like we're in a "Gotcha!" period again, where they just have to stop selling it, because it was everywhere, and they needed to find new brands. It seems like some retailers are fighting that so hard right now, where they don't want to give up on that. They want to find what's new, but they're not ready for too much of it yet.

Check out more Office Tours from Transworld Business:

Katin: a brand that blends heritage and surf’s new guard

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