Volcom is what Volcom does.
In our modern world of direct-broadcast-mail-billboard-magazine-tele-interrupt-your-dinner marketing, Madison Avenue firms are busy divining the next best way to earn your money. Once it was enough to make a good product and gain a reputation, but sometime after the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) companies began packaging their wares for visual appeal. And in the last half of the 1900s, a brand’s image became more important than quality as television and color-magazine ads delivered branded fantasies to consumers. The next step, it seems, is to transcend even that.
In the future, companies will be ideas–thoughts strategically attached to products. Promoting a brand in the post-modern world will involve selling an illusory lifestyle that in turn leads consumers to a product. The fantasy, as the consumer experiences it, is inextricably linked to the thing that is for sale. Without it, they’re stuck in their own unglamorous worlds.
Or so says advertising visionary Rolf Jensen, director of the Copenhagen Institute For Futures Studies and author of The Dream Society*. In his book, Jensen predicts that as competing products become increasingly similar, companies will take the focus of their advertising off their products and instead sell stories. These stories, like the most successful Hollywood films, will feature their products placed in crucial scenes and performing critical functions. Compelling stories will encourage believers to buy the props.
It’s not a new idea, really. Philip Morris did it in the 1950s with the Marlboro man, and in the 70s George Lucas’ Star Wars launched a toy empire. But Jensen’s “dream-age” marketing concept invites consumers to experience something, rather than just look the part. Companies will sell passes to “emotional theme parks,” where visitors will seek such things as adventure, love, identity, peace of mind, and conviction. The most successful companies will deliver one or more of these when we eventually land on Jensen’s dream world.
Or have we?
What the Danish futurist describes in abstract terms has existed, at least in Southern California, for decades. Secluded in his Scandinavian think tank, he apparently has never heard of Rune Glifberg, skateboarding, Bjorn Leines, or snowboarding. You can excuse him for maybe not understanding what a surfboard is–or does–but the streets of his native Copenhagen are swarming with kids who’ve bought into an active lifestyle and sport the gear to prove it.
In the action-sports business, Jensen’s future is now, and it goes even further. What his colleagues call “commercialized emotions” is emotional commerce for surfers, skaters, and snowboarders who make the gear they ride and wear. Madison Avenue firms may one day be designing fantasies for consumers to play-act, but skate, surf, and snowboard companies have for a long time opened portals to adventure, passion, identity, peace of mind, and conviction. In short, they offer all of the above, and it’s not a fantasy to dress up in on the weekends.
Maybe that’s why it’s so nonobvious to such experts. What comes out of many companies in the action-sports businesses are the tools they themselves use to live their lives–hardgoods, softgoods, and shoes to fulfill a directive, not a temporal fling of fantasy.
Southern California, with its sunny suburban coastal towns, is the birthplace of skateboarding, the heart of the surf, skate, and snowboard industries, and a hotbed of teen angst. In cookie-cutter communities starved of culture, energetic and creative young people make their own. And during the economically depressed Gulf War period of the early 90s, the impetus to create an alternate universe of fun and expression was too strong for Richard Woolcott and Tucker Hall to resist. Hall was unemployed, and Woolcott had run out of sick days and faced the prospect of wasting good surf and fresh powder sitting in the Quiksilver marketing department. So he quit to collaborate with Hall on a way to ride as much as possible, even if that required a little work now and then.
They spent long evenings with friends brainstorming a concept for a company that would begin with a line of T-shirts–all they could afford to make initially–and go wherever it took them. They cut up magazines, photocopied images from books, and pasted together whatever collages, slogans, and logos came to mind. “We would just sit there for hours and screw around,” says Woolcott. “There were books and magazines–whatever we could get our hands on–and it just kind of happened.”
Initially, it was a style–a look to complement an urge. “It was inspired by 70s-era punk-rock albums–The Clash and the Sex Pistols,” says Woolcott. “The philosophy that came out of music in the 70s, I think, was similar in ’91. The Gulf War and the recession affected our country a lot. And the music, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, was saying the same thing. We kind of felt it.”
Their reaction inspired a motto, “Youth Against Establishment,” that expressed not only what they wanted to say about the world in general, but about their own community. Skateboarding was solidly in the streets, the skatepark boom was years away, and cops were as eager to harass skaters then as they are now. Snowboarding was still banned on many of the world’s most famous slopes, but like skateboarding, that didn’t stop it–riders kept evolving their sport with the delicacy of a blacksmith. “Look at the snowboarders back then–Steve Graham and Shaun Palmer–all those guys were gnarly,” says Woolcott. “And they were crying out for their sport going, ‘Hey, listen to us. We have a real sport here.'”
From a notion was born an idea, and that idea was shared with a few like-minded individuals. From there evolved a plan, and that plan needed a name. Their goal–their project–then, would be to infuse this name with meaning, so that uttering it would inspire one to think beyond the name to the idea behind it–to the notion of fun, adventure, and rebellion that originally inspired Woolcott and Hall. And, of course, they had to be able to trademark it. “Stone” was their first idea, but it was already registered. Woolcott’s nickname “Malcom”–their second idea–was also taken. “Then we looked at it, and there’s a V in the M, so we took it out and got Valcom,” he says. “Tucker was all, ‘Well that looks like “Valley Guy.”‘ So we put the other O in it, and it was Volcom. We slept on it, and the next day we walked in and went, ‘Yeah, Volcom. That sounds like it’ll work.’ Then we put Stone on it–Volcom Stone.”
One of the company’s enduring images is the contrasty abstract of an inverted diamond–an entirely inappropriate rendition of a gem harvested and shaped to perfection. But for this fledgling movement taking the shape of a company, the harsh, multi-faceted gem was an all-too-perfect icon. “It was almost an accident,” says Woolcott. “We found it in some little cheesy black-and-white gem-rock book. It struck us–we looked at it, turned it upside down, Xeroxed it, and stuck it in the computer and stretched it. That became the Volcom Stone. It was never really planned, it just happened.”
From its inception, Volcom was a vehicle–or excuse–for riding whatever conditions happened to present themselves–good waves, a good ramp, or pillowy snow. “Right when it started, we were just kinda getting into the whole snowboard thing and riding powder,” says Woolcott. “So we just did a lot of traveling and snowboarding, or there was a skatepark around. Then all of a sudden, all the snowboarders were going with us on surf trips. It lasted for a couple years like that, and then you wake up one morning and go, ‘Whoa, we either gotta get a little structure around us, or we’re gonna have to go get some other jobs.'”
The business at the time consisted of a line of T-shirts and the Volcom Pistol short–an extra-long, overdyed, ten
-ounce bull-denim twill short with the hallmark Horny Toad back pocket–a patch of textured-vinyl faux hide. The partners moved the business from their bedrooms to a small office, hired a couple friends, and worked the phones frantically to sell their rack of clothes to four shops in Southern California and one in Hawai’i. Somehow the business financed their active lifestyles. “The main thing was just to try to be creative,” says Woolcott. “To not really set a boundary and say, ‘Well we can’t do that.’ It was more like, ‘Hey, let’s just have a creative outlet. Let’s have a palette to paint on.'”
That palette materialized as a four-by-eight-foot door Woolcott picked up at Home Depot and dropped onto a couple of filing cabinets. To this day it still serves as his desk in a spacious office on the second floor of the 86,000-square-foot Volcom compound in Costa Mesa, California. The office is decorated with mementos of Volcom’s illustrious and illustrated past–posters, skateboards, and at least one pair of Pistol shorts–and they blend seamlessly with the newer furnishings and artwork. The core group of friends who helped build the company have become the core of Volcom’s management team, and even the newer employees, says Woolcott, understand and believe in what might be described as the Volcom philosophy: “I think being humble is important and treating people the way you want to be treated. If one person goes off on his own tangent, it’s like, ‘Hey, you affect a lot of other people.’ So it has to be a team–no matter if you’re the sales manager, the president, or somebody working in the shipping department. We’ve been very lucky to have a chemistry here.”
When Woolcott and Hall began recruiting employees from among their talented circle of friends, they also began to recruit athletes who they felt shared their vision and their passion for riding. “At the end of the day, it’s the athlete who’s progressing the sport,” says Woolcott. “The energy, really, at the core, is around the athlete. And when we started Volcom, our number-one goal was to be an athlete-driven company, and to have an infrastructure to support what those athletes do.”
The 100-employee clothing and entertainment company began recruiting teamriders when it had four employees and a single rack of T-shirts to sell. Marketing Director Troy Eckert made the leap from Quiksilver’s surf team, and soon his friend Chet Thomas also made the switch to become Volcom’s first skate pro. Thomas saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something he believed in, and to help it grow. “At first no one knew what the hell Volcom was and what it was about,” he says. “It was just some company with a weird name.”
He was Volcom’s first liaison to other skate pros, its de facto team manager, and helped recruit the original teamriders: Jaya Bonderov, Paul Luna, Richard Paez, Mako Urabe, and Jonas Wray.
Once the company was on its feet, Volcom returned the favor when Thomas needed it most. In the mid 90s he found himself without a board sponsor and without the means to travel. “They sent me to contests,” he says. “They gave me a travel budget and stuff like that. Volcom picked up the tab for everything.”
By then teamrider Remy Stratton had taken on the role of team manager, and Woolcott welcomed his keen instincts and total dedication to the company and concept. Stratton officially came to Volcom after moonlighting for a while as a sales rep. “I was handling surf, skate, and snow,” says Eckert, who at the time managed the teams. “It was just a complete juggling act. So I’d always come to him, ‘Help me out, Remy. What’s going on?’ And he kind of blossomed to that position.”
Stratton was to take on a broader role as Volcom’s special-projects coordinator, setting up tours and events, and giving up plans for college in order to help build the company’s fledgling skate program. “I was getting ready to move to San Francisco,” he says. “I had gotten accepted to SF State University, but just seeing so many companies come and go in your skateboarding life, you meet a group and you can just recognize that something’s happening here.”
Coming from an educated family (all of Stratton’s siblings are college graduates), he realized then and appreciates now the choice he made: “If I was in college right now, I’d probably be looking at Volcom all over the place going, ‘Fuck!‘”
Volcom as a concept and company has evolved as its staff has grown and matured into their roles as managers of a successful business in a booming market. But Woolcott is emphatic about preserving the essence of what they started–a creative endeavor in the shape of a business rather than a business masquerading as an artists’ co-op. “I think you need a balance in both,” he says. “It’s really important to keep an artistic side to us. That’s what keeps us going. But at the same time, if we don’t keep it somewhat in a schedule with the business thought behind it–to help pay for it–then it’s gonna die, too. But there are a lot of creative people here for the main reason of having a creative outlet, so we’ve got to make sure that that’s the number-one priority. You can’t let the business overtake why you started.”
Eckert agrees: “You gotta try and keep it fun every day, as much as you can.”
Almost as soon as they began screening T-shirts, the Volcom crew was busy collecting footage of their antics on the street, ramps, snow, and water for a video. Alive We Ride (1993) was a statement about the collective rush of skating, surfing, and snowboarding. The fifteen subsequent Veeco (Volcom’s film division) productions would each address single subjects or sports, but Ride initiated a series of experiments that would ultimately result in a range of entertainment projects including CDs and full-blown traveling skateboarding-and-music festivals. “Alive We Ride was kind of like the first ‘this is who we are’ video,” says Woolcott. “It wasn’t like we really had to please anybody. We could just do what we wanted to do, and hopefully people would catch on to it, or they would be interested in what we were doing.”
Despite having averaged over 1.5 videos a year, Woolcott insists that Veeco hasn’t become a full-blown department within Volcom. “For us, it’s like a special treat for the company,” he says. “When you can set some money aside and shoot a bunch of film, don’t take it for granted.”
Like their ads and Web site (volcom.com), Volcom’s films are visual collages of footage and stark graphics, suggesting a degree of spontaneity that belies the painstaking process of achieving a low-tech look with high-tech tools. Much of 1997’s Freedom Wig, Volcom’s first skateboard film, was shot in sometimes-out-of-focus Super-8. Wig features the talents of Jaya Bonderov, Rune Glifberg, Brad Hayes, Richard Paez, Alan Petersen, Geoff Rowley, Kale Sandridge, Remy Stratton, Chet Thomas, and others in clips edited between footage of highways sliding by, teamriders’ personal moments, and Scott Stamnes skating his mini ramp on the back of a fishing boat–all of which further accents the film’s handmade motif.
Filmmaking was a hobby of Woolcott’s long before the company was founded, so Veeco was a natural development. Playing music is another popular pastime for many Volcom employees, so it was inevitable that the company would venture into that arena, too. Volcom Entertainment was inspired by teamrider Ryan Immegart, who asked Woolcott to produce his band’s CD in lieu of paying him photo incentives (shots of Immegart with clearly displayed Volcom stickers on his board had been popping up in snow mags). Since The Line’s first album came out in 1995, Volcom Entertainment has released twenty CDs from various bands, including CKY, and has produced too many gigs and tours to count. Most notable is last year’s We Will Speak To You tour, a self-contained youth happening with skate demos, live bands, and lots of free gear that visited cities and townships across the country. Much of tha
t tour can be vicariously experienced via the Big Youth Happening (2000) video, and more video havoc should arrive this summer when Volcom releases its second full-length skate film, currently known only as Remy’s Projekt.
Woolcott describes all of the company’s varied exploits with an equal amount of pride and caution. “We just kind of let it play on itself,” he says. “If it starts going in a direction that isn’t right, we’ll go, ‘Wait, wait, wait. This isn’t us.’ Because we don’t want to hurt the things that we’ve already created.”
At its core, Volcom is a collective of friends who collaborate to sustain a way of life that cherishes youth and the exhilaration of skating, surfing, and snowboarding. In its matured state, ten years down the line, they’ve each specialized their roles and have remained focused on their core product. “The clothing’s the most important to us in terms of what we make, and the revenue side,” says Woolcott. “You’ve got all those skate shops out there that support Volcom on a seasonal basis, so it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re delivering quality product on time, the style is innovative and forward-thinking, and we don’t get lazy. At the end of the day, we are–in the true sense–a clothing company. But it’s success has allowed us to expand on that.”
Volcom’s current catalogs include almost 400 pieces in seven distinct lines: the staple jeans and tops of Volcom sportswear (think Geoff Rowley and Brian Sumner); the canvas and twill Scout line (think Chet Thomas); the clean and technical V Line (think Rune Glifberg); a Volcom girls’ line (think Jen O’Brien); a complete boys’ line of undersized pants, shorts, and tops (think Ryan Sheckler); a full range of snow outerwear (think Bjorn Leines); and the Modulator series of surf trunks (think Bruce Irons).
The lines’ distinctive styles allow Volcom designers to experiment with various materials and treatments, but every piece includes trademark Volcom detailing–subtle twists on standard styling. Now that the company is clothing a clientele far beyond Southern California’s Orange Curtain, the one-time upstart company has had to grapple with success, a broad customer base, and the fact that while it once challenged the establishment, with over 1,000 retail accounts nationally it now is the establishment. “We are different than we were ten years ago,” says Woolcott. “But when I think of ‘Youth Against Establishment,’ today–for us–it’s all about being innovative, from the design to the advertising to the athletes. It’s like, ‘Let’s take a creative approach, let’s work with somebody nobody’s looking at, and let’s support something that isn’t being supported.'”
It worked once–promoting a line of experimental fashion through a set of overlooked athletes, promoting those athletes, and growing as their sports came into vogue. But will it work again in the high-stakes game the action-sports clothing business has become? “In established thinking, most people are gonna go down a route that’s safe,” says Woolcott. “We always want to take the risk, that keeps it exciting–consistently inconsistent, that’s our motto.”
Staring at the enduring image of an inverted diamond, stretched and manipulated into a stark black-and-white spearhead–multifaceted and enigmatic, it becomes evident that Woolcott and Hall knew something in 1991 that all the market research and focus-group data could never reveal. They knew their community–their market–and they knew enough to follow their instincts and not define their path too strictly. “I think kids and people in general have their own impression of Volcom, which is important because we don’t want to tell them how to perceive what we’re doing,” says Woolcott. “It’s like, ‘Let’s throw something out there.’ And they have their own reaction to it. I don’t want to homogenize it. One kid might look at Volcom totally different than another kid, and that’s the way we’d like to keep it.”
* McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, April 22, 1999