A Discussion With Brad Steward On Twenty-Five Years of Bonfire
The2014 season marks a quarter century for Bonfire. For snowboarding, this is a huge accomplishment. Bonfire has existed essentially throughout the modern history of the sport. The brand that began in 1989, shortly after snowboards got Ptex, highback bindings, and shapes that could be considered somewhat modern, and they are among a limited group of dedicated snowboard-specific companies, like Burton and GNU, that are still around today.
Bonfire has been hugely influential, but it’s easy for a portion of the industry to take for granted the luxury of finding good quality gear that matches your personal sense of style. It was not always that way. In the early days of snowboarding, options were very limited. You had a lot of ski companies that made some really ugly gear and much of it did not work well. Bonfire's founder, Brad Steward, had a huge impact on snowboarding since he came entered the outerwear game; after all, without warm, proper-fitting outerwear, snowboarding would not be where it is today.
Steward’s influence, however, goes well beyond simply outerwear. The list of people within the industry who got their start at Bonfire as team-riders or as employees is a who's who of some of snowboarding's finest. The short list includes David Benedek, Travis Parker, Bode Merrill, Louif Paradis, Jake Burton, Jeff Curtes, Noah Branden, Matt Godwill, Jeremy Jones, Trevor Graves, Andy Jenkins, and even Nike Golf President Bryan Johnston, Levis Prseident James Curleigh, as well as Todd Richards, Louie Vito, Tim Windell, Terry Kidwell, and Jason Ford. Brands have been spawned from Bonfire, ideas have been borrowed, business practices have been followed. Through it all Bonfire continues to make some of the best outerwear built specifically for snowboarding.
Snowboarding would look and be a lot different without Steward's influence. And today, not much has changed; the company founder still helps to run Bonfire and he's still just as passionate about snowboarding as he was when he was setting out to launch the fledgling brand back in 1989. In light of Bonfire’s 25th year in business, Steward took some time to talk to us recently about the past, present, and future of snowboarding.
Let’s start at the beginning. Twenty-Five Years, includes so much of snowboarding's history, how did Bonfire get started?
Pretty much 1989 is when it got going, it's a simple story. I had been a professional snowboarder for a while and didn't really like any of the clothes that anyone was making for us. Kind of felt like I had started a couple of board companies with what I'd done at Sims and Morrow and just kind of felt like I'd checked that box. I wanted to get into the apparel market because I wanted to get engaged in the design work of apparel. I had trademarked Bonfire when I was younger and thought then that I would do something with that name someday. Then literally one day I just kind of saw a few designs in my head for a few T-shirts while getting ready to head up to snowboard camp at Mount Hood. I think it was Windell's first session ever, 20 something years ago. I thought, I'll design a few T-shirts and see what happens. Think there were 48 T-shirts total, 2 or 3 different designs. Most of them were designed with my typewriter because Mac's were around but they were relatively exotic 25 years ago and with the memory that they had, there wasn't much space on the drives to do much. So, designed them on my ￼typewriter, which I had gotten at Sears for my eighth grade birthday [laughter], enlarged them on a copy machine, hand cut the designs, turned them into T-shirts, took them to Mount Hood and people freaked out. Everyone was really psyched on them, they were really different at the time. Everyone was trying to be Neon and super rad at the time [laughter] you've got to remember, that 30-40% of snowboarders were riding hard boots. It was a totally different era. Bonfire was something a little dark, artsy, and a little more indie than what was happening. We were still in the goofy neon era…
Yea, you named the weird, bad brand [laughter] they were around. Checker Pig, Mistral, Hooger Booger, you know all the stuff that died a quick death.
“My whole thing was to take what I had seen in streetwear and try to build waterproof breathable fabrics and then bring that into snowboard outerwear,” says Steward. “Today that's not an unusual premise, it's basically what every brand does, whether it's the Holden's, the Airblaster’s, or whoever. Then, it was a radical concept.”
Like Benetton on snow?
It was just kind of wacky. All the snowboarders then were hung up on these big huge square, beefy patches on your knees and everything. First of all, and I came from film and photography school as well, it just looked bad in photos. When you looked at that style it did not look like it should to me, versus looking at a skateboard mag and a guy was wearing a pair of jeans with a cool look and a cool vibe. My whole thing was to take what I had seen in streetwear and try to build waterproof breathable fabrics and then bring that into snowboard outerwear. Today that's not an unusual premise, it's basically what every brand does, whether it's the Holden's, the Airblaster’s, or whoever. Then, it was a radical concept. People just thought outerwear was beefy and bulky and didn't look or feel like streetwear at all. Bonfire really tried to change that.
You were a pro rider and designer before starting Bonfire?
I was riding for Burton in the early, early days. At the time, riding for Burton meant you got free stuff, no one got a salary. I had gone to the first world championships and had asked Jake if I could ride in the halfpipe. Jake said "Well, your board doesn't really ride backwards, so it seems like a waste of time." That was the moment that I thought I was on the wrong team, doing the wrong stuff, so I switched to Sims after that. I had won a few skate contests and I was from the West, which made me one of the only riders from the West for Burton. Tom Sims saw things a little differently, and I wanted to do freestyle so I rode for Sims for a couple of years. One day I'm walking on the deck of the pipe at the Nationals in Crested Butte, and a 13 or 14 year old Shaun Palmer does a giant method over my head with a wrist in a cast. I knew right then that my days were numbered. I was a lot older than Shaun, there was no way I could do what he did, even though he was in a cast. I just thought, well, I better shift tracks because I'm not going to keep pace with kids like Shaun Palmer and Damian Sanders. They were going to take it to another level.
Some of those early guys like Damian were all over the ugly neon stuff.
[Laughter] I remember thinking, don't design for the current generation. Get one generation ahead of the sport. Many of those guys were getting their contracts and getting paid for the first time ever so when North Face or whoever came to them with ￼some whacky square knee'd thing or some whack brand that didn't belong in snowboarding, they would take it because they got the paycheck. I thought that Neon vibe, first generation of snowboard apparel was going to pass quickly.
Bonfire kind of set the pace for the future. Snowboarding now has loose pants, tight pants, and everything in between. There’s so many different brands and styles geared towards snowboarding out there now.
Part of what makes it so hard to be successful in snowboarding today is that it's super fragmented. I truly think Bonfire was the first company to bring out a skinny fit pant. We had one four years before Holden was even in business. People looked at the skinny pant and said "that's not happening at all" [laughter]. We said, if you look at the jeans kids are wearing, it's happening now in streetwear and will probably come to snowboarding. For 2-3 seasons, customers rejected skinny pants in snowboarding. Then one year later, boom, the developer that was working on it here leaves our office and starts Holden with Mikey and the guys [laughter] and they created a look for it.
Sometimes people just need different brands to kick off the next movement. Now we are in a situation where no one really knows where the movement is and all the brands in snowboarding are suffering a little bit. There's not really a lead thing that people can point to and say that's what next. On one hand, it's really cool and fertile ground to be creative. You don't have designers just following trends. They are truly creating unique stuff. It's also kind of flat because people are afraid to try new stuff in times like this.
If it's flat, people can just wear what they bought last year.
Yeah, and you have a larger audience that's just not focused on what their apparel is. It's more about what the board, boot, and binding is doing on the mountain. It's not about how you look. It's a drive back to authenticity in a way. As early generation snowboarders, we cared about how we looked because we wanted to signal to people that we weren't skiers. Snowboarding was new and different but now snowboarding isn't new or different to people at all, so that brings the look to a more generic place.
There was little or no money involved in snowboarding 25 years ago. No X Games, no Olympics, no big money contracts-- as you said, riding for Burton, you did not get paid. What made you want to start a snowboard brand?
Just love, really-- the best reason. I wanted to live the life of riding everywhere I could. I laugh about it now but I remember at one point asking our accountant, ‘why do we need to do accounting?’ He said, ‘what do you mean?’ I said ‘Because we are making stuff, selling stuff, and we all have enough money to eat and live, why do we need to spend time with accounting, can't we just snowboard, promote, and sell? [laughter] He laughed his ass off and now that I'm older I get it. I just love that truly my viewpoint was to get enough to snowboard and that's it. I've loved snowboarding since my first run in 1978.
“Snowboarding will change you if you let it. Once you get a toe turn and a heel turn, next thing you know, it's 5 years later and you've lived in Whistler for 4 years.” Brad Steward, Bonfire Founder
Where was your first run?
￼In Flagstaff, Arizona. We had a house with a really steep driveway. I took one run down and knew right away, this is it. I instantly found something that I could love forever. Snowboarding will change you if you let it. Once you get a toe turn and a heel turn, next thing you know, it's 5 years later and you've lived in Whistler for 4 years. People lose time and space when they get things right in their life and I think many people experience that in snowboarding. I want more people to experience that now. I don't hear that, people getting that feeling, enough now. My family was not really a mountain family but I grew up just wanting to skateboard. So, when I saw snowboarding it was just an instant win because the only thing that stopped us from skateboarding was the snow. When your linking turns in different zones of the mountain for 3,000 vertical feet, nothing beats it.
Click through to page two to keep reading more from Steward on how he made Bonfire into a sustainable company, answering to a corporate parent company, and the evolution of the snow market and what that means for making quality products.
“A common email form a kid is that they bought a pair of Bonfire pants 7 years ago and they've never had to buy another pair. We are in a position where we are trying to acknowledge that snowboarding has changed, and to make the best value product we can. It's tricky when I built the company to be high-end with the best possible factories and materials that we can afford.” – Brad Steward
When did it seem like Bonfire would become a sustainable company you could make a living from?
You know, it's funny, in the beginning I always felt I would always make a living off it and I think I was just too damn dumb to know what that meant and how hard that would be. The last couple of years have been the most difficult in the history of Bonfire. It was much easier to start the company and keep it running through the 90's and 2000’s. The last few years have been really challenging because we have a really basic problem. Kind of the origin, or the reason for being for the brand, was that I wanted to make the best, most expensive, most durable and highest performance snowboard outerwear that I could. When we launched Bonfire we were at least 100 bucks more expensive than everything else in the market. Dealers said you’re nuts if you think people are going to pay this. Snowboard jackets were $150 bucks and we were bringing out $399 and $459 dollar jackets. I think what's made it hard for us over the years is that snowboarding-- for many retailers, not specialty retailers, but other retailers-- has become a low price sport that people try. If they stick to it, they go over to a specialty retailer or the internet. It's kind of a sport that they do four times a year and they don't want to invest in the kind of stuff that Bonfire makes. That’s been really challenging because we've had to come off our price points and original positioning. A common email form a kid is that they bought a pair of Bonfire pants 7 years ago and they've never had to buy another pair. We are in a position where we are trying to acknowledge that snowboarding has changed, and to make the best value product we can. It's tricky when I built the company to be high-end with the best possible factories and materials that we can afford. Don't forget, Bonfire's one of the first to bring Gore Tex into snowboarding. Now, if we bring Gore Tex into snowboarding, the audience is so limited that we can't really make a profit off it.
People snowboard in hoodies and $40 dollar jackets.
Yea, and all the outdoor brands woke up to snowboarding and poached into the territory in a big way. Going after teamriders and doing different things inside of pure, core snowboarding.The best thing about Bonfire is that it's a pure snowboarding brand, the worst thing about Bonfire, it's a pure snowboarding brand. So we ebb and flow as snowboarding does. You see many brands branching out into streetwear but Bonfire's ￼not a streetwear brand, we're a snowboard company. We're more like an Arcteryx or somebody like that who specializes in something very high end. The problem is that our market is drifting away from that. Our hope is that as people get more serious about their equipment and heading out into the back and side-country, wanting a better experience, then companies like our’s will benefit.
As someone becomes a diehard snowboarder, they're going to want better jackets to ride in when it's cold and/or wet, whether you’re looking for pow, lapping the park at night, or searching the streets.
You can still go the park and see somebody wearing a 5k polka dot lime green Neff jacket. That's cool if that's what that kids are into but we know, he's going to be out of it in 2 years.
Or they'll step up?
We get emails all the time saying, ‘hey, I bought a Bonfire jacket 5 years ago and it still works great, looks great, I don't really need another jacket.’ In some ways I wish we were more like the Southern California companies that just participate in the churn of trends. Then I see what’s happening to Quiksilver, Hurley, Billabong and these giant surf companies that have been brought down because they have no more authenticity at all. It makes me want to fight harder to be even more authentic and more true to snowboarding. Does that mean we're going to be a giant conglomerate? Probably not, unless snowboarding explodes. Does it mean we can feel good about making really good products that work for people for their lifetime of riding? That feels pretty good to me. It's a tricky balance to make money and make good, high quality products.
Then it goes back to just making enough to pay the rent.
That dynamic changes when you have a parent company. We're not compared to Brad and his buddies working out of a house in Southern California or in Oregon. We're compared to Salomon, Arcteryx and the other leading brands in here at Amer Sports. It's a challenge, to make people understand that there's a part of snowsports that's struggling right now, and it's going to take a while to recover. The companies that are big in those sports are going to take a while to recover. Remember, skiing 10 years ago was no where but the good companies hung in there and made it through. They changed the businesses and business models to become profitable today, but it's been painful.
Bonfire is owned by a publicly traded company, but they seem to understand that there are ups and downs in the market instead of just demanding more money, more money.
Every public company wants you to grow so I would never represent that I don't sit in meetings where people ask what I'm going to do to grow. A benefit is, well, look at the other brands they own, like Atomic and Salomon. Atomic is a heritage brand that has led ski racing for many years; a heritage brand in skiing that has dominated and invented all ￼sorts of cool shit for many years. These are the people that are in the company that owns Salomon. We definitely have corporate pressure to grow but they are in the market enough to know that if snowboarding is shrinking and we own an authentic snowboarding brand than getting that brand to grow is going to be tricky. It doesn't mean we don't try, it doesn't mean we don't work on it. The other side of it is that I like to start brands that are successful and make money. I like people to be paid well, buy houses, have kids, drive good cars, take cool vacations and live their dream a little bit. When somebody comes to me to say they are putting their kids through college while working at Bonfire that's a huge victory. Frankly, that's more important to me than anything else at this stage; growing a company that helps enrich people's lives and helps them to be happier and healthier. I like to reward the people that work their asses off here. Snowboarding itself is a reward but also being able to go to Whistler with your family to ride for 5 days and stay in a decent hotel is also really rewarding. It all requires Bonfire to grow.
Yeah, I'm not saying you don't always try to be better or you might as well give up. If you are not always trying to be better then the next year everyone else will be better and you won't.
Yea, one thing that's different for us too is that Bonfire taught Salomon how to make apparel, thats the bottom line. We taught Salomon how to be a clothing company in the early days of Salomon Apparel. They learned how to staff things and how to develop things like factory relationships. If it wasn't for Bonfire there wouldn't be any Salomon apparel, they realized a tremendous amount of value from what Bonfire did to help Salomon. Most of the people that work at Salomon now don't now because they weren't around 20-25 years ago ago when we were pushing Salomon to make clothing. In that way, I think Amer has benefited a tremendous amount from the resources of Bonfire and the things that we were able to create. That maybe gives us a special spot in the group. They look at the Bonfire brand and peel it into a few slices; what did we learn from Bonfire, what did we develop out of Bonfire, what has grown out of from what we learned about apparel from Bonfire, instead just looking at Bonfire as P an L and saying snowboarding sucks, your brand sucks, lets call the whole thing off.
So it's mutually beneficial and not a scenario where Amer buys you up, uses you, and throws the brand away?
It may be a little bit of a controversial thing to say but I think Amer literally has recognized 100s of millions of dollars of revenue based on what they learned from Bonfire. The reason I would say that is that this year (2013) the old president at Salomon came up to me, shook my hand and said "Thank you for teaching us how to make apparel, how to be entrepreneurial, how to take a more American direction; how to be innovative, investigative and curious in a way that was different to our company" Because remember, at the time they bought us Salomon was all about the Alps, it was all about Europe. They had some business selling skis in the US but France drove everything and they weren't entrepreneurial and they weren't searching out new business like they are now. I think, if you talk to the people that were there at the time
￼Bonfire and Salomon came together that Bonfire triggered a new era at Salomon. Of course the people at Salomon did the work, I would never represent that Bonfire did the work to get Salomon to where it is but I would definitely claim that we assisted them to modernize.
Yeah, and Bonfire was in many of those conversations on how to bring Salomon out of it's image at that time, which was a sixty year old guy in the Alps wearing tight red pants and rear entry ski boots.
When did Bonfire partner up with Salomon?
I sold it to them in 1995 and had always created the company with the idea that I would need a big partner to take on Burton and I think we successfully took Burton on through a good part of the 90's and early 2000s. The last five years have been the most difficult because snowboarding is shrinking and there's more competition. The consumer is not as appreciative of expensive, quality gear. Most of the retailers that engage with us ask what we have for $169 bucks with a hood. We want to sit there and talk about taping, materials, construction, garment engineering, waterproof and breathability level and those are not big parts of the equation right now. I think it will return to that but it's not a large audience in snowboarding right now. Most of Burton's AK product is kind of the closest brand to what Bonfire sells. I have a hard time seeing snowboarders in Burton AK, I see a lot of skiers in it, AK's become more of an outdoor brand. Frankly, I think Burton's done a good job with the brand and have been very smart about positioning it to people who may or may not snowboard. It's a radically different market than it was in the 90's. I think by coming together with Salomon we pushed the market big time to rethink what they do there. It's about having fun in the snow and that old dialogue of skier versus snowboarder, I think we pushed to erased that. If you grew up in a mountain town, it's irrelevant, you just hang with you hang with.
It's just p-tex and metal edges.
Snowboarding and skiing have each stolen from each other over the last 25 years. They've each risen and become better and more interesting because of the other.
There's the negative aspects of the snowboard industry, shrinking growth and so on but from a riders perspective things are awesome. You can buy boards for any terrain from street boards to park boards, powder boards with rad shapes and even a lot brands are making split boards. About every mountain has a snowboard park. Heck in 1988 almost no ski area even allowed snowboards. So there's a lot out there for consumers, which is good.
That's kind of true, it's the era of the consumer. You can name what you want to ride, where you want to ride and how you want to ride it and there is a combo that has come together that was never available in the past. It would have been very difficult to do that. If someone goes in a store in today and says they want to go Thompson Pass in Alaska and want to ride a heli for a portion of the trip and then splitboard and they need the latest technology in avalanche airbag and transciever protection to keep them safe, it's pretty easy to get. Literally, you can walk out the door here in Portland, get all the gear you need and in 4-5 hours be in Alaska and ready to roll and have a completely one of a kind and unique experience. That's way different from the past where it would take a few weeks customizing and sorting out your gear and figuring out what heli tours allow snowboards. Your dead on, it's the era of the ultimate snowboard experience and the irony is, fewer people are lining up for it.
What has spawned from Bonfire?
Wow, it's kind of an interesting thing because when people look back and say what is the contribution of Bonfire and that person at that brand I think many of the things that I've pushed for and people, that have been in the mix have gone on to do some great things. There's times where I've thought, wow I wish those people would have stayed here and finished their career here and then part of me thinks, now we've done it exactly the way we're supposed to have done it. It's always kept the company vital, having new people in and out. People bringing new knowledge in and teaching us things pus people learn stuff here and take that knowledge with them. You can definitely name any brand in Oregon and we are the ground zero in some ways. Whether it's our old developers and running off to start Holden, old team riders going off to start Airblaster, guys who used to hang around the office starting the Jackass TV shows and so on. The early days of the Nike 6.0 and skateboard thing are fairly rich with people who worked here or are ex team riders, The VP of Nike golf and the President of Levi's are ex Bonfire guys. We've spawned many interesting little companies and projects out of here that have done really well for people. Cory from Cobra Dogs, worked here forever. Many people have been through the doors and learned a lot here and we've learned a lot from the people that have worked here as well. It's definitely been a two way street. Learning is everywhere, the trick is staying open to it.
What are you most proud of?
I'm leery of pride, the idea of stopping and counting the things you're proud of instead of just looking forward and moving ahead and trying to constantly improve. For sure I'm really happy to see something I started in my bedroom last for 25 years still hanging around. If anything, I'm most proud of the people that have worked here. I'm proud that a lot of very smart people have come through the door here and that many really smart people work here today. They have given much of their life to help this company be successful, I'm proud of that probably more than anything. I'm proud of showing people the world. That's one thing I've always tried to do with the company, get people to Europe, China, Japan, get them around the planet and let them open up. People come to me and say, hey, I was just a kid from Portland and you sent me on that trip to that one country and everything changed and now I'm successful.
￼So you don't plan on getting out, Bonfire has many years left?
Yea, I think so but you never know what business is going to do. Like I said, these past couple of years have been tricky as hell and we're navigating Bonfire through some deep and cold water to get to a place that we think we needs to be. Keeping it fresh for the brand is vital. Where that leads and what that means remains to be seen. In the beginning the original name for Bonfire was Bonfire Think Tank Designs and the concept was let's a place that makes cool shit for snowboarding. To me, if somebody came to me and said Bonfire doesn't exist anymore, to me that wouldn't be the death of anything. Sure, it'd be the death of a trademark and the end of an era but it wouldn't be the end of my own personal drive to make cool shit for snowboarding, I don't think that will ever die. I don't feel the drive waning in any way as I get older, I feel the opposite, my desire to do cool shit in snowboarding will always be there. I really look back, see my friends and everything that's happened and have deep gratitude for snowboarding and how it changed my life.
Follow the jump to page three to hear from Chris Roach, Louif Paradis, and James Curleigh as they weigh in on Bonfire.
We got team riders, plus a former employee to answer a few questions about Bonfire
Brad Steward is in snowboarding for life. I first met Brad back in the Sims days. My first time on Bonfire Brad picked me up after Quick fired me for leaving a spot with shitty conditions. Bonfire has always made me feel apart of a team, then and now. Bonfire has strength because of the brand, the people behind the company, and a sick team. Thanks to Bonfire, I shredded outside Tahoe this summer for the first time in 15 year’s, that says it all. Twenty-five years Bonfire, cheers!
I got on Bonfire and Salomon at the same time. I was 20 I think and it was my first year filming with photographer Oli Gagnon. Oli was good friends with Emanuel, the Team Manager at the time. Oli told Emanuel he should come see us ride once, it kinda happened like that. I met Emanuel and he saw there was potential.
Were you stoked to get on the team of one of the longest running brands in the history of snowboarding?
For sure! Especially because when I was a kid I would buy Bonfire. Some of my favorite snowboarders of all time were or had been on Bonfire.
Riding for Bonfire is awesome because they really listen to the team and to the people that they want to reach with what they make. The result is good looking gear with high end materials, no compromise. It’s fun to not feel forced to wear something. I would buy it if I wasn’t getting it for free. They’re also very supportive as a sponsor to let you take your snowboarding where you want. They’re not gonna try to make you go in the direction they think is better for them, they just take you as you are, and make sure you’re all good…
I don’t see many brands out there that I can compare to Bonfire. They’re the real deal.
James Curleigh, current President of Levis, and former President of Salomon
How did Bonfire help change snow sports?
Sometime around 1996, Salomon ‘the ski company’ was trying to figure out the future of the mountain. We knew that the future would include snowboarding, but we weren’t sure exactly how to engage - enter BONFIRE and Brad Steward. From day 1, Brad and his team knew that their challenge was not just to continue to create the best snowboarding apparel, but to also contribute to the emerging culture of the entire snowboard community (and to energize and educate Salomon!).
In a crazy, expanding, global sporting goods world, I loved the balance of the entrepreneurialism and energy that Bonfire brought to the market. I came to appreciate the simple, but sophisticated approach that Brad & Bonfire brought to product, marketing, and markets. How simple is Silver, Gold, and Platinum as a product platform? Theres great memories of hitting the European trade show ‘circuit’ with our samples, some killer images, a case of RedBull, and learning to translate silver, gold, and platinum into many languages!
Any knowledge that you acquired at Bonfire?
The ability to balance simplicity with sophistication is not easy, I really learned this balance from Brad and Bonfire. Not to mention Brad’s ability to always ‘ask the right questions, at the right time, to the right people.’ I also learned that regardless of your company size, the same principles of business, brand, and beliefs still hold true! I have continued to use my ‘Bonfire-isms’ even at Levi’s!
Was it an exciting time to be involved in such a rapidly growing sport?
Brad and Bonfire were true pioneers in the snowboarding movement, and I was lucky to be on the Bonfire ‘wagon’ heading west (and north, east, and south)! Back in the day, there were as many questions as there were answers for the future of snowboarding, which made for exciting times. Looking back, it is undeniable that snowboarding completely rejuvenated and reenergized the entire mountain, from culture, innovation, perspective and passion. Rarely do we get a chance to be a part of a movement that truly makes an impact beyond just product . . . and to see how vision gets converted into reality season after season! Thanks for letting meeting join the ride, and congrats on your success-to-date and your future success!