Holden Outerwear - Snowboarding's First Truly Feminist Brand?
Holden co-founder Mikey LeBlanc talks making outerwear women actually buy, being a proud mama’s boy & how social media might just save snowboarding
Boardsports brands don’t always have the best rep when it comes to treating women as much more than sex objects or second-class citizens. From the company that used action shots of men on their homepage juxtaposed with women lounging sexily in bikinis, to the teams that make movies with no female riders in them, there’s certainly work to be done.
Yet since 2002, long before #metoo made feminism a financially-sensible marketing decision, one snowboard brand has quietly done things differently. Holden Outerwear has always portrayed women as equals - not in a shouty, 'girl-power' way, but with a more subtle ‘here are some snowboarders; some are men, some are women…’ approach that in many ways feels even more significant.
"It comes down to the roots of this brand, which are Scott and I; we’re both mama’s boys. We love our mums, we probably have more girl friends than guy friends and we have a high respect for women" - Mikey LeBlanc
It’s surely no coincidence that their women’s lines have consistently sold just as well as their men’s, a stat that bucks the industry norm. “It flip-flops occasionally," Holden’s co-founder, the former pro snowboarder Mikey LeBlanc, tells me over Skype from his Venice Beach office. “Last year the women’s collection sales were stronger and this year it was the men’s, but over the sixteen years we’ve been in business it’s been 50/50."
As a female snowboarder I’ve always felt part of the brand’s story, and never patronised or ignored by Holden’s marketing message, which isn’t the case with many other companies. Was being inclusive to both sexes a conscious decision from the off?
“It’s important. And it comes down to the roots of this brand, which are Scott [Zergebel, the designer and co-founder of Holden] and I; we’re both mama’s boys. We love our mums, we probably have more girl friends than guy friends and we have a high respect for women."
Mikey tells me his mum was never shy to jump on a skateboard, or try out whatever they were doing, and from the start Holden’s ambassadors were women who charged. “We’ve always been involved with very strong women like Laura Hadar and Sara Phillips," says Mikey. “They’re bad-ass. They go out and rip harder than all the dudes but they’re also totally feminine; they haven’t walked away from their femininity but they’ve excelled in their lives and we see no restriction in that."
"We found the same things were still as important to us today as when we started. Building products with style, function and respect for Mother Nature" - Scott Zergebel
It’s hard to understate how unusual and important this was a decade ago when Roxy’s honeyed hegemony was at its peak. Hardcore women who had tattoos (and, heaven forbid, dark-brown hair!), and who also ripped and had rail parts in movies were very far from the norm, and people found it hard to reconcile that toughness with femininity. I was the editor of Cooler Magazine back then and we put Laura on the cover in 2011, knowing full well our bosses at that time wouldn’t like it.
Below: Laura Hadar descending Colorado's famous Maroon Bells. She's now on a mission to splitboard on all the 14ers in the state
The average age of a snowboarder is getting older. You'd think that would help Holden, who have always designed for a slightly more mature rider than many core brands - “women not girls" - from 25-45 years old. Mikey says it has helped in terms of younger customers graduating up to the brand, but he also says some of the older customers, especially those with money, are drawn to more technical-looking brands. “I still think a lot of people haven’t realised they can look good and still be extremely technical." But they’re working on getting that message out there, especially with their new collection out this autumn, which will usher in the biggest change in their sixteen-year history.
"There’s nothing wrong with being happy and cute but power is the thing we find the most attractive - not in an evil power way, but more 'I am owning my shit'"
“It’s kind of fun; we’ve rebranded completely, so we’ll have a new logo and a pretty significant new image style and way of communication. We’re going to swipe our Instagram completely in fall and start fresh. It’s exciting, like if you live in the same house for fifteen years you have all this shit you love in there but you have to dig deep for it, so we basically cleaned house, and ended the fucking place, then brought back in a few things we actually need."
Scott later added: “It was time for us to re-examine the brand, its values and what it stands for. We found the same things were still as important to us today as when we started. Building products with style, function and respect for Mother Nature."
Holden has consistently made eco-friendly outerwear and it surprises me when Mikey tells me they did some market research and only 1 per cent of their customers bought Holden for that reason. Fit and style came first, then the eco part made them feel good, but it wasn’t why they chose Holden. “It doesn’t matter to us," he says. “We’re still doing it, this year more than we’ve ever done. It’s a personal choice thing, we’re hippies."
Was the rebrand was hard? “We’ve always been seen as a leader in style and the balance of not walking away from something that works well and also not being scared to scrap everything and rip forward and do new stuff is something we’ve had to work towards mastering."
Mikey felt that pushback too. “People would bring it up and be like: ‘Hey dude, where’s the sexy model blah blah…’ and we’ve used cute girls before but it’s been more about attitude than looks. Whenever someone talks [to me] about an athlete or model my first question is: ‘Are they nice?’" he laughs. “There’s nothing wrong with being happy and cute but power is the thing we find the most attractive - not in an evil power way, but more ‘I am owning my shit’."
Behind the scenes at Holden they’ve tried to work with an even mix of men and women. “There’s never been any macho bullshit. We don’t believe in it," says Mikey. “If anything Scott and I have always been feminine in our [management] style. We could have been harder-handed sometimes but we hired women to do that for us. They execute better than most men when it comes to a lot of things."
Mikey is quick to point out the success of their women’s outerwear is not just about Holden’s ethos but massively due to Scott Zergebel and his team’s designs. What’s special about them compared to other snowboard companies? “We’ve always been a little more current in the styling, more refined and some women respond to that. Our stuff is definitely Scando, Japan-inspired, and even the UK, that classic kind of outerwear, then you have the Americana version.… we pull influence from all over the world."
“Scott has always been into streetwear. He’s never been shy of saying we don’t look inside the industry for inspiration. And he’s always had a feminine style." I later follow up with Scott to ask why that might be. “From a design perspective, women are a lot more fun and creative to design for," he says.
"There’s never been any macho bullshit. We don’t believe in it... If anything Scott and I have always been feminine in our [management] style"
Holden designs have often shown up in other snow brand’s collections. How did he and the team deal with it? “In the first five to six years it was a bit annoying. The whole market is this way and then we saw this swing, so the early adopting core brands were like: ‘Oh here’s our Holden-type jacket…’ because they were sick of hearing about us…and then the larger brands started going in that direction. But it doesn’t really bother us, the whole thing constantly evolves."
Did they ever take things legal? “We thought about it one time because [REDACTED] had a direct copy of one of our coats down to the colour and every stitch but they were smart about the way they did it and they had lots of money and lawyers so we couldn’t touch them."
Does he ever get sleepless nights over, say, stopping a jacket that sold well the year before? “We would have our own internal discussions and turmoil about that," he laughs, “and designers always get bored so you have to constantly rein them back. You think you’d be tantalising them by saying: ‘Hey you don’t need to do much just change the colour and the label…’ but that doesn’t excite them. That’s also when you know you’re working with good people."
The week before our conversation, Holden had run a focus group asking women about next season’s collection, and they especially loved the Bib Pant. “It was designed by women - Scott used his technical know-how to put it into reality, but they told us what was missing and what annoyed them.
“The best part is it has zippers that completely go down the butt, so if you need to pee you don’t have to take all your stuff off. It’s got a lot of nice details, and the fabric, like all our fabric, is great. You can buy a fashionable bib with cheap technical quality, but it will probably sit weird and fall apart."
“We’ve always been known for making strong pants for women. You can make a slim pant but unless you’re in there doing the pattern work and making it really fit, the skinnier you get the more pattern work needs to happen. We get countless comments from ladies who say 'I love the way your pants look on me', so that helps."
"We love core retailers but sometimes we can get lost amongst the other snowboard brands. Online, it’s easier to tell our story"
I ask Scott what his favourite pieces from the new collection are. “I like the women’s Side Zip Puffer" he says. “It’s a nice execution of style and utilises the latest Thermaplume insulation from Primaloft. I also really like the women’s Marren Down Jacket. In the context of snowsports apparel it feels fresh and unique in the market, with its long silhouette and oversized hood."
Snowboarding media has changed a lot in the last decade and a half. Lots of magazines have closed or gone online, while social media has become mega-powerful. How has that shift affected Holden?
“We’ve always been really quiet on who we are and what we do but that’s not the way social media works. So we’ve been working with professionals who get it and are more into it. It’s not in my nature to speak too much but as the marketing guy that’s not a good match," he laughs.
“But I think social media has been really positive for the snowboard community. There are always strains of it that go awry but in general when there were just a few magazines, there were just a few heroes and that was all that was available. Now we can access what Halldor did 20 minutes ago, or see Jamie Anderson just after she’s won an Olympic gold medal. You get more personality and an actual way to connect with your people."
“Kids hit me up directly and I never tire of that. It has taken significant power away from media but I think some of the biggest magazines in the world were failing our industry. Snowboarding was only talking about the current thing. Rather than creating the universe, it was creating an island of this peak experience, but that’s not what everybody is so about these days. It needed to include the universe of it, and I think social media has been amazing for that."
Has it made some of the bigger core snow brands less dominant? “I think now there is just as much opportunity on a small budget to reach a lot of people if you do it right. We love core retailers but sometimes we can get lost amongst the other snowboard brands. Online, it’s easier to tell our story. Someone can come to our site and be like: ‘Oh these people are about style and quality and eco.’"
Sixteen years is a long time to run your own company. I ask Mikey what’s been the best thing about it. “Financially we’ve been through highs, lows and bankruptcy almost, so that’s been really difficult but at the same time, we’ve consistently got to choose this again. Choosing to do this, that’s been the best thing." It’s a choice I’m glad they made.