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Patagonia brand history as seen from 2020

We do business to save our home planet.

Modern Patagonia brand is one of the largest and most famous manufacturers of clothing and equipment for climbers, tourists and all who are interested in outdoor activities. And it all began many years ago with the modest manual production of climbing “iron” and developed into a simple, but such a complex idea. The idea is to grow a business where financial performance and growth rates will remain in the background; a company in which employees will feel free and secure, as in their own family; a company that will not only not cause harm to nature, but will also be responsible to it.

20 years before Patagonia: Yosemite and rock hooks

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard (born November 8, 1938) first tried climbing at the age of 14 as a member of the Southern California Falconry Club. One of the senior mentors showed teens how to sniff along the rocks to get to the falcon’s nests. Yvon and his comrades were inspired by this new “sport” and have since begun to “catch” freight trains travelling to the western part of the San Fernando Valley to climb the Stoney Point sandstones. In the end, adolescents learned to climb up rocks as well as to sniff down. It was 1953 in the yard.

Patagonia brand inventor Yvon Chouinard
Yvon Chouinard with equipment for rock climbing, including Hexentrics. Photo by Tom Frost

In winter, Chouinard spent every weekend on the Stoney Point cliffs, in spring and autumn he moved to Tahquitz Rock granites in the vicinity of Palm Springs. There he met other young climbers from the Sierra Club, including future legends T.M. Herbert, TM Robbert, Royal Robbins and Tom Frost. In the end, the company moved from Tahquitz Rock to Yosemite Park to learn how to climb a big-ball.

The only rock hooks available at that time were made of soft metals, they were placed on the relief once and stayed there forever. The problem was that for many days of passing through the Yosemite walls, hundreds of such “one-time” placements were required. Chouinard was fortunate enough to meet Swiss rock climber John Salathé, who managed to craft carbide hooks. Yvonne was inspired and decided to make his own “reusable” iron. In 1957, Chouinard began production: he had at his disposal a coal forge, a 60-kilogram anvil, pincers, hammers, and a desire to master the blacksmithing.

Yvon Shuinar made his first hooks from the blades of an old combine and tested them in conjunction with T. M. Herbert in Yosemite on the Lost Arrow Chimney route (5.5 A3 or 5.10 A2) and the north wall of Sentinel Rock. The rumour spread quickly, and a line of friends lined up behind Shuinarov’s hooks made of chrome-molybdenum steel – so Yvon turned out to be faster in business than he realized this. Then its capabilities made it possible to produce two such hooks per hour and sell each for 1.5 dollars.

Chouinard opened a small shop in the backyard of his parent’s house in Burbank, California. He could transport most of the tools necessary for making hooks by car, which he willingly used. He loaded the car and moved along the Pacific coast, from the Big Sur to San Diego, in search of successful waves for surfing, and after riding on a surf, he installed an anvil directly on the beach and made rock hooks.

Chouinard devoted the next few years to the production of hooks. In the winter months he worked behind a hard place, spent time from April to July on the Yosemite walls, for the rest of the summer he moved to the large mountains in Wyoming, Canada, or the Alps, and then returned to climb Yosemite again until November, when it started to snow. Chouinard lived on funds from the sale of “iron”, he traded directly from the trunk of the car. The income, by the way, was very modest: sometimes for several weeks, the future founder of Patagonia lived on 50 cents or a dollar a day. Before a trip to the Rocky Mountains, Chouinard was bought with two boxes of canned cat food and could eat only it, porridge, potatoes and boiled ground squirrels and porcupine meat all summer.

Interestingly, in Yosemite, Shuinar and his company received the nickname Valley Cong (which can be translated as “Local Congressmen”). The fact is that the company constantly had to hide in the rocks from the rangers of the park because the limit allowed to stay at the campsite for no more than 2 weeks. But the guys liked to feel like rebels and realize that their passion for climbing rocks and ice falls beyond material values.

Chouinard Equipment: Bookmarks instead of hooks, or the first decision in favour of nature

In the end, the demand for Shuinar’s “iron” became so high that it was simply impossible to produce it further manually, only on our own, because it was time to use stamps and automate the process. In 1965, Chouinard with Tom Frost, who, incidentally, was not only a successful climber but also an aviation engineer, became partners and remained them for 9 years. During this time, they reworked literally every element of climbing equipment that existed at that time, trying to make it more reliable, durable, functional and, of course, lightweight. From each trip to the mountains, they brought new ideas for improving equipment.

In the work, Chouinard and Frost followed the principle of the French aviator (better known to us as a writer) Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the same principle will later be inherited by Patagonia:

“Have you ever thought that not only in aviation but in everything that a person builds, all his production efforts, all calculations and calculations, all sleepless nights spent on drafts and drawings, all this ultimately is unchanged leads him to create such a thing whose only and guiding principle is the principle of utter simplicity? ”

By 1970, Yvonne Chouinard became the largest supplier of climbing “iron” in the United States. However, along with this, he became the largest destroyer of the environment, because hooks, bookmarks and other equipment inflicted irreparable damage to the rocks. Climbing in the states was becoming more and more popular, but the attention of the “clymers” was concentrated on the same areas, on the same routes – and the same brittle cracks had to withstand repeated driving and knocking hooks. The scale of the destruction of the rocky relief was enormous.

After the next climb to El Capitan along the Nose route, several years ago still untouched, and now disfigured, Shuinar and Frost decided to abandon the hooks. Moreover, the decision is rather complicated and risky, because hooks formed the basis of the whole business of Shinar and Frost. But it had to be done. For that time and for Yvon himself, this choice was the first significant step towards protecting the environment.

Fortunately, an alternative to the hooks was found – aluminium tabs, which had not to be driven into the crack with a hammer but wedged by hand. In 1972, they entered the first Chouinard Equipment catalogue. And the catalogue began with editors reporting on the environmental hazards posed by the hooks and a 14-page essay by Doug Robinson on the use of aluminium bookmarks.

“There is a suitable word – purity. Bookmark climbing is pure climbing. Clean, because after the climber the rock remains untouched. Pure, because nothing is driven into the rock or knocked out of the rock, injuring the natural terrain and distorting the route for the next climbers. Clean, because the climber leaves a minimum of traces after his ascent. Cleanliness means climbing rocks without changing or destroying them, this is a big step towards the unity of man with nature. ”

Within a few months after the catalogue was sent out, the production of hooks came to naught, and the bookmarks sold out faster than they had time to make them.

Patagonia brand: colour instead of grey

In the late 60s, “outdoor wear” was basic sweatshirts and grey pants, they did not wear bright and colourful clothes, and the classic climber outfit in Yosemite was cropped dark trousers and a white shirt from a thrift store.

In 1970, during a winter climbing trip to Scotland, Chouinard bought himself a uniform rugby shirt, securely cut to withstand a tough game, with a tight collar (which is very useful for a climber, so that the hanging equipment does not erase the neck) and bright colour, blue, with red and yellow stripes on the chest. Upon returning to the states, Chouinard could not deflect the questions of his comrades, where did he get this beauty. So Yvonne ordered several of these shirts from England, and they were sold out instantly. He continued to order batches of shirts from New Zealand and Argentina and introduced a new fashion in the states – soon other companies followed his example.

Chouinard Equipment label on clothing.

The production of iron was not very profitable, but clothing is another matter. The company relied on a new direction, and by 1972, the Chouinard Equipment assortment included polyurethane balaclava and knitwear bags from Scotland, woollen gloves and mittens from Austria, as well as knitted double-sided psychedelic hats from Boulder, Colorado.

Clothing production was expanding, and soon the question arose of choosing a name for a new direction. Why not the Chouinard? Why start from scratch if you already have a company with a good reputation and a recognizable name? For two reasons. Firstly, because of the unwillingness to weaken the “iron” image of Chouinard Equipment and speculate in the name of Shinar for sales. And secondly, the company did not plan to limit itself only to climbing clothes, they wanted to expand the scope.

Patagonia Brand Logo

Why Patagonia? For most people (especially at that time) Patagonia is not a specific point on the map, but a certain remote, intriguing place, like Shangri-La or Timbuktu … Patagonia is a romantic view of glaciers that suddenly showered on fjords, sharp mountain peaks open to all winds, gaucho and condors … That is why Patagonia turned out to be a suitable name, which, moreover, can be pronounced in any language.

The Patagonia brand was born in 1973, the shape of the Fitzroy peak becomes its symbol, the head office is located in Ventura, California. Together with Chouinard Equipment since 1972, both brands are part of the newly formed Great Pacific Iron Works Inc. In December 1989, Chouinard Equipment ceases to exist due to bankruptcy, and on the initiative of former employees, a new company is formed – the well-known to us Black Diamond.

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