In this sweet but fleeting existence—where we’ll encounter more enterprise than is fathomable—there are brands and then there are universes. Galactic ecosystems of identity and innovation that exceed product or aesthetic, and instead, deeply elevate and inspire. Inspire a class of athletes once spurned by the global athletic community, which now takes center stage at the Winter Olympics. Inspire youngsters to save up their snow shoveling cash. Inspire an ethos of sustainability as intrinsic to function as the heart’s desire to beat. And in more recent years, inspire the increasingly intersecting spheres of fashion, art, music, and pop culture to strap in—or in the case of the party in question—StepOn™.
I’m talking, of course, about Burton—the veritable snow brand. A brand founded in 1977, after a wild hair atop the foot of its founder, Jake Burton Carpenter, saw him creating his own boards in his Vermont barn alongside his future wife and company CEO, Donna Carpenter (currently Owner and Chairwoman)—later pounding on the door of a Swiss gentleman in the middle of the night, beckoning the seasoned ski-maker to help further tool his new wonder toy into prominence. The Burton name is among a handful of brands that have, over the years, culminated its own nomenclature of terms, vibes, and symbols. Total market ubiquity.
But beyond the Burton name is an identity so meaningfully now—not just with its cultural currency, but with its stake and responsibility in a hard-sought planetary balance. This balance could be said to face more challenges than ever before. Ice caps melting, forests routinely afire, and the next generation growing up with the knowledge that everything around them, beyond themselves, is fragilely finite. Then, we’ve a pandemic and its immeasurable losses, a wrench into global supply chains—all of this compounding how deeply interwoven our current global order truly is.
From the Burton perspective, of course, there’s no silver bullet for navigating the myriad obstacles. But one certainly can’t sit idle. Foremost: healthy body, healthy mind. The outdoors has trended hard during the pandemic. Numerous major newspapers have published think pieces about the merits of the outdoors on our mental health, and getting out is increasingly prescribed by doctors and counselors for those suffering. So we keep riding. Burton’s community advocacy and philanthropy programs amplify this critical counterbalance by making the sport more and more accessible to all.
Then there’s compassion—mindfulness about where and how our products are coming to be—the fabric of that formidably interwoven world mentioned above. So, the Burton supply chain prides itself on sustainability, transparency, and ingenuity with hundreds of factories around the world—and as we’ll unpack below, this precedent occurs on principle and empathy, regardless of its influence on the company’s bottom line.
Lastly, we don’t stop dreaming. See: a Burton collaboration with the late, inimitable Virgil Abloh—musician, Louis Vuitton Menswear Designer, fabricator, dreamer, and more. This March, Burton unveiled 10 exclusive Abloh-designed ’Manifesto’ snowboards created before his untimely death in December. The boards were auctioned shortly after the launch announcement, with proceeds supporting Abloh’s “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, and were complimented by a series of gear available at burton.com.
PRODUCT THAT BY ITS EXISTENCE NOT ONLY STANDS AS EVIDENCE FOR THE EVOLUTION OF A SUBCULTURE AND SPORT BUT BECOMES AN ARTIFACT WHICH PROVES THAT DIVERSITY WITHIN SNOWBOARDING IS NOT ONLY AN IDEA, IT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING, CARE OF BURTON and VIRGIL ABLOH™
Obviously, representation is at the core of this declaration, and thus Burton team riders, Brolin Mawejje and Zeb Powell, contributed interpretations of the manifesto for the product drop and campaign. In addition to the funds raised through the auction, Burton has plans to donate $300,000 over three years to causes that increase BIPOC representation in snowboarding. It’s a critical step in the right direction, and one in which Burton—as the sport continues to grow and entice those of different walks—shows no signs of slowing down.
I had the privilege of speaking with two senior team members at Burton—Chris Cunningham, Chief Product Officer and a 20+ year veteran of the brand, and Adrian Josef Margelist, Chief Creative Officer, who joined the brand in the fall of 2020 following two decades in luxury and outdoor lifestyle. We unpack the revered sustainability ethos that inform the decision-making inside, the numerous challenges faced in this remarkable few years, and how it is that Burton continues to trailblaze rather than cow-tow to the whims of trend. As the season (at least in the hemisphere) winds down, the conversation serves a meaningful reminder that while sport is often seasonal, legacy—like that of Mr Abloh’s—is doggedly unrelenting.
I think we should get a little bit into each of your guys’ respective journeys and how we got here. Let’s start with each of your origin stories, with Burton or the world of sport. Chris, do you want to tell me how you got to be sat with me on a Zoom today?
Chris Cunningham: I fell in love with snowboarding when I was 12, maybe, and was introduced to it. I grew up in the Midwest, which people find surprising, because you’ve got to work a little harder to find out where to go snowboarding. But I was so obsessed with the sport and everything. I went to school for business and quickly learned my aspirations to be a pro snowboarder were not going to happen in the Midwest. So I was like, “How do I work for a snowboard company?” And worked really hard to get my foot in the door at Burton and I did so—21 years ago. I’ve been here since. I started answering phones part-time, no guarantee of a full-time gig, but I knew if I got my foot in the door that one thing would lead to another.
I’m definitely what we call a ‘product head’—I love to make and create. So that was always my aspiration, I wanted to work on product. So when I got in here, that was all I had my eyes set on. I didn’t really plan much further past that. It’s really just through a love of snowboarding and my background and skill set giving me the ability to do what I do.
Great. AJ, how about yourself?
Adrian Josef Margelist: The reason that I’m sitting here is because the worlds are blurring and lines are crossing and fashion and lifestyle are pushing into the sports industry and vice versa. I guess that’s the main reason I’m sitting here, because I grew up in the Swiss Alps and started snowboarding as well in 1987, when I was 12 years old. I came from a mountaineering family, but my creativity was always the big big push. So I tried to utilize it, and tried to find a way out of the ghetto I grew up in, and did so. I was 20-plus years in the global luxury fashion and lifestyle industry—completely somewhere else—and five years ago, when the two worlds started to realize, “Oh my gosh, we’re clashing and colliding now”, I started creating a niche profile for myself, being a mountain-hearted, global-minded guy—there are not so many out there—and started putting my foot into the outdoor industry, and started working for outdoor and sports brands. I got the chance one and a half years ago to take over and work with the teams to create the next evolutionary brand position of Burton, and here I am talking to you!
And what struck you about Burton? What was unique upon arrival and absorbing the culture?
AJM: It was a no-brainer. I’ve known the brand since forever. As a kid, you look up to the big Burton, and think, “Oh my gosh, the pro riders”. Same as Chris said, I did some semi-professional competitions, and realized pretty quickly that my talent skill set was definitely not gonna see me become a rider, so I shifted gears and became a judge and MC of events and stuff like that. But the love of the sport, and the brand, and what Burton actually created for modern-day snowboarding—when I got the chance, it was a no-brainer.
Chris, you mentioned being a ‘product head’ and that being really your passion point. What’s a product innovation you are most proud of or that excites you at present?
CC: That one’s pretty easy. StepOn™ is our latest—on the market side interface—a boot binding that is just on fire right now. We launched that four or five years ago, and it’s just taking over. We can’t keep it in stock. It’s not the first time a mechanical interface has happened, from traditional straps to that. But from the day I started at Burton to the last five years, our capabilities have shifted to be able to revisit what was a great idea way back when. And now it’s just such a simple system and it works. That’s probably been the most fun one to watch. Just to be like, “Holy shit. Look at what we’ve created.” We’ve worked on it for the last decade. The first five years was the big gamble: “Is all this money and time and energy gonna pay off? What are we doing?” And now it’s just like, “Oh my god, it’s huge.”
And how would you describe the culture there of sustainability and ethical processes? From your upcycling and recycling programs, guarantees on the product themselves… all sorts of supply chain checks and balances. Is it emotions first, or do you come at things looking at bottom lines and data? What’s the ethos like around that?
CC: I think the culture started around that and still is—it just being the right thing to do. Of course, we have those conversations like, “Oh shit, this is going to cost us a million bucks to do that”, and it doesn't matter. It’s the right thing to do. Swap that material out, go for the more sustainable material. And that ethos is important. I think this company, for the last four years, has just done what has felt right. So it makes decisions that could impact your profitability really challenging—it’s hard to just be like, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just right.” But we have to do it. It’s always been encouraged to look past that bottom line and measure your success in other ways than just your profitability. And I’ve learned along the way, you always end up figuring it out. It seems impossible at first, and you’re sure there’s no way, and then you get there and you’re like, “There totally was a way. We didn’t see it—it just took getting to it.” With Jake, I’d explain to people way back in the day, you could go to Jake with the right idea and it could make absolutely no logical sense from a business standpoint, but you’d get the green light to just go and do it. And Donna embodies that as well, especially with sustainability. I credit her, years and years and years ago, of having that early vision: “I don’t wanna just do it on a few products and get sucked into the greenwashing.” She’s like, ‘I wanna be the leader in this because it’s the right thing to do’. And she had that vision then, and really started to push our company to put the resources into it.
The other thing I’ll add is that culturally here it was so welcomed by the broader company. Whether you’re a product person or not. If the product doesn't get you out of bed, the sustainability and values piece of it does—we have a lot of people who say they’re here now because of that, because of the values we have. They might not have the same passion for snowboarding that someone like myself has, but they’ve got that passion for doing things right—from fair labor to sustainability to culture, to all of that stuff.
And AJ, how about yourself, what’s your impression of that ethos and culture?
AJM: Yeah, I would just like to add on that, it really is a mindset within Burton and that’s the biggest thing to achieve. Because the question isn’t even there anymore: “Should we or shouldn’t we?” We do it that way anyway. We just need to figure out how we’re gonna do it. The beautiful thing is we’re still family-owned, so we don’t have stakeholders, so we can shift gears very quickly. When we have a certain idea, we can get a big green light within 48 hours whereas other companies need probably 48 months to do so. That’s the benefit. So it’s really embedded in the mindset. Even going back to Step On. We already think much further. StepOn for us is not, “Ah, it’s our invention and now we wanna hide it.” No, we want to share, because sharing is caring. It’s part of sustainability as well—having other companies now coming into competition and starting to create the same thing. For instance, we now have DC jumping on the platform. We are already so much further in our thinking and mindset about what sustainability means than only "Oh, it needs to be a sustainable product.” Sustainability is much bigger within Burton than it just being a sustainable product in itself.
And do you feel like the—Chris used the term ‘greenwashing’—the fact that your industry intersects with the physical environment in such an immersive way that that is harder to fall into? Or do you feel like that’s still a tendency within the industry to quickly satisfy a consumer? What’s your relationship to the greenwashing within snowboard culture and gear?
CC: I think as an industry, and also as a brand, even as I explain to my parents, or family, why climate change is so important, is because with no snow, where is Burton? So our intersection with nature—we rely on nature—whether we have a good year or a bad year is determined by snowfall. So, I think the industry in general realizes that if you don’t protect it, we don’t exist anymore. But I think at first when the sustainability movement was really ramping up, I think people were greenwashing without even realizing. Just making the most sustainable product, and ignoring the rest of the things you do. You think you’re doing something right, but you realize that that’s not how you need to approach this. I think people have tried to learn along the way how to be sustainable authentically, and not get caught in that trap. I like to assume the best intentions by everybody. I definitely think there are people that will jump on for the sake of the customer. But for us, we’re a leader in our space, so we need to do it because it matters to us. At the end of the day, it’s gotta keep snowing.
We’ve never perhaps witnessed how deeply interconnected the world is than at present, from product to ‘supply chain’, which is a very popularized term at present—in the media and in how it relates to our general consumption. How does Burton fit into the supply chain conversation as it relates to the pandemic? Is it full-speed ahead at present, are you experiencing issues? What’s your take on that?
So everything you’ve heard in the news about the supply chain is very much real. I would say we were seeing it, and you’d drive home and hear it on the radio. But we were seeing the storm come very early on. It impacted us for sure. It was a pendulum effect, from the start of the pandemic, to where we are now. It’s just been 18 to 24 months of crazy chaos—but manageable. At the same time, we’ve been able to manage it really well, get really smart, and navigate. It’s the hugest curveballs I’ve ever seen in my entire career. If you could think it to happen, it would happen. Entire countries locked down and your production lines just shuttered. There’s no movement, you can’t just go and retool up somewhere else to turn it back on. So then you’re just in a holding pattern, thinking about your mitigation strategy when it finally unlocks again. It was so many different things, and once we caught up on one thing, the next thing would happen. There’s no more containers. Or there’s no more boats. It was insane. Personally, I reflected on consumption. It’s incredible the consumption of this world. Economics has a new meaning now—all the economics teachings you learned in school, you understand that this one little shift that changes supply and triggers demand. I can’t believe I drive home past car dealerships and there’s no cars in the lot—I’m like, “Where did they all go?” It’s incredible and we felt it. We’ve been fortunate enough that despite the headwinds of everything, the tailwinds of people craving to get outside and use our product, more than made up for it. We’ve landed on our feet better than we’d expected. We’ve been very resilient and we’re rebounding in incredible ways. Things are amazing. But I’d never seen it like that. It was a perfect storm of issues.
Well congrats on piloting things to date and best of luck with the next phase. You mention the renewed enthusiasm for physical activity, a love of the outdoors—what getting away from our screens and the news cycle does for our mental health. AJ, can you speak to what you’ve witnessed in terms of that enthusiasm, even in your peer set, or what you’re seeing in the market trends, with regards to a new or substantiated outdoor love?
AJM: It’s clear. At the end of the day, one side is an emotional feeling—seeing it—and the other is pure data. In the end, we believe in data and the data shows that outdoor is as hot as ever before. That’s good in one case, but it’s not good on the other hand, because the outdoors is only a certain amount of resource in the end as well. So, we really take it seriously and consider, “Ok, if we really bring the people more outdoors, that creates another demand of consumption. We have decided very rigorously to update our old product lines. So everything that we do— especially Burton our main line—we invested so heavily to increase the quality even further. Because we want the people to enjoy the outdoors, yes. They are our consumers so we want them to have the best experience. But we want them to only buy a new jacket every six or seven years, not every two years—either because it’s the latest fashion, or the jacket they bought is already broken. We take that happening very seriously. And yes, we welcome it. As you say, the last two years really asked and demanded a lot from people, from working mothers, from fathers a lot of the time working at home, spending eight, 10, 12, 13 hours a day on the screen. So yes, we want to make that feeling the best, but definitely, as we said before, it’s in our mindset: how can we do it in the most sustainable way that we don’t just bring more stuff to more people?
That’s really insightful. We’ve talked a lot about how product and innovation serves sustainability. How about the people involved in the Burton narrative, from raw materials to finished product? I’ve seen some great content on the site for some of your destination factories. Do you guys have personal stories of either visiting those places or interacting with directors there? What’s your takeaway on this globally-fused process?
I’ve been to many factories all over the world, countless times, and that’s one thing we try to make sure we don’t ever forget about. Our factories aren’t wholly owned, so we contract, many times exclusively—so the factory exists because of us. We have to remember that they’re part of the family just as much as an employee that works here in the office. So we take all that real seriously as far as fair labor, and making sure that we’re proud of our factories. We’ll take anybody into our factories and share with them what that is. Over the years, I’ve built amazing relationships with the families that own all these factories. We’ve got the kids together, it’s incredible.
We still work with the same European board factory that Jake founded 35 years ago. Middle of the night, he drives up, knocks on the door. The owner has to get his daughter out of the bed to translate. Jake has his snowboard and it’s the last-ditch effort… “yeah, I’ll try it,” the owner says. His grandson is who I work with really closely and he just had his own son. I’m hoping next month to go over there and meet the fourth generation of board builders. He’s the one that tells me all sorts of funny stories about how Jake would show up, when he was in diapers running around, and would surprise him with a dog. There’s a lot of those stories with regards to these partners we have all over the world where it’s 10, 15, 30-year relationships and they’re just as much part of the family. We send them Christmas gifts, they send us Christmas gifts, and we wouldn’t be able to do everything we do, in all the categories we do, without this extensive supply chain. We have over 75 factories over the globe.
Would you say that that family mentality and tight-knit culture has fortified dealing with all of the calamity of the pandemic and the stresses of it?
CC: Yeah, you can’t get creative and work through all these issues without strong relationships. When the pandemic was hitting, we knew the world was gonna be like “Cancel, cancel, cancel”. Any wholesale dealers out there were gonna start shedding their orders. How are we gonna manage through this? How do we make sure our factories are protected through this whole thing and bear some of the burdens of what was happening? Of course, it rebounded in that something was ordered, and no one had enough, and it was this pendulum swing. But it was really working closely with these factories. A factory can be extremely scared when they’re concerned about delivering on time. “What are we going to do?” And it’s just, “We’re going to be fine. Just keep going.” That’s part of our commitment to our supply chain. To not just treat them as we’re their customer and that’s it. I can’t tell you, even pre-pandemic, how many times those strong relationships have weathered so many different storms of just sitting down with the owner and getting really creative. How do we manage this? How do we make sure your well-being is—we don’t want you guys to shutter.
AJ, being newer to the company, but obviously having a lot of experience in the industry of product creation, what’s your impression on the people involved in the Burton A-Z?
AJM: I see it the same, and I only add on from Chris that I’m coming more from the creation side. I’ve always been a frontrunner and have been in hundreds of factories all over the world. Because the word ‘relationship’—as you’ve heard so many times—that’s the keyword. These days, you can buy stuff with money, but at a certain point, it doesn’t bring you any further than that. Building relationships and both parties bringing effort and stuff to the table, and wanting to create the next best together—that’s the way to go. Chris’s team and our team work so closely together from sourcing, supply, and development, from concept to consumer—as one team really understanding the left and the right, really thinking in your silo to optimize the whole process and relationship all together. Even the designer knows product X will be done by development Z in factory A. Everyone understands the family spirit and the community aspect of it. We always say, “We ride together”, and only together can we create better.
As far as imaging, where do you feel the pressure points are at present with regards to look and aesthetic across the company? Are you conflicted with copycats? Is it more about changes in consumer palette as it relates to board aesthetic and gear? Where are the challenges at present aesthetically?
AJM: I think the main challenge is because we became a big brand with footwear, binding, boots, gear… It’s a lot of products. I think the main challenge is the cohesive look and feel that the consumer really feels Burton from A to Z. The second is establishing a philosophy that less is more, and figuring out together with Chris’ team on the merch side where can we be more efficient? Do we really need 31 3L jackets or only 21? And then really start digging deeply—and even Chris and I literally get our hands dirty—into archives and trying to figure out where to optimize. And in the end, again, all for the consumer, because if you show him the eight perfect jackets, it will be much more pleasant for him than to show 35 okay jackets. And having eight perfect jackets gives better quantities, so it’s better for the supplier. If the supplier can order more materials, it’s better for the environment. So the complexity of sustainability and philanthropic thinking and design these days goes altogether. You cannot separate one from the other.
We talked about the intersectionality and culture—of sport and the influence of fashion, art, music, pop culture, and design. Are there more influences at the table when it comes to look and feel? Is that a consideration?
AJM: We are not looking at macro or micro trends to implement them visually into the stuff we do. Because we want to create longevity products. And therefore the world you mentioned, ‘contemporary’, is a very important word for us. We want to create contemporary performance. Because contemporary to us is much different than fashion. We don’t utilize the word ‘fashion’ or ‘lifestyle’ or ‘trend'. We are a contemporary performance brand. We deliver technical stuff which will give you a long-time product experience.