Into the Heart of Patagonia’s Secret Archives
Our writer visited the 10,000-square-foot facility in Ventura, California, home to thousands of products-cum-talismans, and came away with more than just an appreciation for the brand's gear heritage
On the morning after the 2016 presidential election, I skirted the Hells Angels’ former Ventura, California, headquarters, and tapped on a barred door attached to a graffiti-tagged cinderblock warehouse. The 10,000-square-foot facility—a former food canning operation, whose address I am not to reveal—houses the Patagonia Archives, a project recently launched by the clothing company to chronicle its storied past. No signage betrayed the identity of the building’s occupant, or hinted at the work that was taking place within, because the Archives are not open to the public.
Photos from the ArchivesSome of the treasures Brad found inside
Longtime Patagonia employee Val Franco tipped me off about the Archives. She was hired in 1973 by the founders, Yvon Chouinard, and his wife, Malinda, to run the company’s first sewing operation—the same home-grown shop that launched the Patagonia brand in 1976. She is one of five archivists whose collective tenure exceeds 100 years. Of the five, Franco, 64, and Terri Laine, 61, are the Archives’ only full-time employees. Their mission is to curate and protect anything ever sewn, snapped, hammered, stamped, or scrawled within or about Patagonia and Chouinard Equipment, from the present back to 1957, the year Chouinard paid cash for an Alcoa drop forging die, and began manufacturing pitons in his parents’ Burbank backyard. “It will never be done,” Franco said of the Archives, “but you want to give it your best effort to get it undiluted. Because when I die, and when we’re all gone, you’re gonna get a second-hand story. We have an amazing opportunity to get it firsthand right now.”
We entered the main space, with its imbrication of bays and sub-rooms stacked with tables of ephemera: catalogs, company newsletters, posters, garment sketches, hangtags, decals, a stacks upon stacks of photographs.
The company has not publicized the project, although the archivists have been quietly inviting friends and family to bring their Chouinard and Patagonia-branded products “home,” where they will be catalogued, exhibited, and stored. (I’d hear that expression frequently during my visit.) Although Franco and Laine will not pay for these items—they say they have no budget for such things—they would rather see these products housed in Ventura than, say, moulder, forgotten, in a dank garage, donated to Goodwill, or sold on eBay, where a Chouinard-Frost Piolet can fetch in excess of $500. The archivists—in addition to Franco and Laine there are Karen Frishman, 59, Cheryl Endo, 50, and Rafael Dunn, 40—do not begrudge their friends and former patrons their eBay lucre. But anyone who totes their trove home, they say, will be photographed and their stories will be recorded. The way Franco and Laine explained it (and the evidence of this was plain) is that the satisfaction of gifting a well-used rack of Chouinard Lost Arrow pitons, for example, and sharing their histories, far exceeds their resale value. Franco deems storytelling so critical to Patagonia’s institutional memory that she is videoing donors—members of the dirtbag tribe—as they share their reminiscences of the company’s early years. The sooner these interviews are captured, Franco told me, the better, because the problem, as she sees it, is that Patagonia’s oldest friends, and those of Chouinard Equipment before it, are dying. Most of Mr. Chouinard’s former climbing cronies are in their late 70s or early 80s. The climbing legend, Fred Beckey, who recently visited the Archives, is 94. Another recent guest, past president of the American Alpine Club, Jim McCarthy, is 83. Chouinard is 78. “We want to get them before they're no longer with us,” says Franco.
But for the famously media shy Malinda Pennoyer Chouinard, Patagonia’s eldest and best record keeper, there would be no Archives. (She did not agree to an interview for this story.) “She’s the one who’s always kept one eye on our history,” Yvon explained in a prepared quote, his only response to my request to interview him. Climber and writer Doug Robinson, who has known the Chouinards since 1969, remembers Malinda as the organization’s social catalyst. “Before there was a Patagonia, Malinda knew there was something brewing by the scruffy goings on in the Tin Shed and beyond,” he said, recalling how she began stuffing scrapbooks with photos and clippings nearly 50 years ago.
If Malinda was the curator of the company’s heritage, then Cheryl Endo wanted an archive of a different sort to address a persistent problem: Patagonia’s next-gen clothing designers were reinventing features that had been invented decades before. “So a lot of times we’d be talking about something and I’d be standing there going, oh yeah, we did that in 1993. You should look at this pocket. They’re like, ‘What!?’”
As early as 2007, Endo was reading about Levi Strauss’s clothing archive, and in 2014 she pitched the concept to her bosses. They bit. They recruited Rafael Dunn, the digital content manager, Franco, who had been assembling a Patagonia oral history, and Laine for her design savvy. “We’re tinkerers. We had no budget, no facilities, and not really any resources,” says Dunn, “so we were trying to make do with what we had.”
They toured corporate archives at Nike and Eddie Bauer, among others. They took the advice of Rick Shannon, director of the Department of Nike Archives, or DNA, who advised them to begin by collecting as much inventory possible. They placed bins around campus and asked people to donate the detritus occupying desk space, crawl space, or wherever. Endo recalled how Vincent Stanley, the company’s director of philosophy, whose tenure dates back to the early ‘70s, fished an old garment out of the trunk of his car and presented it to her. “He throws this jacket at me,” she remembered. “It’s like this old, broken down fleece. Turns out that this was the fabric that Malinda found at the California Merchandise Mart that was originally marketed as toilet seat covers. It was one of the original pieces that started the company.”
Donations straggled in from outside the company, too. Ric Hatch, who was a sales rep and later became the company’s director of North American sales, gifted a box of samples dating back to ‘79, as did the ‘70s climbing ace and former sales manager, Henry Barber. “It’s still sort of by organic word of mouth,” Franco says. “What’s happening is that people are depositing their garage storage with us. And we’ll take it.”
“When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a seamstress and that my materials are people. So I’m a connector of people and things.”
Of Yvon, Franco has asked virtually nothing—not even for an interview. Hatch, who now lives in Flagstaff, traveled to Ventura to donate his motherlode. “I asked Yvon if he had been to the Archives,” Hatch told me, “and he said, ‘Nah, I don’t need to go over there, that’s the past.’ It was like he didn’t want to have anything to do with it.” Chouinard has since visited the Archives, is said to be supportive of the project, but doesn’t spend much time there.
It could be that the sight of a warehouse packed with seven decades of his company’s makings discomfits Chouinard, given his disdain for stuff in general. After all, he has publicly angsted about being part of the environmental problem himself. This, even as he was morphing a humble blacksmith shop into an enterprise that today generates the better part of $1 billion in annual revenues and employs nearly 2,000 globally.
What did I expect to find in the Archives? Stuff yes, but mainly the culture instilled by the Chouinards, the brand identity an outgrowth of their ideals, which academic historian Kerwin Klein likened to Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. “Chouinard seemed to me to have this evangelical, self-contained vision: a homemade Sixties style of politics built from semi-libertarian, semi-progressive, and entrepreneurial values,” Klein told me by phone from the University of California at Berkeley.
I became aware of Chouinard and his companies many years ago when I began to climb, and then later when I sold his wares while working at a San Diego outdoor outfitter to support that climbing habit. Even then, the brand was elevating the word “dirtbag” to an honorific, which came to stand for a renunciate of the popular culture, a picaro who lived to climb or surf, was penniless but happy, understood through voluntary privation that less was more, and would eat cat food if need be to sustain the sporting life. (When he was young and poor Chouinard ate cat food, not to fulfill some Romantic notion, but because he was hungry.) The company’s collateral and catalog, especially, celebrated this dirtbag trope to spectacular effect and its brand of marketing shaped not only the outdoor industry but also leaked into the general culture. Chouinard, the iconoclastic warrior-athlete, a Cassandra concerning the world’s fate, but a Prometheus in his crusade to unfuck it, built Patagonia in his own image, which was precisely why I’d sojourned to Ventura. I wanted not only to peruse the Archives, but also to glimpse how the brand might have influenced my own path.
It was Terri Laine who opened the door. I slipped inside, and the pall of cinderblock gave way to a quiet and carpeted anteroom exploding with color. Opposite the doorway six or seven banners with the Fitz Roy logo arrayed in royal blue, purple, red, umber, and black: “Pataloha;” “Gettin’ Dirty Since 1973;” “Committed to the Core;” “Patagonia Kids” spelled out in mountains, surfboards, and rivers.
“Take a look around,” said Laine, a soft-spoken photographer and visual display artist who rows crew on the weekends, serves on the board of Los Padres ForestWatch, and who has worked for Patagonia for 31 years.
The walls of the room were festooned with photographs in composite frames, most from the 1970s and ‘80s, and a few from the ‘50s, all of which painted a picture of the company’s beginnings and adolescence. One, from 1986, pictured five of Chouinard’s friends, the “Do-Boys,” clad in kayaking attire after a 3-day first descent of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. This photo was most remarkable in that Chouinard’s close friend and sometime business mentor, the late Doug Tompkins, is pictured grinning and rubbing his hands together, almost as if chilled. (Tompkins, the founder of the North Face) died in 2015 of hypothermia while on a sea kayaking trip in Chile with Chouinard and others.)
Signs of the company’s environmental activism lay everywhere. In the recess of a window casement was the company’s mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” A “1 percent for the Planet” pillow reposed on the sitting room couch. (Chouinard co-founded the organization.) Miniature bales of organic cotton were stacked next to a Trivial Pursuit-like board game used to educate employees about organic cotton’s benefits over the pesticide-laced variety.
I backtracked to a cocktail round and found a spiral-bound book bearing the title, Patagonia History: A Collection of Memories from 1957 to the Present, compiled by Malinda Chouinard, Vincent Stanley, editor. Inside the volume I found a treasure: a letter from the late Yosemite climber Chuck Pratt, whom Royal Robbins, one of his cronies, once described as the best writer to come out of Yosemite’s Golden Age. In the letter, Pratt describes a 1961 road trip that had Pratt and Chouinard hitchhiking and hopping freights across several western states, and doing three weeks of jail time in Grants, New Mexico and Winslow, Arizona. “It is a tale of rat-fucking such as you never heard before,” wrote Pratt as prelude.
I followed the path of the anteroom as it doglegged right, and found a window to the main warehouse that yawned under an enormous curved roof supported by bowstring trusses: the 9,000-square-foot great belly of the Archives.
“When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a seamstress and that my materials are people,” Franco said, as she and Laine walked me into the Archives. “So I’m a connector of people and things. I know I won’t be able to finish anything I’m doing right now because I’ll be retired, but hopefully we’ll have enough in place that the next generation can take it up and keep it alive.”
It was back in ‘73 when she strode into the Great Pacific Iron Works to see a Mr. Chouinard about a possible job, the bundle of keys that hung from from her leather belt jingle jangling. Franco, then 20, was working as a school counselor, but had been sewing for most of her life. She was a Ventura native, the youngest of nine kids, had never spent a night outdoors, never climbed a rock, never used skis, never traveled out of California, but she had one thing Chouinard did not: sewing chops. He’d been pounding out pitons for 15 years at miniscule margins, but had got it in his mind to make his own clothing, which he knew he could sell at “keystone,” or a 100 percent markup, but he needed a lead seamstress. He offered Franco $3 an hour—twice what she was making teaching school. She grabbed the gig.
We entered the main space, with its imbrication of bays and sub-rooms stacked with tables of ephemera: catalogs, company newsletters, posters, garment sketches, hangtags, decals, a stacks upon stacks of photographs. Scattered about the rooms rolling garment racks were pregnant with all manner of clothing from ‘76 onward, especially vintage fleece. A garment rack packed with vestments of purple, teal, green, blues of the ‘80s, reminded me of stuff I either owned and have since gifted. Here was a linked chain of Chouinard D-shaped carabiners like the first ones I’d bought from a veteran San Diego climber. Garlands of Hexcentrics and Stoppers dangled from frayed Chouinard gear slings, much like the ones I purchased 28 years ago to support a climbing addiction. These objects, all of which were stamped with the diamond C, weren’t just tools—they were talismans, signifiers of how far I’d come from an overprotective Midwest upbringing.
Back in the go-go ‘80s, those who threw themselves headlong into the climbing lifestyle were still few. My parents couldn’t fathom my motives when I jettisoned a professional gig to move to the Eastern Sierra to live the life. Patagonia’s catalogs, however, always featured a gaggle of folks making the same choices. The meta-message of those slicks? Follow your Muirian muse and eff ‘em if they can’t take a joke. At the same time, Chouinard had dissed latecomers like me and the entire generation of climbers who had come before, in “Coonyard Mouths Off,” an essay in the ‘72 edition of Ascent. “What was once a way of life that only attracted the oddball individual is now a healthy, upstanding, recreation pastime enjoyed by thousands of average Joes,” he wrote. “The climbing scene has become a fad and the common man is bringing the Art down to his own level of values and competence.”
“You’re not reinventing the wheel, you’re tweaking and you’re moving things around, and you’re finding ways to keep the image of the brand alive.”
I glimpsed some of the company’s clinkers, too: a pair of soft shell climbing pants that had pilled so badly on a multi-day ski tour I did that the bottom came to resemble the texture of a chia pet. The Ultima Thule, its design copped from Don Jensen, which required an engineering degree and the patience of Job to pack properly. The Foamback cagoule, Chouinard’s attempt to replicate Gore Tex, and by all accounts made users feel like they were lounging in a steam shower. I also saw short-rise pants I had worn whose front pooched like a codpiece and back cleaved my bum into two asymmetrical loaves. I leafed through recent catalogs whose athletic models were so uniformly blanched, lean, and young, I wondered whether Patagonia realized that the lack of diversity contradicted its censure of monocultures.
Franco and Laine later toured former Patagonia designer Richard Siberell through the Archives. Each time Siberell, who has also designed gear for Simms and Arc’Teryx, came upon one of his past products, he talked about the people who had inspired it. “God you guys,” he said to Laine and Franco, a touch of awe in his voice, “this is like the real deal. I had no idea you were this serious about this. I had no idea.”
After my mother died some years back, I was charged with the grim task of dealing with her household possessions. I might have hired a company to sell the stuff off, but that seemed like shortchanging a process that might allow me to parse her life, item by item, and thereby gain insight into who she was. Here, after all, was a completed archive; it had taken her seven decades to accrete the stuff, and if it wasn’t my mother, it was certainly of her.
I became an anti-archivist, cataloging, and dismantling, and then dispersing the home’s artifacts back into the world. In this manner I made my way through every item in every closet, cupboard, vitrine, dresser, and desk drawer, which included but was not limited to photographs, memoranda, bills of lading, old Daytimers, bills, correspondences, receipts, ledgers, catalogs, artwork, newspapers, marketing collateral, blueprints, furniture, emails, and boxes upon boxes of clothing—and absolutely no gear. Combing through the house and conjuring a memory of its significance was emotionally draining work. At the end of each day, I’d decant a couple of fingers of whiskey into a tumbler and numb out.
Little by little, I dispossessed the home of its goods and shipped them off to gather new meaning elsewhere. With each leaving, my mother’s archive became hollowed out, until one day everything was gone and so was she. Her stuff, of course, wasn’t nearly as significant as the stories they contained, most of the artifacts hinting at a life that centered on knitting together family and friends. Like Patagonia’s Franco, she was a kind of seamstress who weaved relationships. Connectedness had been the culture of her home. I began to understand how her interest in the lives of others connected me to her, and influenced my chosen vocation as a storyteller.
“Culture is not something you create intentionally; I think culture is something you grow,” Vincent Stanley told me. “So the value of the Archives is that when we don’t have very many people around from the early days the Archives helps create a bridge to the founding.”
Plenty of companies have established archives or museums to capture institutional memory, and an entire industry has arisen to help staffers build them. In terms of self-celebration, some corporations have gone huge: think Hershey, Pennsylvania, the entire town a paean to the chocolate company founded there.
I wanted to understand how a mature corporate archive operates, so I called Nike’s Rick Shannon. When he launched DNA in 2006, he had 25 years of paper records to work with, but little else. He now employs 20 full-time staff that manages 200,000 assets in a 150,000-square-foot facility. Today, the DNA headquarters itself functions like a library. Employees can view the collection online and request a portfolio of documents, along with a showing of the physical items in one of several Rig Rooms, with specific themes. The staff works up to three days to assemble a display. “They use white gloves,” said Shannon. “The trick is to not treat the objects as historical, but to place them in context that gives them relevant meaning today.”
If that’s true, then Franco and Laine, who eschew white gloves, appear to be on the right track. Miles Johnson, Patagonia’s creative director, and a frequent user of the Archives, worked at Levi’s before coming to the company. “I mean I use to paw over that stuff at the Levi’s archives because it was really, really important to get every detail exactly spot on, right?” He’s doing the same at Patagonia. “You’re not reinventing the wheel, you’re tweaking and you’re moving things around, and you’re finding ways to keep the image of the brand alive.”
If an archive is an embodied form of institutional memory, then it should be said that archives can be shaped to reinforce a kind of selective memory. And memory, of course, is malleable.
“One thing that has impressed me about Patagonia was the desire for control,” Klein said. Klein is both a longtime climber and a specialist in the history of both alpinism and California’s mass culture. He also studies the artifacts upon which historical narratives rely, as well as the prevailing philosophical traditions informing them. He has studied the role of memory in constructing history, and in past conversations he’s told me how unreliable memory is: how we start with the end in mind and cobble together the past based on what we want to believe in the present.
“So there’s a sense in which history is necessarily always constructionist and retrospective, right?” he told me some years back for a piece I wrote for Alpinist magazine. “And it’s informed by this sort of end that it’s driving toward, the objective, and by the sort of setting in which that objective emerges.” In other words, we construct the stories that bring us comfort, and they have little in common with reality. Ask a Patagonia stakeholder to recount their history with the company, and they’ll likely deliver a message that’s both flattering and entirely unreliable. “Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did,” writes the academic historian Alessandro Portelli.
And what about mere stuff? Stories reside in them, too. I had watched how Richard Siberell reminisced each time he came across one of his designs, each object liberating a past memory, like Proust’s famous madeleine. And might not a Lost Arrow piton be inhabited by the skill of the blacksmith who forged it, the bravery of the climber who hammered it into rock? Up in the Sierra foothills, where I live, a tattered Chouinard gear sling from the ‘8os sits on a shelf in my home. The label is frayed, the seatbelt-like webbing tattooed with grime and stained with chalk and sweat. No longer a tool, it’s become a totem.
My reasons for coming to Ventura had as much to do with the house that the Chouinards had built as the one I had created for myself. I had apparently quaffed the Kool-Aid in my youth, listened to the ironmonger-ragman-dirtbag visionary as he preached from the heights. He and his wife had reprogrammed my trajectory, damn them. And judging by the 10,000 square feet bursting with stories, I apparently hadn’t been the only one.
Have something to donate? Contact Franco and Laine at email@example.com