Sombrio: City to Shore

This story came from issue 106 of Dirt Magazine. Photographer Grant Robinson (grantrobinson.com) and writer Seb Kemp visited the headquarters of Sombrio Clothing in North Vancouver to try and understand what makes Sombrio so different. Founder/owner/CEO/former-pro-hucker/mad-scientist Dave Watson sat down and we picked his brain on the why, where and how of Sombrio and the interesting location it finds itself, physically and philosophically speaking.

WILL SOMBRIO BE THE FIRST MOUNTAIN BIKING BRAND TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL OUTSIDE THE SMALL AND SECLUDED FOREST ENVIRONMENT OF MTB?

WILL THEY BRING MORE WIDESPREAD ATTENTION TO MTBING?

Dave Watson started out wanting to design and create the easy stuff. “I didn’t just want a t-shirt company. How easy is it to buy a bunch of American Apparel t-shirts, get some screen prints done on them down the road and then call yourself a clothing company? I wanted to do shorts and technical apparel; the hard stuff.”

So what started it? Why the hard stuff? Watson remarked that it was the void that fueled him. There was a void behind purely technical attire that could only be worn without embarrassment in the woods where bikers played and the kind of clothes that he wore when he was doing anything besides playing in woods, on the street interacting with a more metropolitan inner city bohemian culture, as can found in Vancouver, the city he calls home and the location of Sombrio.

Vancouver is a city where if you find yourself downtown on Granville Street and you look northwards between the towering down town skyscrapers you can see the evergreen forested slopes of the North Shore mountains. Transport yourself to those mountains and you look southwards between the towering Hemlock, Fir, and Pine trees you will see the glass clad and concrete spires of downtown Vancouver.

Vancouver is a rare kind of city, a city where your never feel trapped by the inner city livings because it is ringed not by endless suburbs and industrial units, but by green mountains that beckon you to explore and become lost in the nearby wilderness and by the green sea which soon stretches on and on all the way across the Pacific to Russia and Japan.

The Sombrio headquarters is delicately placed equidistance between the city and the mountains, and even the sea. “From where we are you can jump on the bike and be downtown in twenty minutes, or go the other direction and be on the trails in twenty minutes,” Dave says as he excitedly points out of the window of his office. This physical proximity to the two distinct and opposing ends of the habitat spectrum is something that is deeply reflected in Sombrio, both explicitly and implicitly.

You can see it in the idea to produce garments that would work in the demanding terrain of the wet, wild North Shore where steep rooty descents are littered with erratic rock maneouvers and cedar creations. While the world was in lycra and spinning circles, the North Shore was doing things totally of it’s own accord. At first in baggys and padded lumberjack shirts going yoyo on what must truly be considered some of the most demanding trails in the world all because nothing else available at that time suited the rigors of this style of riding and thinking. This is where Sombrio was born, on the harsh conditions of the trail, but they were polished by the urban environment.

Once you fall off the side of the North Shore mountains at the end of your ride you are back in a bustling metropolitan westernized city environment. Lycra didn’t stick it on the trails and there’s no way it would suit on the streets. Watson embellishes “We planted the seeds in first developing purpose built apparel for the gravity fueled, but kept in mind the après, be it a 30 minute meeting mid day or pints on the patio post peak to valley assault.”

Watson, grew up within this contrasting environment of outdoors-man-ship and inner-city-hip, obviously took a creative influence from both sides of his life. So when it came to designing Sombrio he looked into the dankwet mossy trail conditions for the technical elements that would be necessary for them to excel in the field, all while looking to the city for some aesthetic and stylistic influence. For Watson both these seemingly contrasting environments needed to be addressed. “Blending art and sport” as he puts it. “We weren’t looking at other brands but trying to be inspired by other things like the music, and other forms of culture outside of mountain biking”.

His specific geographical location has enabled him to feed off the lively contemporary culture of a downtown metropolitan city. In Vancouver there is a thriving population of cool, hip, trend setters; from Gas Town, Yaletown, Granville, Commercial, and Main Street there is a mix of styles and fashions. A diversity of styles and waves, “Lots of these areas have their own character but they are all close to each other in terms of location” which means there is a merging of styles, ideas and aesthetics. A cross pollination perhaps.

Often mountain biking clothing brands build clothing for one purpose and do not seem to be aware of enabling or thinking of mountain biking’s location within wider culture and trends. A sort of isolated thinking which leaves us in the woods, literally and figuratively. Sombrio, however, have always tried to think of mountain biking beyond our secluded forested island existence.

When I sat down to talk with Watson we both started to ruminate upon whether mountain biking had an image problem. But we found that before that question could be addressed we had to consider whether first mountain biking had an identity problem. You see with such varied and almost splintered subcultures and niches within mountain biking itself, it becomes a problem to have a solid idea of what mountain biking is. A downhill mountain biker and a marathon whippet mountain biker may both have very different ideas of what mountain biking is. So if we can’t agree on what mountain biking is then how can we present that image to anyone outside of mountain biking?

Sombrio now has various threads within the label. Reflecting the diverse community and Watson’s own influences there are garments designed for racing (RACE), for all day backcountry bombing (EPIK), urban commuting and fashion forward peices (LIFE). Even though these collection’s within the range of Sombrio garments could be at odds with each other, there is a common theme that runs through each and every garment designed by Sombrio, which is that is works equally well on and off the bike.

At this conjecture that we began discussing the action sport turned pop culture icons of surfing and snow sports. These sports have made multi billion dollar apparel companies that can sell a surfing or snow sports brand t-shirt in a mall in Ohio, despite that kid never seeing the surf or snow before. They have sold the idea of surfing or snow sports. Sold an image of ‘cool’.

These sports have managed to sell an ideal image through the projection of ethereal imagery where there is a connection between dreams, feelings and emotions. Surfing for instance has tailored an image that is so cool that it’s hard not to feel it. When we think of surfing we think of tanned good looking semi-naked bodies, blue oceans, yellow sand, curling white surf. Well, for many perhaps, the image of mountain biking is tall leggy muscles wrapped in figure hugging and revealing lycra, mud bogs, shit eating grins, sweat, hillclimbs and forest roads.

Then consider the reality that often surfers are wrapped in layers of tight figure hugging revealing neoprene, wind swept beaches of gravel, and muddy coloured seas with non existent surf and surfers getting shit as the spot is several miles from a sewerage outlet. And the truth of the matter is the reality of mountain biking isn’t far off the first image, for some, but there is a much more gracefully aggressive, sexy and appealing side to mountain biking that we are not managing to communicate to the wider world.

Surfing or snow sports have managed to over come the reality, forget the dirty truths, and sweep the less cool aspects under the rug and create an aspirational image. Everyone, on some level, aspires to escape into the dramatic ethereal beauty of the presented images; endless white powder or warm blue oceans of lipping surf.

Watson countered that “I think mountain biking really is cooler. It actually is the best sport. It’s so accessible. You can ride anytime of the year, you can ride anywhere there are trails, you don’t really have to pay for it, its free once you have your bike. It’s inclusive. A lot of the other sports aren’t like that; you have to wait for the snow, the good waves, and you can’t ride Pipe cause you will get throttled.”

One thing that is going to help to project the image of mountain biking is it needs that kind of MTV click. As soon as that click happens then mountain biking will change gears forever. It’s happening in Vancouver. It’s the mainstream outlets that follow that pop culture click then things change. If you are 14 year old in Ohio and are totally down with surfing because its aspirational, and all of a sudden you see mountain biking for what’s evolving too on a yearly basis, the ‘WOW’, how much easier is it for that kid to walk down to his bike shop, get a bike, hike a hill, build some kickers and go ride? All of sudden he is doing it, he’s doing it, he’s doing it easier than surfing! It’s more inclusive. More inclusive than surfing.”

Watson is always looking at ways to promote his business activities beyond mountain biking circles in the hope that, not only can he expand his business, but he can bring people into mountain biking. One thing he has being working on is a music merchandising label for independent bands. It’s in it’s early stages and has only a working name for it so far. “If these side projects are successful it may trickle back to the mountain biking. In the end this may bring a wider audience into our mountain biking community. They may see the idea of mountain bikes through this merchandising and want to go to a bike park and try it out for themselves” he muses but confesses that these are “small things that don’t just come back into the mountain bike community, but also help in the symbiotic creation of our art direction and style.”

This cross-over is an example of the fire fueled idea cloud that Watson obviously thrives in. He comes across as inspired and excited by the creative process of his business, either through the production of a new range of clothing or ideas to market Sombrio.

Watson is excited about the opportunities, “Mountain biking must be one of the quickest growing sports for youth, certainly in British Columbia, and a lot of that has to do with the freeride movie tradition which had paralleled the snow sports side of things, but now it has now stepped into it’s own now.”

There’s something to be said to be part of a cool, young developing sport like mountain biking. “Theres a lot we can do in the action sports world. Our industry is very young, and there’s development and a future we can help forge and mould.”

Watson always wanted to produce more than just garments. He wanted to begin a movement that was so much more. “Sombrio has been pretty integral in building the lifestyle component of bike shops. Ten years ago bike shops didn’t even sell t-shirts. It was just bikes, spares, helmets, and maybe yellow reflective jackets as far as clothing went.”

In fact we can be proud and in the future we may be able to be have an identity that clicks with all the cool kids, and we can all lambast the mainstream identity of mountain biking while we disappear into the woods to thrive on the trails of slick root, polished rock and ribbons of loam…

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