Many great projects have been born in a garage: The White Stripes and The Black Keys, Apple and Google, and numerous Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins expeditions.
More recently, TREW gear, a Hood River, Oregon-based gear company, is continuing the garage start-up tradition as they attempt to bring function and fashion to the backcountry. But TREW now operates out of a three-car garage, and they are growing, slowly but surely.
The idea started with brothers John and Chris Pew, and their good friend Tripp Frey. (Tripp + Pew = TREW, get it?) The boys began exploring the backcountry during their high school days and continued the practice through college. Frey studied business, Chris comparative literature, and John got a degree in ever-useful Mandarin.
During their backcountry excursions, they knew something was missing: steeze.
“We noticed that you always ended up looking like your dad when you went into the backcountry,” John said. “That wasn’t capturing modern skiing.” What they dreamed of was high quality gear, dripping with style – a new school twist on traditional mountain gear outfitters like Patagonia or Arc’Teryx. “We all knew we wanted to do the same thing,” John said. “Fill the gap of technicality and style.”
In 2008, the trio took their favorite brands’ backcountry clothes to Vancouver-based Hobie Walker, a designer who has worked with Gore-Tex and now designs tactical military wear. The crew began by picking the best aspects of these brands’ products. Then, by piecing together the strongest features (pockets, seams, material) of the gear, they were able to put together a highly-functional yet pimped-out line.
TREW gear has been produced in two different factories since they opened in 2008. First – and fittingly – an old Arc’teryx facility in Vancouver; then this past year, in China, where John was finally able to use his college degree to help TREW find a suitable factory.
Getting factories to construct their “labor-intensive” gear was a chore, John said. Most factories didn’t want to bother with construction on that level, from dealing with heavier, more durable fabric, to the double hand-taping of seams.
For their 2011/12 line, they’ve now secured an exclusive deal with Tashi Sherpa of Sherpa Adventure Gear. TREW will be the only other line built in the factory. “I don’t know if he has a soft spot for young entrepreneurs, but he took us under his wing,” John said of Sherpa. “He’s personally owned this factory for 15 years and he agreed to open it up to us. With him, there won’t be many quality control issues.”
Next year, TREW will produce 2,500 pieces, up 1,000 from previous years. With jackets, bibs, and pants running in the $500 range, TREW gear costs a pretty penny. What does the powder hound get for that? High quality gear with some serious flair. This stuff is not for the meek: extra seams, off-color panels, and vibrant, in-your-face logos boldly identify the TREW line.
Where TREW really aims to shine, though, is in quality. Blister Gear Reviewers have been very impressed in their tests of last season’s Cosmic jacket, and will soon be taking a hard look at TREW’s current offerings (stay tuned for those reviews.)
The TREW crew does business the old fashioned way—knocking on doors, shaking hands, and peddling their paraphernalia. This personal touch – the direct involvement with the people who use their gear – is a crucial aspect of their business, John said.
With the production of their first line in the Fall of 2008, the boys took out a loan, bought the TREW RV, hit the road, and talked to some 250 independent retailers across the country.
“We were trying to open some doors, to get our finger on the pulse of the industry by going through independent dealers,” John said. “But retail-wise, 2009 was when the economy was going to shit.”
They persevered and now have 25 independent dealers and sell directly through their website. And things are beginning to come around.
“We wanted to own it, the three of us and not really answer to anyone,” John said. “We had to go into quite a bit of debt and we’re chipping away at that. We don’t really pay ourselves anything and all the money goes back into the company. We’ll probably reach the break-even point next year.”
Today, they still work out of the garage. It’s still just Chris, John, and Tripp rolling around the country showing off their wares (and doing apres with anyone who knocks on their door). Spreading the TREWth, as they like to say.
So, will they make it? We hope so. There’s certainly room for them. After all, who doesn’t want a bomber jacket with a fresh look? And who doesn’t want to support a company of three backcountry bums roaming the country in an RV, ready for steeps or drinks at any moment?
Though light-hearted, it would be a mistake to underestimate TREW’s attention to detail and the depth of their drive.
“People don’t want to deal with the big companies with private equity firms in Boston. This industry is core,” John said. “They’d rather deal with someone who’s not looking at the bottom line because they’re face deep in pow.”
Well said, sir, well said.