A Discussion With Brad Steward On Twenty-Five Years of Bonfire
The2014 season marks a quarter century for Bonfire. For snowboarding, this is a huge accomplishment. Bonfire has existed essentially throughout the modern history of the sport. The brand that began in 1989, shortly after snowboards got Ptex, highback bindings, and shapes that could be considered somewhat modern, and they are among a limited group of dedicated snowboard-specific companies, like Burton and GNU, that are still around today.
Bonfire has been hugely influential, but it’s easy for a portion of the industry to take for granted the luxury of finding good quality gear that matches your personal sense of style. It was not always that way. In the early days of snowboarding, options were very limited. You had a lot of ski companies that made some really ugly gear and much of it did not work well. Bonfire’s founder, Brad Steward, had a huge impact on snowboarding since he came entered the outerwear game; after all, without warm, proper-fitting outerwear, snowboarding would not be where it is today.
Steward’s influence, however, goes well beyond simply outerwear. The list of people within the industry who got their start at Bonfire as team-riders or as employees is a who’s who of some of snowboarding’s finest. The short list includes David Benedek, Travis Parker, Bode Merrill, Louif Paradis, Jake Burton, Jeff Curtes, Noah Branden, Matt Godwill, Jeremy Jones, Trevor Graves, Andy Jenkins, and even Nike Golf President Bryan Johnston, Levis Prseident James Curleigh, as well as Todd Richards, Louie Vito, Tim Windell, Terry Kidwell, and Jason Ford. Brands have been spawned from Bonfire, ideas have been borrowed, business practices have been followed. Through it all Bonfire continues to make some of the best outerwear built specifically for snowboarding.
Snowboarding would look and be a lot different without Steward’s influence. And today, not much has changed; the company founder still helps to run Bonfire and he’s still just as passionate about snowboarding as he was when he was setting out to launch the fledgling brand back in 1989. In light of Bonfire’s 25th year in business, Steward took some time to talk to us recently about the past, present, and future of snowboarding.
Let’s start at the beginning. Twenty-Five Years, includes so much of snowboarding’s history, how did Bonfire get started?
Pretty much 1989 is when it got going, it’s a simple story. I had been a professional snowboarder for a while and didn’t really like any of the clothes that anyone was making for us. Kind of felt like I had started a couple of board companies with what I’d done at Sims and Morrow and just kind of felt like I’d checked that box. I wanted to get into the apparel market because I wanted to get engaged in the design work of apparel. I had trademarked Bonfire when I was younger and thought then that I would do something with that name someday. Then literally one day I just kind of saw a few designs in my head for a few T-shirts while getting ready to head up to snowboard camp at Mount Hood. I think it was Windell’s first session ever, 20 something years ago. I thought, I’ll design a few T-shirts and see what happens. Think there were 48 T-shirts total, 2 or 3 different designs. Most of them were designed with my typewriter because Mac’s were around but they were relatively exotic 25 years ago and with the memory that they had, there wasn’t much space on the drives to do much. So, designed them on my ￼typewriter, which I had gotten at Sears for my eighth grade birthday [laughter], enlarged them on a copy machine, hand cut the designs, turned them into T-shirts, took them to Mount Hood and people freaked out. Everyone was really psyched on them, they were really different at the time. Everyone was trying to be Neon and super rad at the time [laughter] you’ve got to remember, that 30-40% of snowboarders were riding hard boots. It was a totally different era. Bonfire was something a little dark, artsy, and a little more indie than what was happening. We were still in the goofy neon era…
Yea, you named the weird, bad brand [laughter] they were around. Checker Pig, Mistral, Hooger Booger, you know all the stuff that died a quick death.
“My whole thing was to take what I had seen in streetwear and try to build waterproof breathable fabrics and then bring that into snowboard outerwear,” says Steward. “Today that’s not an unusual premise, it’s basically what every brand does, whether it’s the Holden’s, the Airblaster’s, or whoever. Then, it was a radical concept.”
Like Benetton on snow?
It was just kind of wacky. All the snowboarders then were hung up on these big huge square, beefy patches on your knees and everything. First of all, and I came from film and photography school as well, it just looked bad in photos. When you looked at that style it did not look like it should to me, versus looking at a skateboard mag and a guy was wearing a pair of jeans with a cool look and a cool vibe. My whole thing was to take what I had seen in streetwear and try to build waterproof breathable fabrics and then bring that into snowboard outerwear. Today that’s not an unusual premise, it’s basically what every brand does, whether it’s the Holden’s, the Airblaster’s, or whoever. Then, it was a radical concept. People just thought outerwear was beefy and bulky and didn’t look or feel like streetwear at all. Bonfire really tried to change that.
You were a pro rider and designer before starting Bonfire?
I was riding for Burton in the early, early days. At the time, riding for Burton meant you got free stuff, no one got a salary. I had gone to the first world championships and had asked Jake if I could ride in the halfpipe. Jake said “Well, your board doesn’t really ride backwards, so it seems like a waste of time.” That was the moment that I thought I was on the wrong team, doing the wrong stuff, so I switched to Sims after that. I had won a few skate contests and I was from the West, which made me one of the only riders from the West for Burton. Tom Sims saw things a little differently, and I wanted to do freestyle so I rode for Sims for a couple of years. One day I’m walking on the deck of the pipe at the Nationals in Crested Butte, and a 13 or 14 year old Shaun Palmer does a giant method over my head with a wrist in a cast. I knew right then that my days were numbered. I was a lot older than Shaun, there was no way I could do what he did, even though he was in a cast. I just thought, well, I better shift tracks because I’m not going to keep pace with kids like Shaun Palmer and Damian Sanders. They were going to take it to another level.
Some of those early guys like Damian were all over the ugly neon stuff.
[Laughter] I remember thinking, don’t design for the current generation. Get one generation ahead of the sport. Many of those guys were getting their contracts and getting paid for the first time ever so when North Face or whoever came to them with ￼some whacky square knee’d thing or some whack brand that didn’t belong in snowboarding, they would take it because they got the paycheck. I thought that Neon vibe, first generation of snowboard apparel was going to pass quickly.
Bonfire kind of set the pace for the future. Snowboarding now has loose pants, tight pants, and everything in between. There’s so many different brands and styles geared towards snowboarding out there now.
Part of what makes it so hard to be successful in snowboarding today is that it’s super fragmented. I truly think Bonfire was the first company to bring out a skinny fit pant. We had one four years before Holden was even in business. People looked at the skinny pant and said “that’s not happening at all” [laughter]. We said, if you look at the jeans kids are wearing, it’s happening now in streetwear and will probably come to snowboarding. For 2-3 seasons, customers rejected skinny pants in snowboarding. Then one year later, boom, the developer that was working on it here leaves our office and starts Holden with Mikey and the guys [laughter] and they created a look for it.
Sometimes people just need different brands to kick off the next movement. Now we are in a situation where no one really knows where the movement is and all the brands in snowboarding are suffering a little bit. There’s not really a lead thing that people can point to and say that’s what next. On one hand, it’s really cool and fertile ground to be creative. You don’t have designers just following trends. They are truly creating unique stuff. It’s also kind of flat because people are afraid to try new stuff in times like this.
If it’s flat, people can just wear what they bought last year.
Yeah, and you have a larger audience that’s just not focused on what their apparel is. It’s more about what the board, boot, and binding is doing on the mountain. It’s not about how you look. It’s a drive back to authenticity in a way. As early generation snowboarders, we cared about how we looked because we wanted to signal to people that we weren’t skiers. Snowboarding was new and different but now snowboarding isn’t new or different to people at all, so that brings the look to a more generic place.
There was little or no money involved in snowboarding 25 years ago. No X Games, no Olympics, no big money contracts— as you said, riding for Burton, you did not get paid. What made you want to start a snowboard brand?
Just love, really— the best reason. I wanted to live the life of riding everywhere I could. I laugh about it now but I remember at one point asking our accountant, ‘why do we need to do accounting?’ He said, ‘what do you mean?’ I said ‘Because we are making stuff, selling stuff, and we all have enough money to eat and live, why do we need to spend time with accounting, can’t we just snowboard, promote, and sell? [laughter] He laughed his ass off and now that I’m older I get it. I just love that truly my viewpoint was to get enough to snowboard and that’s it. I’ve loved snowboarding since my first run in 1978.
“Snowboarding will change you if you let it. Once you get a toe turn and a heel turn, next thing you know, it’s 5 years later and you’ve lived in Whistler for 4 years.” Brad Steward, Bonfire Founder
Where was your first run?
￼In Flagstaff, Arizona. We had a house with a really steep driveway. I took one run down and knew right away, this is it. I instantly found something that I could love forever. Snowboarding will change you if you let it. Once you get a toe turn and a heel turn, next thing you know, it’s 5 years later and you’ve lived in Whistler for 4 years. People lose time and space when they get things right in their life and I think many people experience that in snowboarding. I want more people to experience that now. I don’t hear that, people getting that feeling, enough now. My family was not really a mountain family but I grew up just wanting to skateboard. So, when I saw snowboarding it was just an instant win because the only thing that stopped us from skateboarding was the snow. When your linking turns in different zones of the mountain for 3,000 vertical feet, nothing beats it.
Click through to page two to keep reading more from Steward on how he made Bonfire into a sustainable company, answering to a corporate parent company, and the evolution of the snow market and what that means for making quality products.