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RVCA’s Mastermind On The Brand’s Identity & Future

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In 2001, Pat Tenore had an idea, jotted it down on a napkin, and launched what would soon become RVCA from his garage. The premise at the brand’s inception was “the balance of opposites,” and his concept was to integrate different subcultures within one platform by connecting a diverse network of individuals with a common thread. Almost a decade later, the success of the initial model is evident in the company’s current roster of artists and athletes, which ranges from gallery artist Barry McGee to mixed martial arts champion B.J. Penn.

TransWorld Business reached out to Tenore in late April for a long overdue interview on where the brand came from and where it’s going.

What year did you found RVCA and what was the original concept behind the brand?

RVCA started in my garage around 2001—I was 26 years old—the original concept of the brand was and still is really to integrate different subcultures within one platform.

The idea was: work with friends and family to make RVCA a lifestyle brand that would provide a platform (the Artist Network Program) for like-minded people to create great art, while getting recognition for their contribution and involvement, something that seemed to go unnoticed for artists in the past.

The name RVCA is an ambiguous word, created to support the meaning behind the chevrons (VA). The chevrons are the icon that represent the balance of opposites – man / woman – industrialization / nature – basically how everything co-exists.

Did you see an under-serviced niche in the market, or were there other reasons you thought the brand would be successful?

We set out for RVCA to be a platform to give artists a voice through the Artist Network Program, as opposed to looking at art as a niche in the marketplace.

In hindsight, what we did with the ANP in the beginning definitely gave a big group of customers something they wanted and weren’t getting elsewhere – and it’s grown into a movement that a lot of other brands out there now are trying to manufacture.

How were you able to raise capital to fund the brand in the early days?

Back in the day, passion and vision could grow a brand. Those elements made more sense than any formula. If you thought or tried to put your passion on a piece of paper now it would never calculate to making sense, let alone dollars. A lot of people helped out: family, friends, and retailers – “vision and people building a brand” a lot of people believed in the vision and that’s what helped us get to where RVCA is today.

How long did it take before RVCA “got off the ground”?

This is the first year I feel we have traction. I have always felt RVCA was a legitimate brand, but today we are looking at the market more globally and really trying to maximize RVCA’s potential.

What put RVCA on the map?

Definitely a combination of things.  I think it’s true with all successful brands that they have to have product, marketing and distribution all work together in a special way to find their success.

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RVCA’s big product innovation in surf and skate shops was the cut and sew tee. The hand of our fabric, the quality of the art (with credit to artists), silkscreened main labels, and the recognizable contrast stitching along the shoulders basically created a new category for premium tees.

On the marketing side, the thing that stands out was being the first to have such a diverse collection of all our friends and family that started with surfers, skateboarders, and the ANP, which grew into the many subcultures we work with today all sitting together under one brand.  All of these people really created the look and feel of RVCA.

Last is distribution – we had a lot of the most discerning skate/surf shops and boutiques believing in us from an early stage.  All those shops are brands in their own right and when we were in the right places, it helped communicate to customers who we are and what we stand for.

I will never forget TK from the Frog House saying to me, “Get out of here, a $24 retail tee? You’re crazy.” Nonetheless, he took a chance and the rest is history.

Is it fair to say that RVCA is creatively driven? How has that helped the brand, and have there been times this has hurt the brand from an operation/ dollars and cents standpoint?

Is RVCA “creatively driven”? I guess that would be fair to say, and at times it may have made the accountant’s job a little tough but we’ve always been focused on doing things we’re passionate about.

Being committed to who we are is so important in the early stages because what we do now will affect the perception of who we are in every corner of the world for the next 10-20-50 years.

Doing things our way is what makes RVCA the brand and lifestyle it is—pioneering in its own way through a 40-year-old industry. But the board sport world is original in its own right; it’s a special tribe of people.

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What have been the biggest challenges over the years as far as running the business, and how have you managed to overcome those?

The importance of cash flow, margins, and calendar were a blur and I used to ignore certain parts of the business to allow myself to stay creative. Realizing that RVCA is more than a garage company now, I try to balance my own personality to run the brand like a lifestyle and a business. Also, we’ve grown to a point where I now have my counterparts in place that specialize in operating the business to balance out the creatives and make us a well-rounded company.

What is the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career? Based on those, what advice would you give someone knowing what you learned from those experiences?

You can never buy time or get it back. It is the most important asset that I have come to appreciate. Work hard to afford time and spend it wisely. I want to spend my time making the right decisions to afford more time with my wife and three kids. That would be the biggest lesson.

How long did it take before the business became profitable?

RVCA has never been a case-study business—we are looking to become more of a global brand and have been talking strategy with a few people and things are becoming interesting.

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How did you and your crew come up with the concept of ANP Quarterly, and how has that project played into RVCA’s overall success?

It goes something like this… Lunch at Mother’s Market, had an idea (a free arts and culture magazine), wrote it on a napkin (organic, I’m sure) then called a few of my friends and asked if they were into it.

I think the ANP Quarterly has helped to create a point of differentiation for us—it’s a way for RVCA to have a dialogue with our community, share our thoughts and inspirations in an informed way.

When did RVCA decide to sell to larger national retailers like Pacific Sunwear, Urban Outfitters, etc? How did you approach that strategically?

Our distribution grew organically over the years, while RVCA has been very selective about the accounts we chose to partner with. Our national retailers have helped us introduce RVCA to a larger audience and given us the ability to further support our subcultures in ways that we would not have previously been able to.

I think people appreciate the message we bring and we have made our product in a way that there’s something right for each one of the customers that comes to shop at a RVCA retailer, whether that is a specialty shop, boutique, or larger store.

On the women’s side, projects like Erin Wasson’s collection were pretty revolutionary for an “action sports” brand. How did that concept come about and how successful has it been?

It happened pretty organically…My son Joseph was in a photo shoot with Erin several years ago. When he came home from the shoot he was excited about the girl he met and explained that she had a miniramp in her backyard and an old Ford Bronco that she would wrench on, not your average model. I met Erin soon after at RVCA events and realized it was the same person… Shortly thereafter, we decided to collaborate on a clothing line that would mix the board sport world into fashion.

Erin has brought a lot of attention to the brand and it has been a great relationship. What she is doing with RVCA and the fashion world led to a show in Bryant Park during Fashion Week. That was a definite first for this industry – and continues to open doors for us that none of our competitors have looked into yet.

How did the recent recession affect RVCA? With retailers and manufacturers having a tough time, what has RVCA done to navigate the rough waters brought on by the economy?

The recession has been tough.  It has hurt everyone in different ways. In down times, retailers want to take less risk and buy into what they know will sell.  We were lucky enough to be one of the brands our retailers could count on, so we actually were growing the whole time.

Although we have continued to grow, it has forced us to look at all aspects of our business. We had some challenges with certain retailers but now are starting to see some very positive things happening, looking globally for promising opportunities, and ultimately we have become much more disciplined as a result of the challenges over the past two years.

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There’s been a considerable amount of consolidation in the industry and RVCA seems like it’d be a prime acquisition. Have you entertained the idea of selling the brand?

RVCA started in my garage and I have given it everything I have for the past 9 years. Ultimately, I want to do what is right for the brand, my team and everyone involved with RVCA. I think I have a responsibility to keep an open mind and not close any doors or miss opportunities.

What has you excited about the brand right now?

The positive growth and continued acceptance in the marketplace has been unbelievable. I am just very appreciative of all the has been afforded to us, working with a great crew of people and all of the super talented artists, musicians and advocates we interact with on a daily basis.