There Are No Rules | Greg Dacyshyn of Burton
Interview: Nguyen Le | Photography: Jefford Lam
Dialogue | Issue 02 | p.090
Passion. It preoccupies the obsessive impulse in all of us. Often times it’s intimidating to embrace, as it sets in motion a series of changes that challenge our status quo. Despite this, it’s undeniably the truest catalyst for the potential realized in one self. In sport, as in life, passion fuels the competitive itch that lies within; coupled with vision and a mindset focused without compromise, there’s little we can’t achieve. Jake Burton’s passion for time spent on the slopes led him to found the world’s first snowboard factory, and his revolutionary vision solidified his namesake brand as the most recognizable within the sport. Having existed prior as snurfing- an odd marriage of surfing roots with modified ski and wake boarding equipment - the sport piqued in interest when Jake entered the National Snurfing Championship in 1979 with a board of his own design; a flexible wooden plank equipped with bindings he had engineered and fastened to secure his feet to the board. He would go on to win a place at the podium that year along with cementing the effectiveness and functionality of one of the first snowboard prototypes at the time.
Years later, with the continued dedication of Burton and other industry pioneers - Tom Sims, and Mike Olsen - snowboarding managed to garner the world stage and become an official Olympic category in 1998. At the time the sport thrived off the rebellious and individual nature of youth, with an alluring dare devil factor closely linked to it. Today, its influence has infiltrated the mainstream, and is enjoyed by novice riders and elite athletes and competitors alike. Burton’s head office and main operations still remains in Vermont, even decades after its inception. With a population of just over 40,000, Burlington is the largest city within the state, and is best known for its production of maple syrup, and close proximity to mountainous landscape, with some of the most renowned winter resorts this side of the continent. We’ve been invited for a day to tour Burton HQ, learn more about the brand’s organic roots and sit down for a conversation with chief creative officer, Greg Dacyshyn.
It’s the morning after the first heavy snowfall of the season and there’s a noticeable eagerness present in the air. Winter is embraced here, as it brings with it the annual rush of shred heads, which livens up the otherwise sleepy town. With roughly 1% of Burlington’s residents working as employees for Burton, there’s a distinct family aura that resonates here. Almost every aspect of the company takes place under its massive 162,000 square foot combined facility. With global sales, finance, marketing, warranty, sustainability– a big one at Burton, Product R&D and of course creative, it’s amazing and incredibly inspiring that Burton Snowboards still remains privately owned by Jake and his wife and is operated by their trusted team of advisors and directors. Across the parking lot from the main office is Craig’s Facility. Named after the late snowboarder, Craig Kelly was instrumental in bringing Jake’s unconventional but revolutionary ideas to light. Possessing over 10,000 sq ft alone, the warehouse is a vault for Burton’s high end and custom built machinery. We’re guided by Content Director- Lance Pitcher who informs us that, while capable of producing thousands of boards and bindings, “Craig’s is solely dedicated to research and development, though a solid 20-30 boards are usually fabricated here daily.” He leads us to a small museum of sorts nick-named the “Barn” where dozens of early prototypes, alongside an archive of Jake’s sketches and notes from the first 30 years of Burton designs are left on full display.
We leave Craig’s and head back over to the main building in time to meet with Mr. Dacyshyn. Everyone whom I’ve encountered here exudes a child like enthusiasm and sense of pride in the work they’re responsible for. I learn that most of Burton’s employees are veterans at the company with very little turn over despite all its years in the game. In my experience, this type of camaraderie and loyalty is usually a result of strong company culture with respect to each individual and the nurturing of their talents and goals. Of course a strong and competent leader who exemplifies this spirit is necessary to the equation also. Despite his commanding role at Burton, Greg Dacyshyn exudes a humble and charismatically modest demeanor. His eclectic personal style and taste level can’t be defined- as it encompasses a buffet of influences and time periods indicative of his frequent globetrotting, curiosity and open mind. If what decorates his office is a glimpse into the abstract psyche of Dacyshyn, his thoughts can be roughly personified as an encyclopedia on relevant pop culture. We’re accompanied by his two dogs- Aiko and Bear, probably the largest canines I’ve ever been in the same room with; they show little interest in me, yet keep watchful and attentive eyes on Greg. He tells me Bear, a Newfoundland breed is only 9 months old but has quickly outgrown Aiko the Akita, several years his senior. “They sort of embody the duality in myself” he tells me, “they learn from one another, although polar opposites, they complement each other, sort of like yin and yang”. As they get more comfortable with my presence, Greg begins to open up about his past- a proud Toronto native he gets nostalgic reminiscing about his years in high school and his first memories of snowboarding.
“It began as an exaggeration of tobogganing, I was riding make shift boards that were kind of snowboard shaped, backyard kind of boards, not that much different to what Jake was making, I’m sure mine were way more primitive. I first remember getting into snowboarding seriously in the early ‘90s. I’d grown up as a skier, and I was also into skating too, so naturally I gravitated towards it. The first time I got on a legit board, I was definitely hooked you know? Snowboarding was something completely fresh and new, and it felt right, at least for someone like myself. I just seemed to have a lot more fun on a board. Of course I took with it the bumps and bruises like anyone else does, but once it clicked I was addicted, and I haven’t been on skis since- I know that sounds like a cliché, but it was totally true."
Do you still frequent the mountains today?
To be honest, I’m not the core-est of the core, I mean I love to ride for sure and I’m a pretty busy guy these days, but I definitely love getting up on the mountain. Sometimes when I get back here (Burlington) after travelling I’m a little beat [laughs], I enjoy a little couch time and some time to catch up with the dogs. I love a day out there with good friends and if I have the opportunity, I’m definitely up there for a few runs. I still love it, not just the riding part but the whole experience. Especially if you’re going out with a good crew- I think that’s half of what it's really about. I’m not necessarily the guy who’s out there first thing in the morning doing speed laps off of the quad, nothing against that, it's just not really me anymore. My ideal day at the mountain, revolves around chillin, having some runs, a great lunch and hanging out. It’s experiential for me, it’s about bonding and I guess it's sort of like travelling, I don’t want to just go and bang out a bunch of spots that I think I’m supposed to, I like to just cruise and get lost and have fun.
Can you tell us about your first memories of Burton?
One of the only skate shops in Toronto when I was a kid was this spot called Rudy's, at the time there wasn’t really anywhere you could buy skate decks either. Rudy's was an official Burton dealer. They stocked the entire lineup– which was like four different boards. I took a catalog, as I’m sort of a product fiend and I went home and studied the whole thing, cover to cover. I liked everything that the brand was about, I felt there was a great energy and culture behind Burton and I really gravitated to the whole vibe. There’s something very cool about a guy who not only started a brand but also started a sport and a lifestyle that went around it. I identified with it because it wasn’t this sort of “surfy” West Coast thing, it was an East Coast based brand that seemed to take pride in that.
Naturally you wanted to work with Burton at some capacity. How did you make that transition?
I grew up working in shops (retail) whether it was in the front or back, I was in snowboard shops or stringing rackets in the summer, I was in that world all the time. My plan was to sort of fuck off and move to BC and snowboard there and have some fun; that was around the time a friend of mine who was already working down here in Burlington reached out to me. He knew I had a strong passion for outerwear. I love the fashion meets function element to it. Even though I never had a formal job working within it, I was extremely knowledgeable on outerwear. Thank my OCD for that [laughs]. He told me Burton was starting to ramp up their outerwear program and he thought I’d be perfect for it. So when this opportunity came up, I was like "alright, lets give it a shot." I took a risk, packed up my life and moved to Vermont, and I’m coming up on 20 years now. My wife and I really found something special here.
Now you handle the creative direction of the brand. Do you find certain elements of your personal style trickling down into the product?
Definitely. A lot of my influence goes into the product, whether it be in prints, colour, patterns, graphics or certain implementations, but it’s got to be a little watered down for the masses [laughs] or integrated somewhat so that it’s a little more palatable for people. I think that is something we’ve really made our mark on– whether that be in outerwear, bags, boards or boots– we take a really unique look at materialization and with our strong team I implement these things and I like to play around a lot with those elements.
Of course the aesthetic of a product has to be on point, but to me, functionality is paramount. I pay attention to really great fabrics, and pieces that actually work, whether it's derived from work wear, or it’s a very technical GORE-TEX fabric, or it’s a fit that’s functional there needs to be a balance. I would say the place where I have the most freedom to execute is in some of the collaboration projects that we do, not just in terms of creative freedom, but in price point, margins and distribution.
It must be challenging to think and design conceptually, yet have to adhere to a profitable business model.
For sure, I mean it's challenging to be able to create a great product and at an accessible price point. You know a kid that is like 14 years old and is spending a couple hundred bucks on a jacket wants the best jacket in the world, and you can’t sell him short, and right now, everyone wants cool shit. To me it’s fun to do projects that are challenging in this way. I would say I’m a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to making everything the best that it can be, and maybe everyone sort of doesn’t notice it at face value, but I like to think they’ll see it when they really take a good look at it- that we try to take product to the next level. At whatever price point in any product category, we aim to do the best in class product. That’s not only in terms of functionality but also in terms of style. But hey, do I like to get a little crazy and just make some shit that I like? Without a doubt! [laughs]
Along with the level of freedom that comes along with collaborative projects, do you also find the most enjoyment in this aspect of design?
I definitely have the most fun working with people and brands that I have an affinity for, I’m given the opportunity to work with friends and really express myself. I can say confidently that Burton is one of the only brands in snowboarding that takes it to the next level by working with really cool designers. We’re focused on pushing design forward, and we take a lot of pride in not just the artists that we work with, but also in the level of tech that goes into the product. The people we work with share this mentality and I’m truly proud of the results.
You’re instrumental in bridging the gap between North America and Japan in terms of creating awareness with special projects overseas. What were some of the first collaborations you were involved with?
The first collaborations I worked on were almost 20 years ago. We did a couple with Tetsu¹ (Nishiyama of WTAPS) and with Yoppi² (Yoshifumi Egawa) who used to do Hectic and now does Hombre Nino. That was also around the time I met Hiroshi (Fujiwara) he was still doing Electric Cottage³ then, and we started working on a small collection together called iDiOM- it was very subtly done and we didn’t market it at all. We met through Hiroki Nakamura, who does visvim® now, but at the time Hiroki was the marketing director for Burton Japan. Hiroshi and I clicked right away, we did a lot of riding together and did trips to Alaska, but we were friends first. He’s been a great friend to Burton and a big promoter of snowboarding in Japan. We started iDiOM shortly after and that was a really cool project that we did for a few years. I think it really did something groundbreaking by bringing that outdoor aesthetic into the street somewhat. I mean no one loves riding more than Hiroshi. He’s really into that whole back country, snow shoeing, split boarding deal which is amazing, and that was the catalyst for us doing AK457 which is the pinnacle of technical product at Burton with no compromise in fit, functionality and aesthetics. The collection is in its fourth season now. That’s his baby, as far as acting as creative director. It’s based on Japanese tailoring and fit, but we’re starting to distribute it on a very limited basis globally.
What is it about the Japanese design aesthetic or philosophies maybe that you’re most drawn to?
I think they’ve been ahead of the game in the streetwear world, beyond anyone who was over here. I really resonate with their design aesthetic, attention to detail, eye for quality and that almost obsessive-compulsive element they bring. I’ve always been in awe of what those guys do; they get it. They seem to have a better understanding of what it takes to make a great product and I really appreciate that. We share a very similar design philosophy, and I’m sort of envious of what they’re able to do, so it’s a pleasure to work with them on these projects.
Another big reason why we work so well together, is they really love the American work wear and the military look. That sort of utilitarian aesthetic really works with snowboarding you know? To have that simple utilitarian functionality whether it’s pocketing or ergonomics in pants and other features, it just sort of works with snowboarding, and if it works on the battlefield then it’ll be fine on a mountain right?
You still continue to work with niche labels, but now you’ve partnered with large corporate brands like Disney and Marvel. How are these projects facilitated?
Anyone that I work with, it's either I like the people involved, and we develop a sort of relationship or we share the same philosophy about product and business. We do some products now that are more licensed, but I want to elevate those brands too, I don’t want to just tattoo it with sort of the style guide they provide us with, I want to make something cool and unique. It’s an amazing thing to work with other creatives, there’s so much great work and talented people out there. Beyond sort of just the hype part, it’s awesome to bring new people in- whether it be on a one off project or a repeating project. I love to find partners where we can build a relationship and learn with each other to make a product better and better. I’m never on the search either, it’s more like I bump into people and we click, it’s a relationship thing. Maybe it might not always come off as authentic but it truly is. It has to make business sense too, but it's fun to have the opportunities to work with other people from other areas and share ideas and hang out with them and do different things to push the industry forward.
If the mission at Burton today is to continually push product design forward, what do you account for to ensure the brand's heritage remains intact?
Well, I guess the heritage of Burton is to make the best possible product for snowboarding. From a performance standpoint for sure, but I also think from a comfort standpoint. What ever it takes to make the riding experience better. So for some people that might be making the board faster, or give it that much more pop, but for other people, to make a boot more comfortable so they can hang out on the mountain longer, or to make that jacket warmer or more resistant to water.
It says it at the front of out building, “you need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going,” that’s always been our heritage- never forget our roots, yet do what’s possible to make the best snowboarding product in the world. We’re also known as a brand that has really transcended sport with fashion, or defined a look and a lifestyle. I like to think that we make a lot of great apparel and transitional pieces that aren’t just for snowboarding and snowboarders, but for anyone who wants a great winter piece. Our core competency is first and foremost in making great technical product with style. I think that’s where we’ve really succeeded. There are a lot of brands doing this, but we’ve always had a distinct point of view and a distinct point of differentiation from the norm. The future objective of Burton is to really focus on what our true competencies are, what truly resonates with the brand and the riders that are around us and what we can do to make the user experience better. We are, and will always be a rider driven brand.
Ever since Jake pioneered the sport with his unconventional board designs and concepts of what a brand could be, riders have looked to Burton as a leader. Is it fair to say that Burton’s strength lies in its tenacity to break the rules?
We’ve always been the East Coast company outside of the whole West Coast regime. We’ve been the outsiders and I think that’s always been an asset. We don’t follow what they’re doing out there. We do our own thing and a lot of our influences come from what’s going on in Europe or Asia. I think that’s always been a key strength of the brand. There are no hard and rigid rules in my life and in what we do here at Burton. My philosophy is to play it fast and loose.
Travel is a huge aspect of your job, where does most of your conceptualization take place?
Somewhere between two and six AM [laughs] I love to travel for sure, you’ve been here (Burlington) for two days, it’s a beautiful place, but definitely not the creative hub of the world. Vermont is a great place to live and I’m really close to NYC- I spend a lot of time in that city, and from there I can be quick to jump anywhere else. Having said that, Burlington is a really great place to decompress, I travel the world and when I’m back here I get to spit it all out, you know? Sometimes I think people that live in the city are always just go go go and they see the same things all the time and really don’t get the chance to reflect. So in that way, it’s really positive to be here. It’s a place for me to relax and let all the things I’ve seen and experience unfold and materialize into something else.
Going back, from a creative stand point, and travel, I like to get lost, I mean I like to see friends and people that I know, but I always take a few days to explore and wander around by myself. It’s fun and inspiring to get lost and end up in weird situations and see things I didn’t know and meet some new friends completely outside of the realm of what I already know. I think that’s really important. Adventure and curiosity is what keeps us young, but maybe that might shorten my lifespan too [laughs] but everyday above ground man, you have to learn something new. The day I’m not having fun doing this is the day I wont be doing it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of work to be done, but for the most part we have to have fun while doing it no matter what. We’re in the business of fun. No one needs to buy a snowboard, but we create things to make smiles on peoples faces, so if you’re not living it, how are you gonna sell it?
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