Six plus eight plus six equals 20, also the age that Michael Akira West started his technical skate and snow label, 686. 16 and a half years later, West is 36 years old, a little wiser, and still hustling just as hard. With no formal design training, but a degree in business from the University of Southern Cali, Westâ€™s philosophy has always been to provide progressive and fashion forward designs. Since the brandâ€™s inception in 1992, 686 still holds strong as an independently owned and operated company while boasting copious retailers internationally.
â€œThereâ€™s a difference between a leader and a follower, a visionary and a wanderer.â€
Format: Please state who you are an your role at 686?
Michael Akira West: Founder, Owner, Creative Director, 686 technical apparel.
Format: What is your background in fashion and design?
Michael Akira West: I donâ€™t have any formal training. Just learned and listened by doing things back in the day, from sewing my jeans, to printing teeâ€™s, to doing illustrations for jackets. I guess people say I had a â€œgood eyeâ€ for things and filled in the blanks in terms of how things get done.
Format: The brand name comes from an important date in your grandmotherâ€™s life, June 6, 1986. Is it too personal to ask you to elaborate on this?
Michael Akira West: 686 comes from two meanings. The first one is a specific time in June of 1986 where my grandmother told me something â€œspecialâ€. The other one is based upon mathematics. 6+8+6=20, which is the age I started the biz.
Format: Your brand name also adds up to your age when you started the company. At only 20, how did you find the means to launch your brand?
Michael Akira West: I actually went to school where one of the projects was to make a business plan. I guess the biggest benefit was that it made me put things on paper, which was tough. As a creative, you tend to not like to plan things out. Nothing goes as planned, but it helped me look at issues like financing and business structure, not design. The design and development process was all organic. It worked off my past experiences as a sponsored skateboarder, collector of denim and sneakers, interests in rap, jazz and punk music and a drive to make things unique.
Format: What were the challenges you faced when you started 686?
Michael Akira West: Too many to list, as Iâ€™m always facing challenges. But the most difficult would probably be financial. As someone that really had no idea on how to run a proper biz, having the proper funds to make your â€œdreamâ€ come true, was very difficult. We came up with many â€œcreativeâ€ ways to extend that money. Great ideas donâ€™t always cost a lot of money. It more or less how you implement those great ideas into reality.
Format: How has the brand changed since its inception in 1992?
Michael Akira West: Weâ€™re still independently owned and operated over these 16 and a half years. Meaning we do what we want to do, when we want to. Besides the incredible infrastructure of being a well operated machine, the biggest change however is how we â€œlookâ€ at things. What I mean is that when we commit to a project, we want to make sure itâ€™s not only unique, but it is â€œ686.â€ We donâ€™t do things half ass.
Format: What challenges do you face today?
Michael Akira West: Two main challenges. First is that there are other large companies exploiting the market for pure profit and ignoring the foundation of why weâ€™re here. This only deteriorates the things other people work so hard to do. Second is the credit markets. As much as Iâ€™m in it for the long run, if shops and suppliers donâ€™t have the funds to survive, itâ€™s gonna be a tough ride.
Format: 686 is rooted in Skate and Snow. How do these two industries play into Streetwear?
Michael Akira West: Street skateboarding is the essence of hustling. The rawness and independence is what 686 were founded upon, to me, the way we do snowboarding is based upon this. In between is the street culture that is inspired from us growing up in Los Angeles. Weâ€™re obsessed with producing apparel that has a technical history. Itâ€™s in the details.
Format: The 686 family rolls pretty deep and global. Who is the one person in your life that has inspired you the most?
Michael Akira West: The person thatâ€™s inspired me the most is my mom. She believed in my dream regardless what it was. She saw the passion and ideas I had. She gave everything up to try and make it happen, regardless of any negativity out there. Iâ€™ve learned that anything is possible, with the right timing and right people behind it.
Format: Youâ€™ve developed trademarked products like SMARTY, TIMES, ACC and Plexus. Can you explain your process in innovation and how you developed one of these trademarked products?
Michael Akira West: When we develop a style, line, etc., I like to always look at the end. What can you do to make it not only a cool design, but a brand within a brand that can have a life of its own. I donâ€™t like labeling myself as a designer. If anything, I guess it would be a creator, as people who create like to make things on multiple levels, creating multiple effects, i.e.: 1D vs. 3D.
Format: With over 15 years experience, what advice would you give to a younginâ€™ looking to get into the fashion industry?
Michael Akira West: Funny thing is that Iâ€™ve never wanted to be in the â€œfashion industry.â€ Always thought it was filled with lots of stuck up, egocentric peeps. But interesting enough, more of the people I like to hang with are super cool and talented. Youâ€™re a product of your environment. If you want to get into something, then try and associate yourself with the ones that support you in your endeavors. Donâ€™t lie to yourself, but be yourself. Listen and learn, as you can never stop. One last thing is that timing is everything. Look for the right team to support you and the right niche and time frame to make shit happen.
Format: Do you feel that youâ€™ve achieved everything you wanted in life? If no, what would you like to achieve?
Michael Akira West: Of course not. Iâ€™m always hustling it, but the difference in today versus yesterday, is that today Iâ€™m doing it with the experience of what I did wrong yesterday and what I want to do tomorrow.
Format: How does a brand in todayâ€™s fashion market stay innovative?
Michael Akira West: My perspective on innovation is being able to change before you need to, a simple idea but very difficult not only for yourself but your team, family, friends, etc. Thereâ€™s a difference between a leader and a follower, a visionary and a wanderer. You have to try and foresee the future and where you and your brand belongs. 9 times out of 10, your gut instinct will let you know which direction to take. However donâ€™t confuse your â€œgutâ€Â with your â€œegoâ€. Peace.