Companies that produce T-shirts and stickers are never in short supply. And while it isn’t unfair to dismiss the long term prospects of those new companies until they’ve become established, a touch of cynicism surrounds the idea that a group of friends wearing homemade T-shirts with a graffiti tag or rolling out a sticker campaign can become the next Billabong or Quiksilver. Sometimes, however, a ragtag band of friends throws parties, spray paints Walmart tees, produces movies and becomes something special.
That’s the story of Voleurz, created back in 2003 by two University of Victoria students, Darren Rayner and Bruce Goivando. Along with a few friends, the two began throwing sizeable frat-house-style parties. For the original members, they created T-shirts. “We printed these six shirts for the six of us,” recalls Darren Rayner, now the vice president of marketing. “We put a name to the face, I guess. Voleurz was our label, who we were. Everyone was always going to party at the Voleurz house.”
GT Rider: Tyler Holm Photo: Andy Campbell Location: Volympics 2012, Whistler, BC
Quickly, a brand—based on a group of friends and a common love of snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, BMX and skateboarding—started to look like a business. A website and blog brought them requests for product, something that didn’t exist at the time. While they sourced blank shirts, the demand grew, and in 2006, a chance meeting led Voleurz into their next life cycle. Harvey Li approached Rayner at a party in Whistler. “He came to us, and he said, ‘You know I’ve been looking at what you guys are doing, and I have connections to produce whatever you guys want,’” says Rayner. “Back then, I was still trying to hustle through wholesalers in the US. We were just trying to do whatever we could while we were studying at university, trying to pass classes.”
That meeting with Li led Voleurz to step into the realm of cut-and-sew, custom-designed production. And with their stable of friends and athletes marking a compass point of design inspiration, the reality of a clothing business was solidified. “We’ve always had guys like Mike Riddle, Matt Margetts, even good friends like TJ [Schiller], come into the office and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a cool design,’ or ‘I like that cut,’” says Rayner. “We design our clothing so we’ll wear it. And by ‘we’ I don’t mean Harvey, Bruce and me, I mean our crew and our family. These are the influential people within their own environment and their own industry. We’re inspired by each other—everyone who is involved in the brand.”
Now, with 70 retail outlets in Canada, the US and Australia, matched with a strong online sales presence, Voleurz is a business that requires day-to-day management and an eye to the future. Although Rayner studied psychology, he is learning to forecast sales, organize distribution and handle a sales team that has grown to nine reps. “We’re not 50-year-old CEOs, we’re skiers and snowboarders trying to run a company,” admits Rayner. But somehow, Voleurz has become the soft goods company that dominates ski media.
No small part of Voleurz’s brand image is their movie-making tradition. From the beginning—Galactic Alliance was their first film, released in 2003—the boys were all about sharing their love of certain sports with, well, their friends. That audience has grown, but the idea remains.
Kill Your Boredom action teaser from Voleurz.
In 2009, Outdoor Education was released for free on the Internet, a move that garnered a lot of media attention. With consideration of traditional movie distribution, there were doubts within Voleurz. But the move proved prescient, and Rayner’s voice is clear when he says, “Now, it’s the way to go. There is so much content on the Internet. We’ve affiliated our brand with releasing this annual film for free, and I don’t think we’re ever going to go back.”
That certainty belies the tribulations of starting a brand in the snow-sports industry. While Voleurz shows sustained, steady growth, Rayner points to last winter’s less than wintery snowfall totals across western North America as the company’s biggest challenge thus far. “It was a big realization that the weather has such a huge influence on our industry. Not just ’cause we don’t get to ride fresh pow when we have a horrible winter, like last year. It really hurts a lot of businesses. When it hurts the big businesses, it still hurts the small people.”
In the end though, the long-term success of a snow-sports business is not solely based on marketing or sales. It’s not as simple as numbers on a spreadsheet. It is dedication to a family. No one can state that better than the person who embraces that family and makes something of it. “We’re so much more involved with [the team] than just saying, ‘Here’s what you’re getting. Go out and do your thing.’ We travel with them, we film with them, we party with them.”
Originally, the name Voleurz was just an intentionally misspelled random word grabbed from a French dictionary because of how it looked. Now, Rayner can sum up its definition as a brand, “I think Voleurz is a collaboration of a hundred plus people. We are the collectors of what these 50 athletes and 50 friends say. We’re the guys who bring that information and inspiration and try to create some sort of a material product for that.”
Voleurz’s next movie, Kill Your Boredom, will be available for free here on freeskier.com starting November 19. Read our review of the film, right here.