If you don’t already know this, I get a woody for lumberjack stuff. And by that, I mean full-on triple rainbow excitement when DIY nature-boy X Tumblr-style emerges in my fun-window. I don’t know if I’d dump Poler Stuff into this category (at risk of founder Benji Wagner possibly punching me in the neck through the telephone), but I will say that there’s something about them that sparks up my inner chi. And I think that’s the unrelenting unflappability of what they do and make.
After all, they don’t take themselves entirely seriously. Misspelling “polar,” and using the word “stuff” as an overarching description of what they do, Poler never set out to create the next Patagonia. In fact, they wanted something that hit casual campers and wandering vagabonds right in the nuts: high-quality camping gear for the average dude who hasn’t scaled Everest (but that’s cool too).
On this journey, Benji Wagner, one of the founders of Poler and the creative director of the brand, has seen some weird changes in his life. Setting out to make something that didn’t take itself seriously, the former photographer/filmmaker ended up with a kick-ass brand that is growing faster than Pinocchio’s nose on a speed-date. Now shuffling the divide between corporate exec, father, and nature man, Benji’s doing his best to keep the balance. Read our chit-chat below.
MAC SANDEFUR: So you worked with a lot of action sports brands before you went to Poler?
BENJI WAGNER: Yeah, I’ve done quite a bit of work for a variety of people – Nike SB and others. I’ve also done work for a cycling brand called Rapha. I’ve done work in the bicycle world and the outdoors world – kind of a mix of different stuff. I was doing a lot of brand content: web videos, photography, and that kind of thing.
[Did] working behind the scenes make you want to get your hands dirty?
I worked freelance for a long time and, like I said, I have a family and I slowly realized I’d like to start a brand of my own to build on rather than just working freelance forever. I had a variety of ideas over the years. Poler is really two things in the long run: one is really looking at action sports and realizing that things like camping and travel and products – sleeping bags and tents and things – were really part of the culture that we all grew up in in that world. Every skateboarder grows up travelling around and visiting other people and sleeping on the floor. Surfers go travel and camp on the beach and all of that has very much been part of the culture.
“EVERY SKATEBOARDER GROWS UP TRAVELING AROUND AND VISITING OTHER PEOPLE AND SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR.”
But there wasn’t really a brand that spoke to that, and everyone in that world that needed that stuff would just go to Walmart or REI or whatever to get the gear they needed. But they didn’t really care about it or care about the brand that made it. We set out to create a new category in that world and create a really authentic brand that had roots in action sports and hopefully go into those kind of shops and say to them, “You know you’ve never carried something like this. It will work if it’s brought in the right way.” Kind of like what Nixon did with watches.
Then aside from action sports and the outdoor world in that industry, I just really felt there was an opportunity for some new blood. Most of the brands that dominate the industry were started quite a while ago, and the founders are still alive, it’s a pretty young industry. I just felt like there was room for a change, and room for a new voice that could connect with younger people and inspire them.
What inspired the name?
It’s just one of those things that I think everyone knew who does something like this – it’s just a gut feeling, it feels right, sounds right, and it’s a bit mysterious. I definitely wanted to do something that wasn’t a real word so I could hopefully create a meaning around it more than if it were an existing word in the dictionary. So for me, part of it, I like the fact that people have to ask and think about it, that’s part of the fun of having something that’s original.
The word stuff is something that I came up with right from the beginning because I just feel like it’s a funny word and it is how people talk. To me, there’s just an honesty about when it. When you’re a kid, your dad goes, “Hey, all right, let’s get all the camping stuff and throw it in the car.” They never say, “Get all the camping equipment.” It just doesn’t ring true to how anybody actually talks. So yeah it’s always been Poler Stuff. It hopefully conveys, “This is gear that’s useful, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s supposed to be fun.”
At what point did you move over to the Pacific Northwest [after growing up in Maryland]?
Well, I was the first employee of an old skate shop called Pit Crew in Maryland. I worked in a skate shop for years there, and when I got out of high school I moved to San Francisco for awhile. I was sort of just traveling and living nomadically. I lived in New York for a bit, then I ended up going to Vancouver. I was making films and just learning a lot about film and photography and doing jobs.
I ended up meeting my wife unexpectedly in Vancouver, and then we settled in Portland. Partly because we just had to decide one country or the other to do the whole immigration process, which is a huge pain in the ass. We felt really good about Portland, and Vancouver just got more and more expensive and difficult to live in on that level. We’ve been here about 8 years, and I’m really rooted here now with my family. I feel at home for sure. I’ve never really felt a sense of belonging somewhere as much as here.
From Poler Stuff’s Valley of the Gods lookbook.
There’s just something that fits – I don’t know what came first – but there’s something that fits with Portland and the general aesthetics of your photography and just the general approach to your brand. It feels very, very rooted in Portland in my opinion.
It is for sure. Portland, as a city, has really become almost its own brand. It’s really interesting and kind of unprecedented. There’s just so much great stuff happening here and it’s really a great place. It has a lot of hype right now, but it’s still really a small city. What I love about it is that it has a lot of the qualities of a smaller town as well as the cultural qualities of some of the upsides of the larger cities. But it’s changing really fast, I think it’s the number one place to move to in America the last couple of years. You can stand and do a timelapse and watch stuff change, it’s definitely not going to be the same city. Going forward, so many people are moving here and so much development and new stuff.
Has having a full-time job made you less outdoorsy?
Yeah [laughs]. I’ll be perfectly honest on this one. Ironically, since I’ve started, I’ve never spent so little time outside. I spend all my time inspiring others because I’m extremely busy, and I have three kids beyond the job. I’ve just gained weight and been at a computer a lot more than I’d like. But it’s part of the process, it’s not a forever thing. Getting a brand off the ground the first few years, for anybody no matter how awesome the response is, is an incredible amount of work and energy. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’d love to spend more time travelling and just being outside and doing fun stuff. Hopefully, that time will come too.
You’re making a highly customized product that you need intense quality control over to make sure that it lives up to everything you imagined. Pat, the creative director at The Hundreds who oversees all of the cut and sew apparel, his job is scary.
Yeah, it is – part of the strength of Poler is that we really touch a lot of categories and have a lot of potential in all the categories. From the beginning, we did sleeping bags and backpacks. Now we do apparel and beanies and all kinds of accessories. Those are all relationships to manage and product to oversee. We’ve done our best on that, the product is definitely getting better and better. Some things have gotten better quicker, some things were great day one. It’s always a process.
What falls under your role as Creative Director?
I’m really responsible for most everything that everyone on the outside sees. So I don’t deal so much with production or even the really specific finance or business side of things. Fortunately, I have good partners that are focused on that. But for me, from the beginning, I handled the website, marketing, digital strategy, the social media, helped design all the products. It’s a blanket [title], I almost touched everything in some way. But those things are primarily my responsibility.
When you envisioned staring Poler, was there one product in mind like, “This is what people need?”
I felt like there was a concept that we had stumbled upon that was more important than any single product. But the knapsack was one of our early ideas that I felt had a lot of potential and was very unique. There was nothing like it on a product level. It’s one of the Poler products that just visually expresses the brand as soon as you see it, you don’t have to have someone explain it.
For me, you kind of have to do everything at this point, and hopefully we’re doing it. I don’t think any one or the other is going to be enough to set yourself apart. For brands that have been around for a while, it’s kind of different. But at this point in starting a new brand, it’s so difficult to have something unique and have people respond to it.
Obviously a lot of brands are essentially just about looking cool and having cool clothes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re trying to make some cool stuff that looks cool – as silly as that sounds – but we’re also trying to mix it with pragmatic functionality that is really useful as well; not just fashion.
What would you like to accomplish with Poler?
Well, I mean, for me, we’re trying to create a brand that inspires people and connects with them and something that sort of is authentic to action sports, but also transcends that. At this level, we’re trying to grow and connect with more and more people worldwide. Young people, I think, get ignored in the outdoor space and that whole community was focused specifically on technical innovation; talking about how light something was or how waterproof it was. There’s a place for that, but I saw that there was a huge hole in the culture and in the fact that most people do all these things that they do outside when they’re surfing or climbing a mountain or walking in the park. They do them for fun and they do it because they love it when they’re not working their asses off at their jobs. That’s just common sense.
It’s not about the people trying to reach the top of the highest peak in the world, it’s for that person that wears it from couch surfing to just chilling in normal life. So that’s rad.
Yeah, and I’m all for people climbing mountains and all that; I really am. But the reality is that most people are wearing their jackets in the grocery store and that’s perfectly fine too. Or out with their friends. It’s not realistic to think that everybody cares or needs or even wants to have stuff that is now way more technical than we will ever use.
Poler x Nike SB
Do you have an opinion on what’s causing this newfound pursuit of the slow living of yestermillenium, like going outdoors and just chilling and getting away? Because I feel like it wasn’t until the last five years that people were caring about that type of stuff on social media – or actively posting it. Now, if I go on Instagram or Tumblr, it’s all I see and it’s awesome.
Well, it’s a combination of things, but on a really broad level it’s that most of us spend most of our time looking at computer screens for our work and regardless of what you do, you’re looking at some kind of screen the majority of your day. And that is not something that’s deeply engrained in humanity, that’s a really new thing in the grand scheme of things. It’s a very natural human response to want to reconnect with the natural world that is consistently there and unmoved by technology. When somebody goes out and watches the sunset at the beach or something really simple like that, that experienced hasn’t changed since cavemen. It’s the same experience essentially. That connects with a deep level of humanity, whether it’s standing around a campfire or watching a sunset or swimming in a lake. Those are things that human beings have been doing for who knows how long. And sitting in front of the computer? We know exactly how long humans have been doing that; not very long.
Follow Poler on Instagram @polerstuff
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Portrait of Benji by Aaron Bengochea.