Freeze Pro Shop Blog

Mike LeBlanc

Mike LeBlanc

Photo: Bob Plumb

The word “subculture” is one that is fairly contemporary, having only come to fruition over the past forty years or so. Despite its comparative literal youth, it has firmly cemented itself within our social and cultural vocabulary. Today in the age of Generation X, Y and now Z, interest-specific social streams with bi-second updates, illustrating the latest cultural murmurs from around the globe, one can easily live these micro-cultures, or subcultures vicariously. Flitting between them as often as one would like, through the mysterious and consuming world of digital media.

The definition of subculture, according to The Oxford English Dictionary is as follows: 

‘A cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those larger cultures’ (Oxford English Dictionary) 

One could argue that here lies a blatant hypocrisy – how can something that’s sole motive is to challenge and stand arrogantly in the face of cultural normality be tied down to an official categorised definition? This leads on to a much broader and far more intricate question, the answer to which you are probably not here to find, but the point remains relevant. 

People are now sheltered behind the giant that is the Internet and there is very little need or want to physically go out and challenge greater culture. Much rather, one would just accept it for the truth. We are over-exposed to a huge amount of information, and as a result, we are complacent in our lust for change. We would, for the most part, rather wait for someone else to stand up and present a difference, or wait for a subcultural revolution such as punk, britpop, Forum or Un…inc to happen again. It takes one to inspire and the rest of us to follow.

Mike or Mikey Le Blanc is one of those few. One of the few people who can genuinely be credited with influencing a change and shaping a culture. From his seminal street segments with Mack Dawg, to producing and distributing some of snowboarding’s contemporary cult favourites with Videograss and kidsKNOW, to quite literally changing the way we look at outdoor apparel with Holden.

Founded in 2002 by Mike and designer Scott Zergebel, Holden in its inception presented understated, well fitted and technical garments all with an eco-rich story – a concept we are more than familiar with today. At the time, however, outerwear was somewhat of an assault on the senses – colours where lurid, patterns where loud, shape and fit was, at times, comical and the environment was an afterthought. Holden offered an alternative. Holden are now in their 17th year, and with Mike at the helm have quietly and humbly influenced how snowboarders define themselves in society. ‘Stylish performance outerwear for the unconventional adventure.’

“Mikeyleblanc_Holden”

Photo: Andy Wright 

Why Snowboarding?

Skateboarding. I grew up in a similar place to you in Scotland – Maine on the east coast of the U.S. Winters are brutal and there’s not really any good hills, but every year our mini ramps would get covered in ice and snow and we couldn't skate. Then, in around 1988, I opened Thrasher Magazine and there was this picture of Steve Caballero snowboarding and I thought ‘wow, there is the solution.’ So, I saved up my money from my paper round and got my first snowboard. And it was just love at first ride, and I became totally addicted to it. 

Growing up in the icy east coast in the 80’s, with your early exposure to snowboarding being really being from California-centric media, there are no big resorts, there’s no slush, parks, Kidwell or Cab, nor sun for that matter. How did you then interpret snowboarding with what you had?

We didn't start snowboarding on mountains, there was a hockey rink with a little hill and they’d push up big berms of ice. All summer we’d skate mini and jump ramp which was big at the time, so we’d just build jumps at the ice rink and try learn 360’s and methods. There was also this ski movie called ‘The Blizzard Of Aahhs’ that Greg Stump made – that had some snowboarding in it but also some really bad ass skiers like Scot Schmidt and Glen Plake. And then Burton put out Chill and that was Jeff Brushie’s first big video part and they were inventing all these crazy new tricks with mad tweaks etc. So even though there was that west coast thing going on, we still had Burton with Brushie on the East Coast. He was the guy really pushing the Freestyle element to snowboarding, coming from skateboarding rather than ski racing, like a lot of other east coast snowboarders – we just wanted to pretend like we were skateboarding. 

So fast forward to the early 90’s and snowboard films were all amazing but it was all like powder, cliff drops and turns. Then Mack Dawg started putting out a bunch of movies, Pocahontas in 1991 – it had the first of the new school riders – Noah Salasnek, Nick Perata, Jon Biacchi, Brushie, Monty Roach etc, ripping hand rails and stuff, not on a mountain. It’s funny because the media at the time really didn't embrace it, they weren't running photos or anything, all they’d show was dudes turning in powder – I wanna see this new stuff! Then Blunt magazine came out, founded by Ken Block of DC fame and a bunch of other shredders, it put out the most amazing content featuring the more skate-inspired side of snowboarding that we were into. But, by the late 90s handrails had pretty much died off completely in favour of pipe and kickers etc. 

Your career has been pretty eclectic however you became pretty synonymous with really heavy hits in the street. If street had kinda phased out, why build the career you did?

I was riding in Utah with Jeremy Jones (not big mountain) and JP Walker and we saw this handrail and thought ‘yeah we should hit that’ and that was that, non-stop handrails haha. That was, I suppose, the second round of ‘street’ snowboarding that was once again really pushed by Mack Dawg and Whitey, who made sick movies too. So, hand rails just started showing up again and more and more people started doing it – I love dropping cliffs, I love mountains, I love powder, but for me, it all comes back to skateboarding. I was never a good enough skateboarder to do any of these tricks on a skateboard, but with this thing strapped to my feet I could do anything! Before I was filming video parts in the big mountain – you’d get to the mountain, you’d hike for two hours, you’d get to the spot, build the jump and you’re exhausted before you even start hitting the jump – you’re lucky if you even get one clip for your part. Then rails come along, and you can set up in like 20 minutes, get like five clips and have a session. A jump is sick, yeah, you can get like four or five hits before the landing is beat in powder, but with a rail you can just sit with your homies for hours and hours and go back the next day and really dial in what you want to get. Very much like skating. 

“Mikeyleblanc_Holden”

Photo: Andy Wright 

So, would you consider that street and skate influence to be the catalyst to starting Holden?

Yeah! When snowboard clothing first came out it was super neon, crazy looking and just whack. Even before I started Holden I was riding for Volcom and a few other brands, I was stoked on their street clothes and then I’d get their outerwear and was like ‘wow what is this, it fits like a bust bag and I just want to rock my dad’s vintage streetwear coats from the 70’s and 80’s’. So I partnered with my friend Scott who was much more involved in fashion and we asked the question ‘why can’t we just make normal looking clothes technical? Why can’t we make streetwear technical?’ So that’s what we did – we just wanted to feel and dress not kooky. 

We’d go to trade shows and in the outdoor world you’d see brands like Patagonia and The North Face and then a hundred copies of them. In snowboarding, it was just like the snowboard version of that except bigger and baggier. We just wanted something tailored, something higher quality, something that looks like streetwear. It’s still something that’s true today, it’s what we started with and what we’ll continue to do. We look at, like, a timeless style and apply technical elements. Or we’ll take a current trend in street wear or fashion and try and make it technical. 

Restraint for us is key, there are other brands that followed suit, it kinda changed a lot of the industry at the time. North Face and a bunch of others, you’d see their collection two years later and it’d be an exact knock off of a piece, which is flattering in some ways. So our idea is to use a lot of restraint in the design process. So take the classic M51 Fishtale for example, that’s a classic piece – it was part of the punk rock and mod movement in the 70’s and 80’s, and our approach is simply not to fuck with it, just make it technical, it’s already dope. We used to use this concept called the rule of threes, where you could only have three elements to a piece and that’s it.

“Mikeyleblanc_Holden”

This is our third season with Holden over the years. The first year we took it in 2011, we had this piece that was a mustard yellow button-down coach-style jacket. And it was the first time we’d really seen a piece with a back print. At the time it was so different to everything else, now back prints are a total standard.

Haha!That was a take on the classic skate coach’s jacket. Every skate brand under the sun had been doing coaches jackets with a back print since forever. It was such a no-brainer right?! The kid that wants to go ride the lift in Minnesota or Scotland and they’re coming from skateboarding, well there’s the jacket - only now it’s waterproof. 

With anything creative, it’s super hard to take away – it’s easy to keep chucking stuff at it until it sticks and then chuck in some more stuff. Then you just end up muddying the water with the finished product – scrappy, with no clear identity. Holden however, as you said, presents the opposite of that clean form – considered function and a conscious aesthetic. And that, I guess, is why a lot of snowboarders, including myself, identify so passionately with Holden.

The other thing we do when we’re designing is that we never look inside the outdoor industry for inspiration. We might look at someone cutting edge, like Arc’teryx, and look at their seam tape which might be totally bad ass at a quarter inch, or how their stitch count might be 21 stitches per inch. We look at technical things like that, but never at aesthetic. Our aesthetic references are rooted in that of the Japanese, UK and Scandinavian – so it’s no surprise to me that you identify with it. The brands that we do appreciate usually come from those areas, in fashion rather than outdoor.

That approach reminds me heaps of Visvim and Hiroki Nakamura’s dissertation. You guys started 17 years ago now, and this collection presents a bit of a revamp of the brand, right?

It’s like living in an old house. If you live in a house for fifteen years you get comfy, and you start to accumulate a bunch of shit you don't need, and things can just become a bit stale. So we’ve completely picked this whole thing apart. Look up ‘Material World: A Global Family Portrait’ by Peter Menzel and look at the contrasts between the homes of that in America and that of say India, for example. That sums up ‘why’ pretty well. We tried to pull everything out and really examine and consider how it added value to the brand etc, and cut everything that wasn't important away, back to the restraint idea.

So this year we launched with a new logo a new icon and a new visual identity that matches the brand. We want to just be super clear that we’re basically THE stylish outerwear company. If you look at everything from the Instagram to the product copy, everything is super minimal, the photos are all super high-end. We use a bunch of friends that all came from snowboarding, who might have gone on to shoot fashion or streetwear or music or whatever which is cool. The guy who helped us do the whole rebrand, Javas Lehn. He came from snowboarding, but now has his own design firm in New York with some super high-end clients. He used to live with Craig Kelly and is a snowboarder at heart (although now he dresses nice), so he seemed the perfect fit, he gets us. He helped us redo everything over two years, now it all feels super clear.

“Mikeyleblanc_Holden”

So, the new collection is just about to drop (or has dropped by the time you read this) but what’s next for you and the brand after the refresh?

With Holden, I’m just going to be living and breathing that for the next few months whist we show the new collection. Snowboard wise, hopefully I’ll get out. It’s funny how we were talking about handrails earlier, I barely ride them now – it’s sort of a joke but also sort of isn't, have like a 12” minimum now, haha. From where I am in L.A., I can drive to Tahoe in 3 hours when it’s dumping or fly to Utah and hang out with friends. One of my best friends makes the Absinthe movies, so I’ll hang out with him a bunch and be right on the sidelines while these new young bucks do all the crazy shit, haha! 

Down the line as far as the brand goes, we’re super stoked on the 18/19 line, but looking to next year’s 19/20 line is even tighter and more directed. We have more of the sportswear which we kinda soft launched this year, with the down pieces. It’s really cool, sort of a nod to where we’re going. In snowboarding [we bring] the style to the technical, and in streetwear, going forward, we want to bring the technical to the style. So the down collection is going to expand quite a bit and include women’s. Outerwear-wise is going to be even more focused and neat. 

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s you might wear your snowboard coat on the street but not really any more, they’re too bulky. So, we really want to make something that’s like a 30-day-a-month piece instead of 3 days a month, you know. And that’s where we’re at with the brand going forward - versatility. 

Follow Holden on Instagram here

Interview by Lewis McLean.