Ubiquity is a funny thing. We’re surrounded by air but notice it only when hurricanes are tearing houses up. And from Gnarls Barkley to Starbucks, some things seem to have existed well before we consciously knew they existed, and then suddenly, boom: they’re everywhere.
So it goes with Joel Gomez, founder of the Sessions brand of action outerwear, which he named after a skate term for skating (as in: sessioning). Birthed in 1983 out of what was in all likelihood the first dedicated snowboard shop in the country, the Sessions brand now keeps company with Samsung as comfortably as it does with musicians Ben Harper and Eddie Vedder. And Gomez himself, on top of the board meetings and the hangs with celebrities, still does what got him where he is today: boards (verb, transitive).
“Skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing,” the now 51-year-old Gomez laughs. “I started snowboarding in 1981 when a ‘snowboard’ was just a skateboard without wheels on a piece of plastic.”
Gomez’s line was pretty understated in the world of typically overstated sports gear.
Snowboarding began as a quirky pastime shared by skateboarders (and, a generation before, surfers) who wanted to keep skating when they were in snowy climes. The sport boomed, and in the most recently measured season (2011-2012), it generated $437 million in equipment sales alone. Consider that alongside the $7.2 billion in U.S. retail sales for the resilient surfing and skateboarding industry during the worst of the recession. It seems like somebody should have seen the success of a snowboard-surf-skate brand coming.
“I’d like to say that I did,” said Gomez. “But I never expected this at all.”
From snowboards, Gomez moved into T-shirts, stickers, patches and, by accident, sports apparel. Simple, elegant and emblazoned with either the word Sessions or the star-surrounded letter S, Gomez’s line was pretty understated in the world of typically overstated sports gear.
A Japanese company saw pictures of snowboarding pros with the Sessions patches slathered all over them and assumed the company manufactured the pants. “They called me up,” Gomez recounts, “and wanted to order 300 pairs of pants. I didn’t make pants at the time and was going to tell them that those were just patches, but then I thought, ‘Sure, why not?’”
While not his first venture into apparel – the T-shirts came first – the pants were the first time he had started up any major apparel. And his gear started to appear on everyone: his friends Steve Caballero and Corey O’Brien (both skaters and both in punk bands) and musicians like Mike Ness from Social Distortion and the aforementioned Vedder and Harper. Skate videos, music videos – the brand was everywhere. And everywhere it signified cool for all seasons: in snow in the winter, at the beach in the summer and at shows just about anytime. Gomez skipped market research — all he had to do was open his eyes at shows, skate and music events, and the X-Games, in the U.S., Japan, Australia, everywhere his brand could call home.
So, after making those 300 pairs of pants (plus an order of magnitude more since), hiring 15 employees and moving from the little Sunnyvale shop to a big one in Santa Cruz, California, the San Jose State University (nonmatriculated) alumni has clearly been putting his four years of majoring in economics and account managment into overtime. When the recession hit hardest, Gomez pressed on by seeking and finding a partner in Samsung in 2009.
“Comerica wouldn’t renew our line of credit, and all of the other banks were tightening credit,” Gomez explains. “So Samsung stepped in, kept our production going until 2011.” Since then Sessions has been back to business as usual: mail order, retail, apparel, stickers, patches, anything and everything that burnishes not only the brand but also the lifestyle. All powered by the Sessions logo, a name became synonymous with playing as seriously as working.
Though 2012 saw a slowdown of the snowboarding industry, due to of a dearth of snow in the Western states, Gomez signals that there’s another raft of savvy business plans in his future. From one guy in a storefront plastered with posters to a CEO hinting at international business intrigue? Nice.
Gomez promotes skateboarding as a safe, healthy, fun activity at the annual Tim Brauch Memorial Contest.
“Joel used to work at Sears from 5 to 9 every morning before coming to work all day at Sessions,” says Ron Isa, a former partner and now owner of Riff Raff Designs, a T-shirt and custom-screening shop. “He could have been selling sponges, and I think he would have made it.”
Hard work, hustle, a stylishly designed logo and an uncanny skill for being in the right place at the right time moves Gomez’s success well beyond luck or accident and well into genius moves, which the easygoing Gomez has in spades.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” Gomez says. “So it’s a good thing I love it, because I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Why you should care
Because opening the first snowboard store in America was bold, but going global with the brand was off the charts.