By: George Crosland
A storm has been brewing on the Wasatch front and unlike storms that bring copious amounts of that famous Utah powder, this storm is dropping products. For going on eight years now, The Levitation Project has been growing its line, forming its team, and building its vision of what a snowboard company should be. It has all led to the recent opening of The Levitation Project store at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon, plus the opening of a complete online store. Perhaps you've seen their swami logo, and even if you don't live in Salt Lake their products have been seen around the world on the clothes and boards of their already large fan base. Not to mention, The Levitation Project has managed to attain a stellar team consisting of Bode Merrill, DCP, JP Solberg, Romain De Marchi, Mads Jonsson, Sammy Luebke, Forrest Burki, Nick Russell, Wyatt Stasinos, Neil Provo, Adam Dowell, Laura Hadar, Anne Flore Marxer, Mark "Deadlung" Edlund, Robin Van Gyn, Andrew Burns, Andrew Geeves, Jonas Harris, Jules Reymond, J-Dubs and some homegrown heros. Yeah, they all ride for LP. So they got a killer team, insane imagery, cool products, cool people working there…So what is The Levitation Project exactly?
If you had to define The Levitation Project it's an accessory brand and a boutique snowboard store. The Levitation Mothership (store) is not a fancy ass, snobby store but is still a boutique in the sense that it's not a traditional shop and caters only to LP-branded products and specific products that support LP team riders. They won't have the complete Lib Tech line, just a small quiver of Lib Tech models that Sammy Luebke rides. They might have Deadlung's Smokin model, the Jones model's that Wyatt Stasinos rides, the Yes riders’ boards and so on. As far as Levitation-branded products go, they make beanies, face-masks, hoodies, T-shirts, socks, and other necessities, and more are dropping all the time. Levitation makes sure to source it's materials right, their face-masks are made from recycled bottles. With high standards it's been hard to find the right suppliers. The Levitation Project is built on a love of snowboarding, and they want to add some edge back into the sport, their not just trying to cash in. It's cliche to say a company loves snowboarding but these guys mean it: the work day does not start till 2 p.m.
The brand has only started with it's opening of the Mothership and they intend to have products available in core snowboard stores around the US in the future. In early 2013, Levitation Project took a trip to Japan with the Yes team. Mads Jonsson is getting a much deserved Yes pro model and it's going to be a collaboration with legendary Japanese board shaper Taro Tamai. The Mads pro model and snowboards from Taro's company, Gentemstick will be at the Levitation store next season and you'll see Levitation gear in Japan as well. It's been a long road but it seems like things are going their way. They have been working hard but also getting some riding in along the way and growing the company in an organic way, not forcing it, because no one likes it forced.
We sat down with company Co-founder and owner Nico Nolan to get the story on The Levitation Project.
OK, so how did The Levitation Project start out?
Started making stickers and T-shirts for Bode Merrill and a handful of kids in my garage seven years ago. I was bummed on the way things were in snowboarding at the time and got the idea to start a brand. We were not sure where it was going to go so we just called it a project. The idea was to start something that was the opposite of what was going on in riding at that time.
What was going on then you didn't like?
All the smaller, core companies were squeezed out of snowboarding…
…or bought up…
Bought up, swallowed up, they didn't have a presence like they did in the ’90s. It was the more ads you bought in the magazines the more editorial coverage you got. There was not much support for the real voice of snowboarding, the core of what was going on. There were big, million dollar set ups, then kind of nothing. That was sort of pre internet too, right on the cusp of when that was starting. Basically, I was over the mega corporate, mega companies, the mega energy drink thing…
Yea, definitely no soul.
The Internet kind of opened up lots of things for smaller companies?
Things have since gotten a lot better with the Internet, smaller companies can have a presence now. Anyone can have a voice. If there’s some punk rock kid out there, people can follow him. Before the Internet really blew up you had four publications all saying the exact same thing with the exact same ads. It was just getting really redundant. I kind of thought we could do something to add some fire back into snowboarding—kind of speak our mind about it and wrap that into a brand.
Levitation hoodies, tees and stickers have been around for a while. Right now though it seems like The Levitation Project is transitioning into a larger operation? You opened a store plus putting some branding on more than just T-shirts and stickers?
It's definitely a transition, a phase of the process. We wanted to start a brand by building a family of the right people to run it. People have come in and out but the pillars have been founded and that takes time. Maybe one or two years into it I realized, shit, to really establish a brand the right way, is going to take some time. All along we knew we wanted to produce these products, to have a shop and a means to sell our products. The first seven years was about building it so it could stand on it's own, have some sort of recognition, without really putting a dollar sign on it.
So instead of forcing it, making products and opening a shop without having the feel of the company, you built the company first?
Oh yeah, and the goal is to produce stuff, but doing it the right way was the main thing. Doing it right is a pain in the ass; my garage is full of shit with one sleeve too short or one sleeve too long [laughter] or stuff that turns your whole wash red when you wash it, stuff like that. Once realizing that if we could get the right photographers, cinematographers, and the right riders then we could build a marketing platform and the other shit will come to us. So, for the past few years it's just been about showing a logo with some imagery; whether it's the art, the photography or footage next to it that gives a pulse to the brand. It's a transition but now, more or less, we're onto the second phase. The life of the company has been built without commerce. Now we can start in that arena.
Kind of how Volcom, making stickers before selling anything?
Sure, I remember those guys pulling into town in a Cadillac and doing donuts in the Brighton parking lot and throwing stickers everywhere. You know, it was Terje, Iguchi, and those guys. There was nothing like that at that time and you couldn't get anything Volcom for years after that. To get Volcom, It was someone who went to California, skated with those guys and got a hoodie from the back of the car. You couldn't max out your credit card and shit.
Creating a demand before you even have product?
Yeah, that was the most important thing for us and along the way being able to develop an artist, photographer, or rider and seeing how people grow under our umbrella. Seeing people from our staff commit at the right time and the right place. There's a job to do here, there's a lot of shit going on. So whether it's Bode [Merrill] saying “I'm gonna go out and send it, I'm gonna fly the flag for you,” or Shanna [Duncan], our artist, saying “I'm just gonna move up to a cabin and draw until you say it's time to start putting it on clothing.” It's been a good match and it's all been founded on belief and passion versus “when’s my next paycheck?” Everybody kind of saw what the good was of working together and what we were creating.
Follow the jump to learn more about the store opening, putting the team together, and Nolan’s thoughts on small business.
Talk about the store opening.
It happened this past fall. The team riders were there, we did the Yes video premier and had a party as well. The store was the first time to have products that we've worked on and developed and show them how they should be presented. It's been a work in progress to just getting the shop dialed in. Our shop doesn't open until 2 p.m. so everybody can go snowboarding. It's kind of like you say “when I get to be boss, it's going to be like this.” We all snowboard everyday, that's important. If people can't ride, they can't explain what's going on out there.
What kind of products are offered at The Levitation Mothership?
We have collaboration stuff; boots and bindings we've been working on with Northwave and Drake. There’s our own gear we'll be offering this season. It will all come staggered throughout the winter; backpacks, probes, shovels, base layers, wax—a lot of accessories and apparel. We also offer boards that our team riders ride. We want to be more of a necessity brand; things that you need in the backcountry or when your riding on a day to day basis. We'll have goggles, we're doing a collab with Dragon and then our artwork and photography will be for sale. This will be the first time, through our sister company White Room, a printing operation, we'll offer all the visual aspects that you see online of our brand. Until recently we've only been able to offer limited color runs of hoodies and T-shirts where now we can provide full color artwork on our pieces.
The Levitation Project has a bunch of team riders from different backgrounds, are you going to carry products from the team riders other sponsors as well?
Basically, if our rider believes in it and that company is making our riders’ lives better, we'll carry it. If their board sponsor is taking really good care of them then we want to support that. They ride that board because that board gets them around the world and these companies have been good to them and it's their pro model. A lot of people say the pro models dead and I think that’s so lame. The pro model's what fueled skateboarding and surfing for so long. My wall is lined with pro models. I got pro models when I was kid because I looked up to the dude that rode that board. We're carrying Yes's boards; DCP and Romain and JP's pro models. Deadlung's pro model from Smokin and a few other brands. Anything that's endorsed buy our team and they back it, we'll carry it. We don't just want to carry some random thing. Sell, sell, sell—longboards will be fucking awesome [laughter]…whatever. We're not just trying to make a buck on it, each product has it's place.
Will LP products be available in other shops?
Not this year but in the future we would like to have shops that are interested in selling The Levitation Project gear. I'd like to open it up to about 20 shops in North America and we will have a shop carrying our stuff in Japan. I don't just want to hand off the product and let somebody tell their interpretation of who we are. We don't expect shops to dedicate 3,000 square feet to The Levitation Project clothes but we want it presented correctly. I want people to be stoked on what we're about and go from there. We have a really good online following so I'd like to pay attention to that and provide stuff from the Wasatch to nationwide. I'm not gonna say we're never going to do this or that and then do it five years from now, things can change. So, 20 shops that have the mantra; everybody that work's there is a badass, they rip, they ride. They are in it because they eat, breath, and sleep snowboarding, not cause they're counting margins trying to make a buck. I think limiting availability and making things more exclusive adds kind of a…I remember growing up in Utah and having to go to California to get certain skate stuff. That exclusivity is so gone, everybody has 10,000 of whatever you want [laughter]. I don't want to be competitive like that and that's why it's important to care and to design stuff that's unique to Levitation Project.
How did the team get started?
The longest and most well known rider is Bode Merrill. Him and I started working together pretty much on day one. We went out, I saw him ride a handrail one time and it was like holy shit. There were, and are a hand-full of home town heroes, we have a guy named J-Dubs that been riding with us for a while. Bode kind of developed into the Absinthe program, next thing I know both Bode and I were on tour with Absinthe in Europe. My wife and I mortgaged our home to start out. Jules, JP, and Romain meanwhile were disenfranchising themselves from Burton at the time and started Yes. From that point it's grown; Nick Russell, Wyatt Stasinos, Neil Provo, Laura Hadar, Mads Jonsson…Anne Flore Marxer just started riding for us. We've really built an international cast of riders that covers all genres of snowboarding. We have not had any contracts with anyone, just handshakes. We just brought on DCP who also rides for some bigger companies. Bigger companies sometimes tend to look hard at what other teams their riders are on. It turns DCP's gets a lot of press here which in turn helps out all of his sponsors. So we're able to tap into a high level of rider yet remain this little core, punk company and still give our finger to the market.
Do smaller companies have any advantages these days?
I think the smaller brands don't make as crazy decisions. You know if you’re pulling 100, 200, or 300 million dollars a year then all of a sudden a particular project doesn't work, you’re out 20 million, and snowboarders people look up to are booted off the team…you're outta here. Smaller companies, they just grow. The turtle does win the race, to hurry up and do something never pays off. We're taking our licks and people beat up on us. The last thing I heard is that we're a drug kingpin cover up, this is all a cocaine front. Reality is that our overhead is minimal. We've traded our work to get in doors all over. Whether it's a heli operation in Alaska, where we’re blowing them up by getting our riders in their helis. It looks like we're spending a shit ton of money when we're just working really hard and making bartering and trading moves. We started doing videos in Haines, Alaska and by posting sick footage immediately, people would show up at their heli op and say they saw how good it was online, right then. The owners of the heli op loved it. That led from me being a paying customer of the heli op to being the marketing director of the heli op (SEABA) using The Levitation Project team as the marketing tool.
I'm glad you talked about that because some would wonder, how does Levitation go to Alaska every year, whose got the American Express Black Credit Card [laughter]
Yeah, through sweat equity and hard work. I kind of like the mystery of people wondering. Everybody has a day job here, everybody has a big sponsor, everybody has their other commitments, but everybody knows what this is going to become. Hundred hour work weeks fly by here, we go to Alaska and can ride every day where other jobs you get a paycheck to ride on the weekends when the powder is gone then go back to your shitty job on Monday. Hard work and good riding is what has opened up doors for us. We'll leave you with the great footage and great photos.