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Fortune finally came in the form of rugby shirts and canvas shorts, which Chouinard brought back from Britain in 1974. The items proved so popular with friends that Chouinard began offering them as climbing clothes through his Great Pacific catalog. Within a year, company sales had doubled.
The clothing business grew so fast that in 1976 Chouinard decided to spin it off, calling the new company Patagonia, after the hauntingly stark region of South America he liked so much. Frost, more interested in climbing than clothing, decided to leave the partnership.' That same year Chouinard started selling jackets made from a synthetic fleecelike fabric called pile. It is lightweight, yet as warm as wool and dries much faster. Within three years, pile garments accounted for more than 50% of Patagonia's sales. A basic pile jacket with a Capilene mesh liner is $150 in the current catalog.
The original company, Chouinard Equipment, continued to lead the U.S. climbing-gear market. But in the late 1980s it was hit with four lawsuits, all the result of accidents involving its products. One was settled out of court, and the other three are pending. With insurance premiums rising—Chouinard's had increased more than 1,000% in three years—and soaring legal fees, the company, which had been only marginally profitable at best, was pushed to the brink. Though the company felt confident it would prevail in those legal cases, there was serious concern that a future complainant might take a run at Patagonia's bountiful assets, even though the two enterprises were separate. So in April 1989, Chouinard Equipment filed for bankruptcy protection. A group of Chouinard employees bought the company's assets and eight months later renamed it Black Diamond Equipment Ltd. It continues to operate today, but without the involvement of the man who shaped its first piton.
"I know there are fish in there." Chouinard says, eyeing an inviting pool on the Lewis River. He casts once. Twice. Three times. But nothing strikes. Back and forth his line goes. Swish. Swish. Swish. He casts for a fourth, then a fifth, then a sixth time. Chouinard doesn't say a word. Finally a 17-inch brown trout hits the fly, and Chouinard brings it in.
He releases the fish and walks farther upstream. He picks thimbleberries that grow along the bank, plops a bunch into his mouth and washes them down with a handful of river water. Then he starts casting again. "I'm not any good at managing people or sitting behind a desk," Chouinard says. "What I'm best at is bringing back ideas. Every time I fish or surf or climb, I'm thinking of ways to improve our current lines and add new ones. This really is work for me."
He's not kidding. Consider the fishing vest he's wearing. For years he had used vests made by other manufacturers, but he never really liked them. So in 1987 he went to see Richard Siberell, Patagonia's director of technical design.
"Yvon came to me with some very specific ideas," Siberell explains. "We had never made a fishing vest before. But we worked up some sketches, picked out some fabrics and in a couple of months made a few prototypes. Yvon took one for himself, gave out a couple to fly-fishing friends, and in a few weeks they all reported back to us with their comments. It took three prototypes to get it right."
The new Patagonia vest was made mostly of durable mesh, to be cool on hot days. The pockets didn't sag, and it hung comfortably from the shoulders even when fully loaded. Rod & Reel magazine described it as "one of the best fishing things to come along in years," and it became one of Patagonia's hottest technical products. "That happens all the time," says Kris McDivitt, a top executive at Patagonia. "A lot of our products are born when Yvon returns from the wilds somewhere and says, 'You know, I was thinking....' "
Perhaps Chouinard's most unusual idea has been to create a $120 million business without spending more than a few months a year in the main office. "Yvon has been able to do it because he nurtures his people," says Robbins, his climbing buddy and business competitor. "He sets goals with them, then he sets them free."
It didn't hurt having McDivitt on the payroll, either. She started working for Chouinard in 1969, when she was 19 years old and between semesters at the College of Idaho. She labored mostly in the mail room, packing boxes of climbing equipment. When McDivitt finished school in 1972, with a double major in sociology and psychology, she came aboard full time. Six years later, Chouinard made her the chief executive officer of Patagonia. "He was the visionary around here," McDivitt says, "and he wanted me to translate that vision into everyday life." McDivitt was the CEO for 10 years before stepping aside in 1988—"I needed to try something else," she says—and she is a member of the five-person board that runs the company when Chouinard has gone fishing.