The Freewheeling Early Days of the North Face


Tompkins had no money for marketing, so he helped plan a stunt. What if an employee of The North Face rappelled down the face of a San Francisco skyscraper and grabbed a cup of coffee from the bemused building owner six floors up? Dwelle tied a 600-foot rope to the penthouse atop San Francisco’s Pacific National Bank building and then, with Doug’s climbing friend Galen Rowell, Dwelle slid down a rope to the sixth floor, stopped, and drank the coffee. They had alerted photographers—the media went nuts. Their rebel advertising worked as the San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature story. To further promote his new business, Tompkins placed an ad in the Yellow Pages and ordered 5,000 boxes of matches, each one printed with the legend “The North Face, 308 Columbus Av.”

“He ordered 5,000, thinking he was ordering 5,000 matchbooks, but 5,000 boxes of matchbooks showed up,” explained Dwelle. “He had all this investment and the Swiss [Ski Shop] guys tell him, ‘We’re going to move downtown; you can come with us if you want.’ Doug replied, ‘I can’t move; the season has just started. I’ve got advertising out there; people are coming in.’ And they said, ‘If you want to stay here you can take over the lease.’ That’s how The North Face became a viable store.”

The North Face boomed. Orders flooded in. Sales of Yvon’s climbing gear also soared. Dwelle regularly drove to Southern California, returning with a van sagging on its springs from the weight of hundreds of pounds of Chouinard products. As a subculture, climbers were suddenly cool and, like musicians, they attracted groupies. Rick Ridgeway, a friend of Doug’s, was in the store one day when a yellow Porsche squealed to the curb in front of The North Face and a woman’s voice echoed out; “Doooooooooooouuug!!!! Let’s Gooooo!!!!!” It was a rowdy and deep voice, and “Doug climbed in and she sped away,” said Ridgeway. After several blocks, Tompkins was terrified. He always prided himself on driving fast, but this was too much. He jumped out of the Porsche when the driver slowed and walked back to the store. To his friends he vowed never to get into a car again with Janis Joplin.

In October 1966, Tompkins planned to launch The North Face’s new winter season. He needed a stunt to make a splash, so he asked Jerry Mander, a music promoter friend, to jazz up the evening. Why not have a party? Live music, ample marijuana, and cold beer could work. They heard about an up-and-coming band, a shaggy quartet that included a bearded guitarist named Jerry. “They call themselves ‘The Grateful Dead.’ You wanna try and get them?” Mander asked. Tompkins replied with a smile. “The Grateful Dead—that sounds good.”

The Grateful Dead set up stage in front of the eight-foot-high Ansel Adams landscape photograph and played a set. Doug and his wife Susie Tompkins greeted everyone, and posed for a picture with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the blues singer leading the band. Joan Baez showed up. Her sister Mimi Fariña sang. The crowd overflowed into the street. To keep an eye on the ruckus, Tompkins hired a motorcycle gang the Hell’s Angels who sported wild beards, weaponized chains, and a reputation as outlaw enforcers. When the gig ended, Tompkins invited the Hell’s Angels and The Grateful Dead to Vanessi’s, a white-tablecloth restaurant. Doug and Susie couldn’t stop laughing at the cultural clash between the Italian waiters with bow ties and the greasy motorcycle gangsters with sleeveless leather vests.

After the Grateful Dead concert, The North Face was firmly on the cultural map. Tompkins expanded the mail order business and opened stores in Berkeley and Palo Alto. The catalog garnered rave reviews, and The North Face store became a cultural attraction—like an art gallery stuffed with a crowd of beatniks, dirtbag climbers, and Doug and Susie’s circle of friends.

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Originally posted 2021-08-06 00:53:31.

Denis Ava
Denis Ava
Denis Ava is mainly a business blogger who writes for Biz Grows. Rather than business blogs he loves to write and explore his talents in other niches such as fashion, technology, travelling,finance,etc.

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