There’s an art to interviewing. It’s one-part research, two-parts eying thematic story lines and final-part having the tenacity to ask challenging questions and pursue every foxhole. This all assumes you have a willing subject, and when that’s not the case, it’s not art, it’s an exercise of espionage and all out verbal cold war.
Drawn on a straight line between Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, and neatly parked along the waterfront of the Columbia River Gorge, lies the three-story timber-modern corporate headquarters of Dakine. Amongst the open plan workstations of the R&D department you will find a mild mannered legend of early kiteboarding days: Chris Gilbert. Name not familiar? For those not steeped in kiteboarding lore of the early 2000s, sure, that makes sense, and even more so, especially because Chris Gilbert stepped out of the limelight long ago to immerse himself in the technical world of kiteboard product design.
I met Chris in Baja back in 2004 when he was on vacation (presumably from years of blistering travel itineraries crammed with competition and photo junkets). He had just wrapped up the end of a three-year tour of duty on a much needed diplomatic mission of spreading kiteboarding throughout the world. With Red Bull wings plastered on every kite in his Naish quiver, Chris was the real deal: podiums from the King of the Air, spreads in all the magazines and prominent roles in the early kiteboarding DVDs. However, the thing that cemented Chris as a hero in my mind was when he showed me how to do a proper handlepass in the sleepy backwaters of Baja — the same elusive handlepass that Martin Vari and company were doing on tour.
Perhaps of greater significance, I remember him pulling out an old surfboard and riding it strapless. “You know this is the latest thing in Maui,” he told me. Except he spent all his time on his unfavored stance, “because it was a challenge.” I copied him and started riding a surfboard, albeit on my favored stance, forsaking self-improvement for vanity. Even then it was apparent that Chris was a rare blend of icon with an understated and approachable bravado who applied himself to the world of kiteboarding with an intensity of pure self-enjoyment that made all the magazines, Red Bull wings and podiums seem like a means to some greater end. Twelve years later, I think it was that early connection in Baja from which Chris reluctantly agreed to meet with me at Dakine’s reception to commence a tour of the action sports accessory mecca.
Somewhere past the glass-walled meeting rooms and a soda machine rebranded with boutique brew, I quickly realize that interviewing Chris may be my most challenging assignment as of yet, maybe even more so than learning to kitesurf an unfavored stance. Armed with a diverse toolset of sarcasm, skillful diversion, dry wit and humor, I pry, but Chris Gilbert deflects and redirects my inquiries far from divulging anything about his professional career, nonetheless his personal life. I log mental notes: “Subject suffering from deeply ingrained humility and yet maybe it’s some greater oath to protecting Dakine’s corporate secrets.”
In the days before every Tom, Dick and Harry kite brand jumped into the accessory game in a race to vertically integrate every companion product into their manufacturing/retail distribution chain, Dakine was the original harness manufacturer. Like Kleenex did to tissue, Dakine was the brand that defined the product, and for North American kiteboarding, Dakine has a deeply ingrained association with kiteboarding harnesses in the minds of all early adopters/practitioners. Dakine started at ground zero and made the jump from windsurfing to kiteboarding with first generation athletes like Chris Gilbert who were defining the sport.
“Dakine was the original harness manufacturer. Like Kleenex did to tissue, Dakine was the brand that defined the product.”
Like much in life, opportunity is the haphazard coalition of time and place. In 1998, Chris was working on Maui as the buyer for the local Hi-Tech windsurfing shop. The shop was one of the first retailers to add kiteboarding to their windsurfing offerings and Chris was the specialist in the new department. His then girlfriend, now wife and mother of two delightful yet energetically wired kids, Julie Prochaska Gilbert (also a first generation pro kiteboarder and a much more willing source of all things Chris) filled me in on the early days. Working retail, Chris had learned rudimentary Japanese while dealing with his far-flung customers clamoring around Maui in search of hard to find kite equipment. In the late 90s, kite product was hard to come by, and early pioneers like Chris were constantly tinkering with bars and other control systems in order to build the equipment they couldn’t find. In essence, Chris is a self-taught product designer, the seeds sewn in part by the prerequisite craftiness required by early kiteboarders. In a moment of unusual candid openness, Chris spills about a balance board he designed and sold before kiteboarding, and in that reveal I get a slight whiff of understated pride.
Looking through the glass facades on the third floor of the Dakine building, the hulking snow-covered mountains fill the landscape on either side, a surreal visual, particularly during the blazing heat of northern Oregon’s summer months; there’re hundreds of windsports enthusiasts on the river below and to the south, the bucolic Main Street of Hood River. Dakine’s building and the professionals inside are a monument to the healthy action sports lifestyle. The R&D department gets the best view in the house and expansive outdoor decks to boot — no windowless basement for these geeky designers. With the mind-blowing view of Mount Hood off in the distance, standing near his desk, Chris gives me a little history lesson. He explains how Dakine’s founder Rob Kaplan started off in Maui by making simple products like surf leashes and windsurfing straps. Kaplan’s straps weren’t the slapped together crap of the era, but rather tastefully designed with a focus on ergonomics and functionality. Dakine’s mission has always been focused on delivering the ultimate in end-user experience, and in a product-driven company, it makes sense that designers such as Chris get the penthouse — nothing but the best real estate in the building.
Chris’ desk is in the southwest corner, back to the wall and a stone’s throw away from multiple sewing stations. There’s a half-assembled bike travel bag prototype taking shape on the floor and a series of kite harnesses with some technically fascinating hacks on his desk (the details of which I am sworn to secrecy). All the prototyping is handmade in house for snappy turnarounds. Denying any unique talent but assured in his competence, Chris owns up, “If the sewers are backed up and I need something quick and dirty I can just mow it myself.” Chris points to the next workstation over; it belongs to a seamster who started with Dakine over 30 years ago back in Maui and who’s been with the company ever since. I’d dropped my gear to examine Chris’ latest prototype. With my wallet splayed open on his workstation along with my camera bag (the bag happens to be a brilliantly designed workhorse of a
Dakine photo pack incidentally designed by Chris a few years back, and is one of the few possessions I refuse to travel without), Chris grabs my money clip wallet and gives the slender leather unit a once over. He seems to make some mental notes on construction and design while half-jokingly warning me not to leave things lying around the R&D loft; apparently some of the guys here have been known to dissect products out of little more than innocent curiosity.
Chris made the move from Maui to Hood River in 2004 with an eye on the position left open by the passing of legendary designer Kevin Young. With years of tinkering but no formal education in product design, Gilbert was interviewed and hired by Dakine founder, Kaplan himself. I ask him about those initial days as a designer and whether the first product change he made to Dakine’s line came with any fear. Without hesitation, he talks about the introduction of the spreader bar pad. Turns out Chris had hacked together so many spreader bar pads in the early years that he’s the guy credited with its invention. As a traveling athlete at the forefront of the sport, Chris was living and breathing kiteboarding; this familiarity was the ace in his pocket, and integrating hacks like the spreader bar pad into Dakine’s product line was the low hanging fruit that greased his transition.
“Turns out Chris had hacked together so many spreader bar pads in the early years that he’s the guy credited with its invention.”
At this point in the interview Chris seems a little impatient, but it quickly becomes clear that this interrogation nonsense is beginning to impinge on his morning kite session. There’s a garage at street level where Dakine staffers store their kitesurfing gear and in a few minutes they’re rigged up and launching off the Hood River sandbar. While R&D kite sessions seem appealing to me, the psychological pressure of innovation on demand doesn’t. I’m thinking designers must suffer from some analogous condition similar to that of writer’s block, but Chris seems to be untroubled after 12 years on the job. According to Chris, the creativity is ingrained and he’s pretty good at compartmentalizing his job, focusing on one project then the next while dividing the entire innovation process into cycles. For instance, Chris is at the beginning of the 2018 cycle presiding over a little bit of a breather. This allows room for creative tangents. “I can focus on something like a helium harness and I can think about that for a while before I have to come back down,” says Chris. When the cycle progresses, the product attributes become more defined and concrete, and Chris makes sure to use rider input to confirm that he’s on the right track.
I can tell Chris is excited to talk about their fresh product, which is a wholesale upgrade to the construction of the Pyro and a completely new slider bar called the Option. Chris has been experimenting with harness shaping since he started at Dakine; back then he worked with EVA thermo molding, but now the material of choice is a wafer-like molded polyethylene board. The tech name is Adaptive Fit Composite, but Chris’ animated tech talk explains how it’s not just a rigid piece of pre-formed fiberglass, but instead, it changes as you use it. The innovation is that it provides rigid support while conforming to the rider over time. Dakine introduced this technology with the C1 harness last year, but based on its success, they’ve incorporated it into Dakine’s flagship model which combines a taller back and soft flexible sides to deliver the ultimate in riding comfort and support to the loyal Pyro customers out there. The other product that gets Chris animated is the Option spreader bar — a design that combines the low friction movement of the point-of-pull you get out of a rope-based traveler combined with the stainless hook that allows you to use your stock safety system. The bonus feature that Chris shows me is that you can lock the traveling function into place so you essentially have two spreader bars in one. I buy into this feature because I like the traveler while riding waves but I’ve never been convinced, due to the slack that it creates, that a sliding set up is that great for strapless freestyle.
We look out at the Columbia River; the otherwise turbid flow has roiled into a mass of morning lit whitecaps clear to the banks of the White Salmon River. The interviewee is antsy as hell so I lob one last open-ender. “And what do you do when you’re not designing kite harnesses, utility backpacks and bike travel cases?” Chris looks around to make sure no one is listening and reluctantly cops to a side hobby of ultramarathon running. But he clarifies, “just for fun, not anything serious.” With that I let him off the hook. Chris ushers me out of the building as he talks about the majesty of running the Pacific Crest Trail, but I’m still caught up on the oxymoron of ultramarathoning just for fun.
Out in the parking lot I think about the world of hyper-social media and personal content marketing, the shallow epidemic of egotism and the role I myself have played in the arena of kiteboard marketing hype. In contrast, there’s an understated intensity about Chris that is easily overlooked given his modest and laid-back nature. At the outset of the interview, Chris warned me that he wanted his product to do the talking, but anyone who’s ever owned a Dakine harness knows that story. The true legacy of innovation at an institution like Dakine lies in the people themselves, and in that realm, Chris is a shining example of achievement for the sake of utility, challenge and the soulful pursuit of fun.
Words by Brendan Richards