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Interview: Kharma Vella of Poler

Portland-based label's co-founder on the disconnect between outdoor and action sports, the brand's cult following and #campvibes

by CH Contributor in Design on 20 November 2013

by Tariq Dixon

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Poler is the self-proclaimed maker of “the world’s highest standard of stuff.” Founded in 2010 by longtime buddies Benji Wagner and Kharma Vella, Poler makes stylish and well-priced wares for the everyday outdoor enthusiast. With novelty items like a wearable sleeping bag called The Napsack and the multipurpose Magic Tarpit, this offbeat and irreverent brand has garnered cult followings among outdoor pros and recreationists alike. We stopped by Poler’s flagship store in Portland, Oregon to catch up with Vella and talk about brand inspiration, his thoughts on Portlandia and the scoop on Poler’s latest projects—including their new pop-up on the other side of the country in Brooklyn, NY.

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You guys have amassed a cult following rather quickly. What do you think people love about the brand?

We started Poler because we saw a huge disconnect between outdoor and action sports. The outdoor market is full of amazing products, but there’s no real brand story behind anything. It’s pretty much dominated by the two biggest companies, The North Face and Patagonia. But the action sport world is the opposite—there are a bunch of small brands with really strong followings. We saw opportunity to do something similar for the outdoors world and finally give people something to grab onto.

You’re especially popular on social media. What role has digital played in your company’s success?

It’s huge. We have great products and a great line, but social media has really been the driving force. People have really gotten into our #campvibes and #adventuremobile hashtags. Thinking back to when I was a teenager, there wasn’t this same opportunity to interact with my favorite brands or skateboarders, but now social media allows all of that to happen. We really seem to have struck a chord and people get what we’re doing—it’s really humbling for us.

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You seem to really live and breathe the lifestyle of the brand. Have the outdoors always been a part of your life?

Yeah, for sure. I grew up without a television. My parents were definitely hippies and, at one point, we even lived on an apple-picking commune. Benji and I were both Scouts, but as I got older, I really started getting into action sports—BMX, skateboarding and I even tried living the dream as a pro-snowboarder for a couple of years. Nowadays, I try to get outside as much as possible but it's kind of hard, as busy as we are. I’m on weekend warrior status at this point.

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Some of your products are quirky and innovative, but they're always so functional. Were any of the products, like The Napsack or The Magic Tarpit, inspired by particular experiences?

Functional sleeping bags have always been around, but no one before had made one that was affordable or well-designed. In 2000, I went up to Alaska with a close group of friends for what we call Man Week. The cabin was freezing, but one of our friends had a fitted, French sleeping bag that he wore around all day. It was pretty much just a sleeping bag with armholes, but it was down-filled and cost like $450. We were all so jealous because he’d go to the bathroom, make breakfast, do everything in his sleeping bag. From that moment, I thought, if I’m ever in a position to make something like this, I’m doing it.

The Napsack is a more designed variation of the functional sleeping bag—we were actually able to get a patent on the design. That’s kind of our pinnacle product. It’s made an appearance on [the television show] Girls, and Portlandia just hit us up for some to use in a skit.

As a resident of the city, what’s your take on Portlandia?

They used one of our tents before in a skit and it was pretty hilarious. The majority of Portland hates it because they’re all like, “That’s not me.” But I think it's pretty real. The characters that they do in each skit always remind me of someone I know. Watching the show, I’m like, “Hey, that’s my neighbor!” or “Hey, that’s the kid who works at the coffee shop.”

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You guys are often teaming up with other brands for great collaborations. What’s the latest?

We recently released a collection of products with Nike. Coming from the skate and snowboarding worlds, we’ve grown up with a lot of people at the company. We’ve joked around with them before about one day teaming up, but now that we’ve gained some momentum, we were actually able to do it. We’re really happy with how the products turned out—I especially love the chino pants they did in our camo print and, naturally, the snowboarding boot. We also have a pop-up shop going on right now with Verve Coffee and Rudy’s Barbershop. We’ve known the guys at Rudy’s for some time, so its great to team up with them. It's a really incredible space—about four times the size of our Portland store. It carries the complete collection, including all of the Nike products.

Shop Poler’s full collection on their website, or at their current pop-up shop with Verve Coffee and Rudy’s Barbershop located at 33 Grand St in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Photos by Tariq Dixon, final image courtesy of Emiliano Granado

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