Armada Sighted Off the Coast

Photo by Theo DouglasRVCA Clothing wasn't at the recent SIA Snow Sports show in Vegas; its founders balked at the prospect of shelling out several thousand dollars to rent a small space for four days—but its specter loomed large at the Armada Skis booth.

Spiritually, aesthetically, evolutionarily, Armada is where RVCA was a year or so ago—products aside—and despite anything you think about athletic ability or Sir Edmund Hillary, skiing is every bit as aesthetic as surfing, skating and snowboarding. This becomes more evident the less snow there is, and there wasn't a flake of the stuff in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

The screed outside a nearby booth read, “Men wanted for dangerous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long months of darkness, constant risk, uncertain.” It was explorer Ernest Shackleton from 1914, advertising for arctic expeditionary forces—but it was inspired puffery in our plush surroundings: sales reps jockeying for position, desperate to stand out from the crowd—Volcom scattering peanut shells and blasting Spandau Ballet, the U.S. Ski Team booth playing Johnny Cash and giving awards to buttoned-down retailers.

Armada didn't have to try so hard; they were wired differently, and it wasn't just the Mandalay Bay kegmeister pouring decent beer at a fake-mustache party when the event ended the first day. Like RVCA before it, Armada is unabashedly all about the art.

“They were the first ones to cash in on that art vibe,” Armada photographer Chris O'Connell says of RVCA, failing to mention that Armada, which incorporated barely three years ago, is a close second artistically. Costa Mesa acrylicist Matt Thompson works on a canvas outside their space as we speak. Jagged, simplistic peaks pour from his brush but he says the piece won't be done for a day. More finished are a slew of skis inside the Armada space—totally finished, actually, but I can't say much except they're long and skinny. They're for the fall 2005 ski season, so descriptions are still, you know, proprietary information—embargoed, verboten.

What's obvious is that Armada uses art like RVCA does—on the product: illustrating its skis with swatches from paintings it commissions by up-and-comers such as Thompson or with works by its riders, like ace skier Anthony Boronowski, who decorates his own line. Subjects range from bikini girls to mountains to six-shooters to Mr. T, most in the roughhewn, street-inspired Beautiful Losers style evinced by folk such as Thomas Campbell and Barry McGee.

Calculated as this must be—even a small million-dollar company with 25 employees doesn't run itself—it all seems very uncomposed, unstudied and uncorporate, which is how people say they like it now.

“People are just disenchanted” with the corporate thing, Boronowski, 22, says as he shows me his latest skis—multipurpose sticks like most Armada models: long enough to handle, short enough to fly. “If you think about punk rock, it all kind of comes from that,” he says of the Armada esthete, adding that everyone here makes a point of skiing regularly, too.

O'Connell won't talk sales figures, but as the mustache party gets under way (you need a fake mustache to get in), as I realize I'm talking with the editor of a German skiing mag who could be hanging anywhere but is here, as I learn dealers across Europe stock their skis, Armada's growing force becomes apparent.

“Many classical ski companies are . . . run in the classical mode,” Skiing's Klaus Polzer says. “They are not really in touch with what is happening. But here, everyone skis.”

When they're not making art.

ARMADA SKIS, 729 W. 16TH ST., STE. A2, COSTA MESA, (949) 642-6714.

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