I want to like Jason Hairston. He’s a tad brash, self-centered but not self-absorbed, a little bit of an asshole, and at base totally earnest. All things I respect because they’re all more prominent parts of my personality. But I have a problem with Kuiu because Kuiu has a problem with itself, and the world in which it lives. A big problem whose solution and even existence is poorly understood.
Me with a Bob Marshall whitetail and a Kuiu hat, 2015.
Hairston founded Kuiu, a hunting clothing company whose genesis is best understood in his own words (taken from this blog post):
I co-founded Sitka in 2005. Our product line was an attempt to bridge the gap in design and technologies between hunting and mountaineering gear. I launched and operated Sitka from my home office and garage in Dixon, California. In July of 2006 we introduced the first Sitka product line in the Schnee’s Boot catalog, based in Bozeman, Montana. Schnee’s was the only retailer to pick up Sitka that first year and sold the all the 2006 inventory we bought in only 90 days. In just a few months Sitka had exploded in popularity and demand as the first technical mountain hunting brand in the world. In 2007 Sitka was carried in every major big-box retail store in the United States and Canada. In 2008, longtime Patagonia designer Richard Siberell introduced me to Toray at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. He explained all the advantages of Toray’s patented Spiral Yarn technology, fabric performance and the industry leading innovations. I quickly pushed to build a Sitka program with Toray fabrics but could not make the margins work. Our gear prices were going to double and retailer buyers were already complaining Sitka was too expensive. We had to kill the program, but I could not get the Toray fabrics out of my mind. In 2009 my business partner and our CFO, feeling pressure from the failing economy made some bad decisions and lied to our shareholders, threw me under the bus, stabbed my family in their backs and sold Sitka to W.L. Gore for pennies. Then forced me out of the company I built. All of it was never needed as Sitka would have survived. I was down but not out and highly motivated and determined to build a new business model. A business set up to bring to market a line of the most advanced technical mountain hunting products ever produced featuring Toray fabrics. This new company would be one of integrity, honesty and transparency, focused on making the best products possible with the best possible service. I took everything I learned from creating Sitka and used it to build a much smarter business plan. I eliminated the retailer to focus on making products without price restrictions. I wanted no limits on materials, design or manufacturing. I would no longer sacrifice quality to hit price points for a retailer. And I wanted an emphasis on service and customer experience.
First gen Icon 5500, photo from Kuiu.
Kuiu’s initial products borrowed heavily from mountaineering companies (from late-00s Arc’teryx to an almost embarrassing extent), but they soon established their own identity and look, and almost as soon ran into substantial growth and inventory problems, but by 2015 things were established and smooth sailing seems to have commenced. Sitka has fought back, investing heavily in new mountain products, whitetail and waterfowl lines (which Hairston has pointedly said Kuiu will never produce), and in the last year investing heavily in social media henchmen. But Kuiu has remained the dominant player in hunting clothing, judged by saturation in magazine photos, as well as by innovation.
Kuiu makes good stuff. Most of their products are as good as anything on the market, and some of their clothing is better than almost anything in the same category, in or out of the hunting realm. Their marketing is more jingoistic than strictly necessary (the founder of a competitor told me last year that “Toray is what you use when you can’t get Gore-tex”), but the identity they’ve built as a “mountain hunting company” has been the core of their success. To whit:
…the standard against which we measure and test KUIU is sheep hunting. Sheep hunting is an expedition. Weather and storms are always an issue, temperatures swing wildly, and it’s often wet and cold. The landscape is harsh and unforgiving—steep rock fields, glaciers, roaring river crossings, often requiring bouldering and sidehilling. Sheep hunting requires huge investments in terms of money and time. It requires massive amounts of physical and mental preparation. It’s the pinnacle of Mountain Hunting, and as such, it’s the most demanding on gear. That’s why we exist, to build gear that meets these demands.
As someone who has hunted sheep each year for the last four I call this deliberately deceiving, at best. I have no doubt that hunting sheep at 66 degrees north is all of these things, and equally little doubt that if whitetails ever find a way to survive those winters hunting them in that environment will be just as challenging. But there are some very easy sheep hunts out there, once you draw (or buy, foreshadowing) a tag, and if bighorns were as wily as deer they would have found a way to not get extirpated so thoroughly from their historic range, and wouldn’t be currently the victim of the more adaptable and often introduced mountain goat. But deer hunting is too commonplace, and mountain goats lack the historical mystique and post-war literary shine, so when you want to build an aspirational hunting brand sheep are it. Just look at the number of stylized ram logos out there.
The infamous single-rope rap with longbow cover.
And western, wilderness big game hunting is nothing if not an aspirational game. The generic beginning hunter is no less knowledgeable than the generic neophyte dayhiker, but the odds of that dayhiker aspiring, within a year or two, to a solo, bushwacking exploration at 8000′ on the cusp of winter is minimal. Backpack hunting is hard, and the learning curve for someone from New Jersey who is getting started without even the foggiest understanding of what layering entails is daunting. Kuiu is not just selling things that might make the dream easier to achieve, they are selling the dream itself.
None of this is problematic, nor is it unique to the Instagram age or new to a world in which generalist outdoor gear is a dying thing. Hunting is (a bit) different than hiking or backpacking or mountaineering, and it makes sense to build gear for it, even clothing more specifically adapted than adding camo. What is more difficult for Kuiu is deciding what position it will take regarding the future of hunting, a political question which is very much of our time.
Hairston posted the above to Instagram the other day, noting the irony of having California Game and Fish (which he would need to visit to have his desert bighorn plugged) next to the Democratic party offices. It’s a good and terrible joke, one I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who didn’t run a hunting company in 2017, and who wasn’t such a vocal supporter of an immoral man who managed to become the President of the United States. Hairston was taken to task in the comments, as I hope he expected to be, concerning his companies support of public lands. The two substantive competitors of Kuiu, First Lite and Sitka, have both in the past year made advocacy against public lands transfer a major part of their marketing. It’s good ethics, it is good policy, and it no doubt good business. Most people in the west hunt on public lands, and many of the new hunters to be recruited in the east, south, and midwest will probably not have as widespread access to private hunting grounds as the previous generations.
Kuiu has been notably silent on this issue. This isn’t to say that organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers are perfect (their income to expense and executive compensation ratios are both a bit high), or that a company like First Lite doesn’t make a business decision when they rebrand a personable and semi-famous marketing director, Ryan Callaghan, as “Director of Conservation and Public Relations”. What BHA and First Lite have done, with plenty of help, is put public lands access and management at the very forefront of the hunting industry. Patagonia accomplished something similar in the hiking realm; any company or entity who has in 2017 chosen to not comment about public lands has been conspicuous in their silence. The rhetoric has been hotter because in hunting the stakes are higher; like with mountain biking hunting is a pursuit under threat. There are segments of contemporary American culture who are actively hostile to both, at least on a policy level, and hunting is deservedly held to a higher standard because it is centered around the taking of animal life. As a hunter it’s been nice to see the industry take the lead in defending a pillar of American democracy.
Hairston, as his Instagram shows, has also been active. He went Stones Sheep hunting with Donald Trump, Jr this summer, in addition to killing the presumptive new California state record desert Bighorn (above). Both of these hunts were guided, the Stones hunt because non-Canadian citizens are required to have one, the desert presumably because Hairston knew and was largely interested in a singular, large critter. Most of Hairston’s hunts seem to be guided. Many of them seem to be high-dollar, pay-to-play affairs, such as an annual Canadian sheep hunt ($20K+), or a Bighorn hunt on the Tao Pueblo last year(which cost $95k at auction in 2015), or this California hunt, for which Hairston’s wife bought the California Governers tag ($255k). In itself this is only mildly problematic; while the tag auction system and to a lesser extent guided hunting generally are both bastardizations of the North American model of wildlife management, Hairston is very far from the first rich man to buy his dreams, or more specifically to have his business success directly subsidize them. And going back to my first paragraph, the straightforward and un-credulous way he both posts these things publically and then tackles the inevitable controversies which arise are in my mind nothing but a credit to him. They make debates like this one all the more transparent.
The problem is that when his silence on public lands is put together with a habit for auction and landowner tags, and big dollar success subsidies in the form of guides, Hairston begins to look like the embodiment of the other side of the hunting and public lands debate, especially when he is prominently friends with the man who gave us Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary. Sheep hunting has already allowed market forces and questionable wildlife management to make it the least democratic, and therefore in the US most perverted, form of hunting. If Kuiu too thoroughly identifies itself with this pursuit it will go right through aspirationalism into plain elitism. Even if Mr. Hairston himself routinely “donates” $300k+ each year to hunting conservation in the form of auction tags, and even if Kuiu the company does far more, their silence in the political realm is far more damaging. Supporting a less democratic model of hunting would probably still be quite profitable, but it would constitute a plain realignment that would take hunting in North American back towards the European model it rejected three centures ago. One which is not as far away as many would think.
There is no good equivalence to how money and opportunity work in the non-hunting realm. Big peak fees in Nepal are along with river permits in the Western US the closest analogies. So imagine in the Selway or Smith or Yampa get even more in demand, that backcountry permits in Glacier and the Sierra and Rainier are subject to ever more advanced and walk in applications, along with day hiking permits for places like the Narrows and the Wave. Suppose that in response the managing agencies raise fees significantly, doubling them for residents of that state and increasing them ten fold for everyone else. To further moderate pressure in-staters are given preference. So a Utah resident who wants to run the Selway at peak will pay $100 and be vying with all other non-Idaho residents for 8-10 total permits for the three month permit period. A Montana resident who wants to float the Grand Canyon in September will pay over $1000, and be competing for one of 2-3 permits available each week during the warm season. A California resident who wants to float the Smith will pay $600 (they already pay $60, to a MT residents $25 plus application fee) and be competing for 2-3 permits per week, and a Minnesota resident who wants to stay at the Boulder BC site during August will pay $80 a night and be competing for the one tent pad left for non-Montanans. And lets say Rainier puts up a couple of super-permits for auction, good for any BC itinerary any time, how much would someone pay?
I don’t think many would be keen for the false-meritocracy narrative to make it’s way into non-hunting public lands management in this way, though I’d probably be surprised at how little objection there would be. These hypotheticals also highlight the extent to which state wildlife management has diverged from the American ideal of public lands being equally* available for all, and how there is no small amount of hypocrisy in all the recent rhetoric of how terrible states would be at managing things like national forests, when the same people have little but good to say about the same states applying the same ideals to the management of wildlife. In any case, Kuiu is part of this debate, whether they want to be or not, and given how large their PR budget obviously is I’d like to see them taking a Patagonia-style leadership role, as soon as they decide what their position is.
*A whole host of socio-cultural complications notwithstanding.