Interview with Chaco Creative Director Josh Weichhand
On the rise of sandals, working with Japanese fashion labels, and the importance of public land activism
Like a Patagonia Synchilla or Fjällräven Kanken, a rugged pair of Chaco sandals are one of those classic pieces of outdoor gear recognizable from afar. Originally designed for whitewater rafting in 1989, the adjustable straps and substantial soles of the Classic Z/1 sandal have long since found a home on the feet of a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts. But what once was associated primarily with granola-munching climbers, backpackers, and river rats, is now becoming almost equally commonplace on the streets of Tokyo and New York. Sandals are officially in. And Josh Weichhand is loving it. Heck, he’s partially responsible for it.
As Chaco’s creative director, Weichhand oversees everything from the introduction of new designs and partnerships to the ideation and production of fresh brand visuals each season. In the five years since joining Chaco—following a stint at Urban Outfitters where he worked as a content and marketing “Swiss Army Knife” with the Anthropologie brand—Weichhand has pushed a renewed focus on visuals, getting sandals on the feet of real people and documenting their genuine travels near and far, and inked partnerships and collaborations with everyone from the National Park Foundation and Topo Designs to Japanese fashion labels like Beams and BAPE.
Like the return of sandals to the spotlight, Weichhand’s arrival at Chaco seemed inevitable. The Michigan-native grew up outdoors, on the lakeshore, going to summer camp, backpacking, and exploring the region’s many waterways. All while wearing Chacos. “I’ve been wearing it since middle school. It holds a special place in my heart,” Weichhand says. “It’s something I associate with really good experiences.” Even still, it took an eye-opening road trip across the U.S. and back to bring him home to Michigan, and Chaco.
To learn more about this formative road trip, talk partnerships and upcoming initiatives, and to discuss the importance of standing up for our public lands, we recently jumped on the horn with Weichhand for a lengthy conversation. The following are the highlights.
In 2013 you spent seven months touring America’s national parks before landing at Chaco. Tell us about the trip.
I’d been living in cities—Boston, Denver, then Philadelphia for several years, and just feeling that itch to get back in touch with nature. So, my partner Grace and I basically sold all of our possessions—except what we could pack into our Subaru Forrester, and our dog—and we zig-zagged our way across the lower 48, hitting 15 or 16 national parks.
By the time we got to Joshua Tree, we were able to set a destination north and then followed the 1 along the West Coast, through Washington, and up through Canada to Alaska, where we spent another three or four months.
We ended up having this crazy experience up there. I worked as a commercial salmon fisherman for a season, and Grace worked on an organic flower farm, where they grow peonies because the sun is out so long (their flower seasons are crazy different than they are in the lower 48).
Seeing so much of what our national park system has to offer was an incredible experience. It reminded me why I love the outdoors in the first place, and how imperative it was for me to be part of that in a more holistic way.
Did the experience inspire you to become more involved in public land activism?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That trip was really formative in a number of ways, but I think for one, it was just a reminder that there are really special places here in the states that are reserved just for us, something America set aside for its citizens to enjoy.
It was really striking for me, going to so many of these iconic places and seeing so many foreign tourists and so few Americans there. People come from all sorts of different countries to experience them, and it bummed me out a bit to not see more Americans participating in something so special right in their backyard.
How important is it for brands to take a stance and make their support of public lands known loud and clear?
To answer the question in a very serious way, it’s incredibly important.
Brands have to participate now more than ever because individuals and politicians can be ignored. Governments don’t always do the right thing, just depending on the way the wind blows. But brands, I think, are one of those rare institutions where consumers really do have an ability to steer them one way or another.
"Brands have to participate [in public land activism] now more than ever because individuals can be ignored."
People have a pretty massive distrust of their institutions right now, especially when so many have, frankly, lost their moral grounding. But I think that brands are able to kind of occupy a different space where we can take a really strong position about a cause or issue because there’s some inherent truth related to what we represent.
So for Chaco, we’re an OG outdoor brand, we cut our teeth selling to the dealers operating outside national parks and to river guides operating through public lands, down wild and scenic rivers. There is already a very strong element of truth to our association with public lands because it’s in our origins.
Most outdoors brands, I would think, would be advocating for recreation access because, at the end of the day, we sell stuff so people can get outside and participate in the outdoors. That’s important both spiritually, but also economically for us to continue to grow and for the industry to become more effective and stronger—a bigger part of the overall economy. So, I kind of look at it from that perspective.
It’s so important, not just for Chaco, but for brands across the board to be taking stances.
In 2017 we saw Chaco partner with the National Park Foundation, Topo Designs, Howler Bros, among others. How does Chaco choose who to collaborate with?
The product collaborations are derived a couple ways. One is that we work really closely with our Japanese distributor and through them, we’ve been able to do some really cool collaborations with Pilgrim Surf & Supply, A Bathing Ape, Stussy, Beams–all of these really awesome, trendy retailers and brands.
In Japan we’ve been kind of accepted and adopted into streetwear—technical wear and outdoor gear is very easily appropriated to street style in Japan, and the minimalism of our sandal products is very much tuned into that. And I think some of that energy has transferred over—what starts in Japan eventually finds its ways to San Francisco, and L.A. and New York. So that’s an element of it.
And then from inside my office, I’m personally inspired by newer, upstart, entrepreneurial brands—think Topo Designs or United By Blue—because I think one of the things that made the outdoor industry so special in the first place is it was built by that breed of rebel entrepreneur.
If you think about the OG outdoor brands—Patagonia, North Face, REI—they came about because of a need that wasn’t being serviced. They just started doing it, and they did it their way. And I think over the course of 30-some years the outdoor industry has become more normalized, like the sporting goods industry, so it’s really important to recognize that we have a really rich history of entrepreneurship in our space.
These brands that are new and churning shit up, coming in and disrupting their industries, whether it’s through Made in the USA, or through really unique brand positioning, or just really awesome storytelling—I think that’s something worth celebrating.
Any upcoming products or projects you can let us in on?
We have a kickass new boot called the Frontier Waterproof for men. It’s a perfect urban boot—as comfortable as our sandals, weather-ready, and just looks sick.
This coming spring, in March, we’re going to be dropping the next iteration of our National Park Foundation collection, so keep an eye out for that. And then next summer, keep an eye out for Topo Designs x Chaco, 2.0.
From video lookbooks to content-heavy campaigns featuring real people, it’s clear visuals are key to Chaco’s identity. As brand manager, can you speak to this approach?
I think when you’re talking about the outdoors, in a lot of ways we’re not actually selling products. We’re selling the idea of what you could potentially do with it. To use a metaphor I heard once: If you’re Super Mario, you’re not buying the flower that lets you shoot fireballs, you’re buying the actual vision of Mario being bigger, faster, and throwing fireballs. You know what I mean? You don’t sell the product, you sell who you’re going to become once you have the product.
So it’s kind of the same deal with Chaco. I think most people who participate in our brand—very few of them will ever go whitewater rafting. Some of them may never climb a mountain or ever live in a mountain town, but I think what’s common across all of them is these people tend to be adventurous in spirit and they want to express that. And investing in a pair of kickass sandals that will last 20 years is a really clear way to send those signals to the people around you.
When we set out to plan a shoot or design a campaign, I try to keep that in mind. Most of our productions are actual experiences – taking people into the wild, out on whitewater, or on a road trip—and documenting what happens. There’s an authenticity you can uncover in those moments. The individuals we photograph or video on those trips are themselves having a discovery about what possibilities our products can create in their lives.
We hope to not just capture the beautiful landscapes and epic scenery, but the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, scrapes and bruises, laughter and the forging of memories that happens in the process too.
"It’s not for everybody, and I think that’s what’s cool about it."
Was there a specific moment when the decision was made to embrace and encourage socks and sandals? To own what was once taboo?
I was always a proponent of it. And we started driving it a lot more once I came onboard. It’s a really unique expression of style. It’s not for everybody, and I think that’s what’s cool about it.
I pretty much live in my sandals year round, even when it’s snowing, if it’s not too deep. And that’s mainly because I have a hundred different socks I can wear. Whether it’s a camouflage pattern, or a really funky color palette, or a mountainscape that’s a photorealistic print—whatever it is, it looks rad. And that’s something I’ve always wanted to celebrate.
The idea of being the plain white sneaker, that’s not interesting to me. But the idea that people can let their flag fly a little bit by wearing our product and dressing it however they want, that’s cool.
After nearly 30 years Chaco of appealing almost exclusively to a niche outdoor segment, we’re seeing sandals on fashion runways and city streets around the world. Why is that?
People’s behaviors and social norms are changing really rapidly. People are detaching themselves from offices and desks completely, working from home, working from the road, uprooting their lives and living out of RVs and camper vans. And sandals, in a way, represents that sense of freedom.
In some ways, it’s kind of a metaphor for what we’re experiencing as a generation—a little bit of a rejection of the norms. As long as you’re following your passions, working hard, hustling, providing value, doing meaningful work that’s helping the world become a better place, it shouldn’t matter what you’re wearing. You should choose to express yourself how you like, whether that’s wearing sandals, wearing socks with sandals, wearing funky clothes.
I think you’re seeing people embracing a higher level of quality too. That’s why they come to Chaco. Our products seemingly last forever. We have repairability built into our core product. We have a factory in Michigan that can help fix outsoles and repair the uppers.
In a word, it’s freedom. Let your toes wiggle, and walk from the office to the sidewalk, to the beach, to the water, and then walk back out again.
That’s true freedom, man.