Though the “factory floor” is where the 40 Santa Barbara–based employees of Toad & Co. pluck away at keyboards — including CEO Gordon Seabury — the soul of their office on the Riviera Park campus is in a much smaller room. There, past the wire cage wall of the sales showroom and stocked fridges of the communal kitchen, countless swatches of new and old flannel, corduroy, cotton, wool, and all imaginable textiles hang on facing walls from floor to ceiling. This is the 25-year-old outdoor apparel company’s fabric library, where designers return regularly to research what types of textiles exist and then plot the combinations that should.
“We look at how different types of fabrics work together to create something better,” Marketing Manager Steve McCann explained to me during a tour last week. “Say we like wool for moisture wicking and heat resistance, but we like the feel of cotton. How do we bridge that gap? We’ll work with different manufacturers to see who can do that. That’s a huge part of what we’re doing with fabrics.”
Functionality is a must for all apparel companies, but Toad & Co. reverses the traditional model, prioritizing feel and looks and then determining how to make it work. “For us, number one is comfort,” said McCann, explaining that the company employs the JET — as in “just enough technology” — mantra. “The majority of people aren’t tackling Mt. Everest,” he said of the form/function balance they seek, “but they might be hiking up Jesusita.”
Initially founded as Horny Toad in 1991 by Jessica Nordhaus, who made fleece toques in her garage (also home to her horny-toad lizards!) in Telluride, Colorado, Seabury took over the company a few years later, moved it to his living room in Chicago, and grew sales by hitting the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market tradeshow in 1996. Inspired by Ben & Jerry’s social initiatives, Seabury partnered with Search, Inc., which did job training for adults with disabilities, to create Planet Access Company, which became and remains the clothing company’s warehousing partner.
In 2002, seeking somewhere more outdoorsy than Chicago, Seabury moved to Santa Barbara. “It lets us live the life we’re talking about,” said McCann of what inspired the move, though it also turned out to be home to a relatively rich clothing-apparel workforce, thanks to Deckers and nearby Patagonia as well as now-defunct labels such as Territory Ahead and GBMI.
While expanding to make everything from pants and sweaters to dresses, skirts, and dressier shirts, the company grew from four employees to 75, which includes the retail force behind two stores in Freeport, Maine (an outdoor apparel hub, it turns out), and Portland, Oregon. Everyone else is based in Santa Barbara, where they’re launching the fall 2017 line, awaiting finished spring 2018 designs, and already picking colors for fall 2018. Though proud to have clothing made from 100 percent organic cotton, the team continues to focus on sustainability by investigating recycled materials and other eco-friendly fibers. Toad & Co. is also expanding into travelwear (complete with hidden pockets as well as anti-bug and wrinkle-free technology) and the light outerwear segment that the industry is starting to call “shackets.”
The biggest move in recent years was the renaming of the company to Toad & Co. in 2015, a nearly three-year process in which McCann was intimately involved. “It was holding us back,” he said of the Horny Toad name, noting that men were more reluctant than women. “The ‘I’m a Horny Toad guy’ thing wasn’t happening.” Plus, he explained, “People didn’t get why the company was named after a rough lizard that shoots blood from its eyes but makes these beautiful dresses and shirts.”
The Toad & Co. rebrand and simultaneous relaunch of the website went smoothly. “Going through a name change is huge,” said McCann, his knuckle rapping the table. “Luckily, it seems like we did it the right way. It’s been almost two years now, and we didn’t even hit a bump. I’m still knocking on wood, but…”
The clothes are sold mainly through smaller specialty outdoor-retail shops such as Mountain Air Sports, as well as bigger stores like REI and Dick’s Sporting Goods, altogether amounting to about 400 accounts and more than 1,000 doors. They’re pretty well-known in Santa Barbara, thanks to support for organizations such as Art From Scrap, the Environmental Defense Center, and Alpha Resource Center, not to mention their annual Grilled Cheese Smackdown in March.
From my quick visit, Toad & Co. seemed like a cool place to work, but that goes for the whole industry, according to McCann. “Outdoor apparel is a lot like craft brew,” he said. “When we get together, it’s about bettering the industry as a whole rather than just bettering individual companies.”