Word & pics: Steve West, Mistral
For this Behind the Brand feature, we talk to Steve West, international brand manager for Mistral – an iconic watersports lifestyle company that has been around since the early days of windsurfing.
Give a brief overview of Mistral’s place in the wider world of watersports
If you had to have a ‘Hall of Fame’ of board sports brands, Mistral would have to be near the top of the list, if not at the very top. Established in 1976, Mistral should be recognised as the most famous of the windsurfing brands, which grew to fame when the sport peaked from the early to late ’80s.
The Naish family had a very strong connection with Mistral, with Rick Naish, Robby’s father as the lead designer, with Harold Ige joining him in the early 80s to cope with the workload based in his Kailua workshop on Oahu. Robby Naish, undoubtedly the most revered of all windsurfers, was Mistral’s star sailor from the late 70s when very young, all the way up until the late ‘80s.
Many newbies to SUP would have little background knowledge of Mistal’s heritage. Still, the fact remains that Mistral’s fame is well documented for such creations as the ‘Dream Team’ when the World Cup events were at their peak, with Robby, Peter Cabrinha, Jill Boyer, Charly Messmer and others. Back then, crowds of over 100,000 would line the beaches of Northern Europe to watch them compete and venues in Japan. They were sporting stars of their time.
Many innovative designs came out of Mistral, including an Olympic board that serviced three consecutive Olympics. It’s a little known or recognised fact, Mistral is regarded as the original lifestyle brand, where the brand considered the sport holistically and therefore the end user’s lifestyle, whether on the beach, on the water or in any other context. Fashion played a big part in windsurfing; in the same way, the surf industry woke up to fashion as part of that activity. SUP has a long way to go to emulate this same approach. Therefore, Mistral has played a seminal role in watersports over its 45-year history as a brand. Today Mistral has licensing arrangements for apparel, footwear, and accessories worldwide – the famous M-Dot lives on.
When did Mistral get into stand-up paddleboarding, and why?
With windsurfing on the downslide from its hay day, it made sense for Mistral, along with other brands, to get involved in an up-and-coming board sport, one which required not much more than a board and a paddle.
How different was the market back then?
Immature, embryonic, experimental; all the usual things associated with growing pains. There was a great deal of ignorance around the fundamentals. This was at the grassroots level, a paddlesport performed on a board, though the Americans wanted to label it as a surf sport, which, in the absence of surf, it’s a paddle sport if the primary propulsive force is a paddle. This was to prove a marketing success early in the sport’s trajectory; the idea of piggyback riding surfing culture and all that it stood for; a multi-prism of aloha themed everything and a bohemian lifestyle, but the romance and notional idea dwindled as the sport matured and the demographics played out.
The most obvious manifestation has been the evolution of the inflatable SUP. Drop stitch PVC technology was a product of the 1950s, courtesy of Goodyear, who hitched up with the American military to develop inflatable bridges and even aeroplanes. Finally, drop stitch PVC had found its real reason to exist in the guise of a watersports activity for the masses that has precious little to do with surfing – ever.
What’s the most significant change for 2021 in terms of the SUP trend?
Trend is a fickle animal. A trend is to assume something short-lived. If it gains traction and longevity, it’s no longer a trend but a going concern. If there were a maturation process in SUP, we see inflatable users in numbers now making the transition to laminated boards for added performance. Participants that seek out ‘more’ are what’s needed to drive design development and associated industries.
Why do you think the inflatable is the most popular SUP? Do you see that changing?
I think this is a geocentric question, being that Europe, in particular, is somewhat polarised in its thinking towards the inflatable, based on the unique selling points being focused principally on cost, transportability, and storage; it’s a three-pronged winning set of factors. Further to this, it works because inflatable boards are not biased towards performance, regardless of all the hype. Add to this; SUP has been dumbed down regarding performance aspirations for fear of scaring off newcomers. Compare this with the greater omnipresent surfing and beach culture of the entire Pacific Rim, and indeed the Pacific Island region and inflatables are seen as a toy and something superficial, even in South Africa; this is the case, hence why I say the question is Eurocentric.
Another vital factor is selling inflatables online due to the transportability factor. This factor alone has made this format of the board easily assimilated into the fabric of modern society, where online shopping is now omnipresent. Decathalon is one of our major clients, and we’ve just now entered into an agreement with UK based ZyroFisher, one of Britain’s largest online retailer of cycling equipment. Then there are the hyper-stores, where they too can pile up inflatables next to the corn flakes for the impulse buyer who has disposable income, with no genuine aspiration to embrace SUP as a sport, but something for the family and the kids.
Let’s not also forget, from a design and procurement point of view, any number of Chinese factories can offer you designs, so that cashed-up ‘No Name’ start-up brands can enter the market with little or no passion for design, let alone watersports – this is a good and bad thing. Good for end-users to a degree, but in strange and mystical ways, bad for the overall karmic vibe of a concept that is very much more recreational cheap thrills for the masses, than a pathway to a serious sporting endeavour, say in the same way as OC1 paddling is. This may be too much for some to swallow, but that’s the reality of it, and I take nothing away from the enjoyment it brings to people, which may be a seminal moment for them that changes their life.
As iSUPs are the general big sellers, how does this affect the amount of time and energy put into Mistral hardshell SUPs?
We’ve come to realise there’s little virtue offering a huge range of choice when it comes to iSUPs. The fact is, there are two or three stock lengths and widths of boards that the masses want and based on economics alone, they represent a brand’s bread a butter. There are legitimate niche areas of performance interest where the inflatable can shine, adventuring, for want of a better term, where your hunter-gatherer types can travel the world with their purpose constructed exploration boards and hit the otherwise inaccessible waterways. Aligned with this, river running seems an area where there’s efficacy in using inflatables.
You also need to keep in mind; it’s impossible to order a short production run of inflatables much below 500, in the same way as you can a highly advanced race board that can be CNC’d laminated and made in single units. To answer your question about how much energy we put into our laminated boards; lots, and we do so because this is essential for the perception of our brand, for our brand equity and reputation.
Mistral was once described in the early days as an ‘Avant Garde’ brand, and this truly resonates with me because we produce some outstanding designs without making a big fuss about it. I believe the Vortex boards have podiumed at the 11 Cities SUP Tour race more than any other single design of the board. Still, there’s no big fuss made about it, but we take pride in our achievement. This is hardcore stuff that legitimises Mistral’s past, present and future aspirations, mainly on a personnel level; it keeps my work interesting.
Do you see much conversion in terms of paddlers swapping to or adding a hardshell SUP in time?
Yes, as previously mentioned. The question we must ask is, why do inflatable users make this transition? Performance gains or specificity of interest where only a laminated board will do? Or is it that they feel the need to step up a gear and realise the gains in kudos and peer perception in riding a hardboard. Maybe it’s a factor of finances? The marketing spends of some brands has done such a good job in focusing on iSUPs, convincing all-comers the iSUP is the be-all and end-all, that it’s a tough sell to convince many of the benefits associated with the laminated board. The participant needs to be mindful of an inflatable board that is higher maintenance and tougher to repair. Its longevity is compromised simply by virtue of what it is.
As an international brand, you operate globally. How does the SUP market differ in other territories?
It’s a complex issue. Where you have ‘big people’ such as in Europe, there are different board volume needs, so you need wider boards with greater volume, than in Japan, where people are smaller, the demand is for lower volume, narrower boards. Then there’s geographical proximity to surf or rivers or areas where downwind paddling is popular due to prevailing conditions.
Then there are the socio-economic considerations of some regions of the world. Add to this what I have mentioned previously, the antipodes love laminated boards, as does the Pacific Rim and the island regions. In contrast, Canada and the USA inland regions is a mixed bag, in fact so mixed, we’ve stayed away from the USA as the market, as big as it is, was for some time over-subscribed too with product and choice. Ironically, this has created a demand for Mistral product in the USA and Canada, but it’s essentially unobtainable, which strangely adds to the brand’s appeal.
Talk a little about your role within Mistral and what it entails?
My official position is Brand Manager for Mistral International. Still, I also manage our Mistral Red Dot Design Division. I have recently taken the initiative to bring onboard specifically skilled and qualified persons with degrees in hydrodynamics and small craft design. We aim to locate our design team on Hayling Island, where there is some incredible talent together with quality testing conditions.
You’re a paddler’s paddler at heart. Do you find it difficult not to go all in and create high-end products all the time, thereby positioning Mistral as an elite brand? Or can the recreational element be combined?
Those who know me know my passion for paddlesports, indeed all water sports, but as a one-time highly competitive outrigger canoeist, I’ve always kept a sense of proportion on account of also being an educationalist. You learn quickly to be humble in a demanding sport such as outrigger canoeing. It’s part of the waterman’s creed, but it does not mean you should not be outspoken on the topics you know more about than most.
Foils and foiling are a talking point currently – especially wing foiling. Where is Mistral in terms of their foiling involvement?
We’ve sat back and observed foiling technology evolve and were unashamedly cautious. It’s very easy as a brand to get sucked into what could be a red herring. SUP foiling downwind images from Tahiti, Hawaii, and Australia may get many ‘likes’ on social media, but we must be pragmatic about what is economically viable. Custom boards are rife in many parts of the world, and the idea of diving into production variants requires caution.
We’re doing all our R&D on Hayling Island with a world-class team with the highest credentials from this perspective. The best foiling systems come from maritime cultures, maritime mindsets, those from a sailing background, and we are fortunate here in England on the south coast to have some of the best human resources in this field anywhere in the world. Not surprisingly, this new approach is now washing over all areas of our design interests, not just foiling.
Do you think flying over water will eventually eclipse more regular stuck to water disciplines, as some suggest?
By ‘some’, I’m assuming you mean a few sages of the water sports industry. Foiling is not a ‘replacement’ for conventional planing boards, paddleboards or any other board sport; it’s an entirely separate discipline. It’s not as if board sports were fundamentally flawed, and we needed to add a foil to fix the problem. Everyone aspires to own a conventional car to drive, but not everyone wants to buy an aeroplane to fly, if you get my drift.
Foiling is a niche interest for those who want a bit of an ‘edge’ to their on-water exploits; it’s not for everyone. This is not to say foil sports are not going to grow in popularity and be a significant part of the watersports industry, it is, and it’s growing exponentially now. Recently, foil boarding has made foiling obtainable for the weekend warrior, for the person who can only get out on weekends and has no interest in participating through a UK winter.
Then there’s the idea of being disconnected from the water, a form of sensory deprivation, which some users do not like with respect to foiling. Many find it scary and a step too far.
I’ve followed the growth of foiling; it’s a part of my job to do so. Conclusively, testosterone chest-beating types believe foiling will soon rule the world. Now that it has become a foiling sport sit back and watch Olympic windsurfing disappear up its proverbial orifice. It was bad enough when they stopped the Mistral One design from continuance when it had over 100,000 participants worldwide, then we went to boards as wide as barn doors with 12m2 sails, otherwise known as formula boards the numbers took a big hit. Now we have the iFoil, a niche, within a niche, within a niche, which is no longer egalitarian, but elitist by any other name if you’re a Fijian trying to get into the Olympics.
Mistral recently signed a UK, and Ireland distribution deal with Yorkshire based ZyroFisher. How did this come about, and what are the benefits for the UK SUP and watersports market?
Out of last year’s lock-down, two of the big winners were cycling and SUP. Cycling because the UK public took it as a government directive, that you must ride a bike or walk when it was only a suggestion. It represents, however, freedom on two wheels, and anyone can do it. SUP, because of its ease of access to recreational water activity, no more, no less; you could say paddleboarding is as easy as riding a bike, or at least that’s the perception.
ZyroFisher is one of the largest online retailers of cycling equipment and accessories in the UK, and for them, it made sense to offer their client base this other activity which ticked the boxes of ease of entry. They recognised Mistral as a brand with heritage and prestige and realised that if they could get behind the brand with their marketing reach, then they would be on to a winner. We welcome our association with this highly professional company and look forward to a long and fruitful relationship in bringing Mistral back to the fore.
Any other big projects in the Mistral pipeline?
We’re currently reverse-engineering some of our classic windsurfing boards, such as the Equipe II, Malibu and Shredder. We’re currently developing foils from the ground up, including wing sails; lots to do, with most aimed at 2022 and beyond. Typically, we are always projecting into the future, which is not so easy, but it’s a dream job to have the freedom within this iconic brand to help steer it into the future.
Tell us how (if at all) COVID has affected Mistral?
Record sales, balanced with supply issues, pretty much sums up most brands’ experience over the past 12 months.
What do you think the fall-out from this will be long term?
Some brands have done very well out of the pandemic, so if good fortune is a form of fall-out, they’ve done OK. Brands that are not organised and lean in their thinking and structure will struggle in the long term. It’s how you take your product to market that has changed so radically in just the past five years.
Finally, where do you see your paddling going this year and why?
I turned 61 in January. While my body is holding out, I enjoy not being in aeroplanes and loving being at home with Mandy and Monty, the ‘Design Dog’ and feel less pressure to be on the water continually. I choose my days on the water and appreciate the skills acquired over a lifetime and my affinity with being on the water. With windsurfing, SUP, OC1, Hawaiian canoe sailing and this summer, foil boarding, I have plenty of choices to keep me wet.
My relationship with paddling has changed over the years, but unlike many who come into it, burn bright and fade away; I’ve managed to continue paddling since I was seven years of age and never fallen out of love with it.
Any final thoughts on UK SUP, Mistral, and water sports in general?
An open-ended question: to which I would say to folks, if you paddle a SUP, try to embrace a wider variety of board sports or even that of canoeing or kayaking. Understand SUP is only a part of the sum of the whole, and to be truly fulfilled, you need to broaden your skills and appreciation of what else is out there; it will only make you better.
To Mistral, thank you to all the legends of the past who have served to make it what it is; I feel blessed to be a part of their legacy. As for water sports in general, embrace the lifestyle, appreciate every day you find time to get out on the water and embrace the fact, you never stop learning and, above all, stay safe.
Thanks, and praise?
To Mandy, of course, the rock in my ocean.