In 2005, Noah Robertson, co-founder of Mountain Khakis, walked into Habitat, my outdoor lifestyle store at the base of Teton Pass in Victor, Idaho. I was immediately captivated by his East Coast gregariousness and vaguely recalled meeting him years before in the Cloudveil booth at a trade show. Now here he was again, a mountain-town transplant like me, following his own version of the free-spirited vision that calls to all of us who have moved to the Mountain West.
He ripped open his duffle bag containing pairs of work-wear pants appropriately designed for mountain living. I found this funny—because as a retailer, I was committed to the personal crusade of luring mountain women OUT OF Carhartt pants. But my jaw hit the floor when Robertson slung me a pair of admittedly cute, fashionably-colored women’s pants. I gazed at my business partner, shoulders shrugged, thinking, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
“We live in this super-affluent town where ski bums, bankers, lawyers, carpenters, and people flying in on their private jets were wearing work-wear pants,” explains Robertson. “We thought they should be wearing something more comfortable.” So Robertson set out with his partner to develop a brand of everyday bottoms with a local feel and an all-inclusive vibe—pants that appealed to hard-core mountaineers as well as desk jockeys daydreaming about their next weekend adventures.
Back at Habitat … a display filled with 75 pairs of Mountain Khakis pants graced our retail floor and they immediately started flying off the shelves. I realized then that it wasn’t just the practical canvas pant, updated with stretch fabrics and hip colors, that our customers were going for. People were buying into a product that revealed their personal crusade. Mountain Khakis was more than just a pant, it was a lifestyle movement.
It Takes A Village (or at least some partners in crime!).
The apparent synergy of two brands led Jen Taylor Muhr to the Mountain Khakis crew. Taylor Muhr, former president and co-founder of Mountain Sprouts, a technical children’s apparel company, made it her mission to get families outside. This concept melded nicely with the inclusivity of the Mountain Khakis brand. Together, they offered clothing that segued from toddlerhood to adulthood. Robertson explains, “Once we got going with Jen, it became so much easier. She’s such a dynamic person with positive energy. A lot of her core values line up with ours.“
As the economy took a dive and Mountain Sprouts was put on hold, Taylor Muhr naturally filled the role of “brand messenger” for Mountain Khakis. She created a manifesto, serving as a compass for employees spread throughout three locals: Jackson Hole (inspiration central), Charlotte, North Carolina (the central nervous system), and Grand Junction, Colorado (Taylor Muhr’s Rocky Mountain touchpoint). Their culture manual reeks of mountain town values, including statements like, “Create fun and playfulness around you, combat complacency, and if asking for permission causes delay, then beg for forgiveness.”
“There’s that wild-bred, let-your-hair-down, hell, yeah, vigor that’s still alive in mountain towns,” explains Taylor Muhr. “that’s really the model for Mountain Khakis.”
The fact that sales, marketing, customer service, and distribution reside in North Carolina acknowledges the hurdles of running a corporate headquarters from a mountain town, but hardly detracts from the Mountain Khakis vigor. High corporate shipping expenses (due to remoteness) and elevated commercial rents drive up the cost of doing business in a mountain town. The Charlotte location helps Mountain Khakis diversify their workforce and take advantage of talent that can be hard to come by or pay for (due to high costs of living) in a small mountain community. But despite these obstacles, Mountain Khakis still maintains a Jackson Hole force of four that handles product development, design, branding, and supply chain management. And, Robertson explains, the location of the main office in Charlotte—smack dab in the middle of their strongest territory—creates balance by employing people who live and play elsewhere, but still resonate with the mountain town vibe. For the Charlotte crew, Jackson Hole “conjures up so much romance of the mountains in the West,” Taylor Muhr adds, a feeling that only contributes to the company morale.
The Lifestyle Tax
“It’s the 24-7 living day in and day out in the mountains that infuses our brand,” says Taylor Muhr. “It’s the lens through which we view everything. And it comes through in our antics, design, and messaging.”
In a town like Jackson, visitors, and even locals, come and go. But regardless of where they reside, they all have a grasp on that Mountain West spirit. For the visitors, this romance carries them through until their next visit; it’s what keeps them sane in their daily bump and grid.
But for the locals, it’s not always “rainbows and butterflies.” The harsh environment, high cost of living, and isolation can all take a toll. To live here, we make sacrifices in pay, basic amenities, and even a sense of normalcy (depending on the perspective), something Taylor Muhr deems the “lifestyle tax”… the price we pay to gain something of much greater value—to live in the mountains.
But every so often, the burden of this tax forces us to get out, spread our wings, and experience something new. “Jackson has a lot of influences. People who live here want to leave and go to the city or to the coast,” explains Robertson. He notes that the coming and going of both the locals and the visitors is what makes mountain living (and its influences on the brand) fun.
Influenced by their greatest asset—their customers—Mountain Khakis creates a product palatable to everyone. Like their community, their pants are rugged enough to withstand environmental hazards, but pliable enough to segue into business casual. They’re styley enough to make the city slicker feel like he’s wearing the mountain “uniform” back home, but classic enough to chop wood or garden in. Taylor Muhr explains that the brand melds the feeling of the Old West with that of the New, “The Old West is the grit and dirt in our brand—the texture, the patina. The New West is the sophistication now found in the mountains. We speak to both rugged and refined.”
The Balance Battle
But living in the mountains doesn’t necessarily mean your days are filled with skiing and hiking. Both Robertson and Taylor Muhr battle to find the work-life balance that many might assume is a natural part of living the mountain life—a balance that is at the heart of the Mountain Khakis brand.
“I’m one of THOSE moms,” explains Taylor Muhr. “I’m a workaholic and always on cue.” She says that as a mother and entrepreneur, she likes to share the cool aspects of the business with her kids—they come on photo shoots and she asks their opinions on things. “Mountain Khakis is a brand that’s all about families,” she says. “We are proud of what we do and we want to involve and inspire our children.”
But it all comes alive for Taylor Muhr when she’s on the trail. “That’s where I feel the most at home,” she says. “The fresh air… hearing the aspens quake… There’s nothing that lights up your senses more. It’s like layers peel back off your eyeballs and you get in touch with the juicy stuff inside. “Robertson, a self-professed slave to his computer, finds importance in unplugging. “In today’s world, it is very hard to get away unless you have the discipline to turn your phone off,” he says. “You have to say, ‘This is my hour,’ and go. I work really hard on doing this.” He says that his best ideas come to him when he’s not connected, but rather hiking, backcountry skiing, or on the river. “Living here makes that a lot easier because we can step outside and be on a trail or drive away and our phone just doesn’t work,“ he jokes
Robertson finds that the balance between tuning in and tuning out is a concept his peers are committed to. “Our parents’ generation worked hard to enjoy their lives later on. Our generation works just as hard, but plays harder. Ultimately, that will provide a healthier perspective and a ‘no regrets’ attitude towards life later on.” He hopes his quest to find balance will inspire and influence others.
Looking back on that sunny day when Robertson toted his bagful of goods into my shop, I remember the feeling of wanting to abandon responsibility, lock the shop doors, and head for the hills on my bike. It’s that “hell, yeah” sentiment that informs the fabric of life in a mountain town. For those of us who live in one, we eat a daily diet of “hell, yeah” moments. For those who visit, it’s a sentiment that can travel back home. It’s a way of running at life that doesn’t necessarily muffle its voice as we grow older, but rather grows stronger the more we act on it. That’s what Mountain Khakis, Robertson, and Taylor Muhr embody—a sense of freedom that never tires with age or locale.
Now, as Mountain Khakis says, “Get in our pants!”