Every company promises that its products will help you perform harder and take your pursuits further. But it's rare to see proof, despite sharp product descriptions, lists of cool features and flashy technical materials. How do we know that the running shorts or the backpack we're eyeing will actually hold up in the real world and keep up with your adventures?

Ryan Hitzel, founder and CEO of adventure apparel and gear brand Roark, envisioned a different approach to product development and marketing – and so, Roark was born. Having understood that a product and its story are inextricable, Hitzel put in place his vision, combining action sports, travel and product development: at Roark, every season is literally a new adventure.

Roark designs every new capsule of its products around a location that its team of Ambassadors explores. The team, comprising "world-class skaters, climbers, surfers, photographers and explorers" and beyond – seek culture, inspiration and stories – and do plenty of on-the-ground wear testing.

We caught up with Hitzel to learn more about Roark's philosophy of authentic, people-first product development, and to hear about the team's latest adventures through the oceans, villages and mountains surrounding Oaxaca, Mexico. In addition to a new line of gear and apparel, Roark's team came away with a documentary film, Donde Los Terremotos, directed by musician Matt Costa. Read the interview and check out the film below.

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RYAN HITZEL, FOUNDER, ROARK

Q: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE ROARK'S "ADVENTURE-TO-PRODUCT" MODEL?

RYAN HITZEL: I was always on the creative side of things and the brand side of things. And I was traveling a ton. Fast forward to about 2010 – I saw a big opportunity within action sports and the outdoor markets to tell stories. I thought if we could design this ultimate adventure… and weave all of those stories into the product so that when we were talking about marketing, we were actually talking about the product at the same time.

So we would do two big trips a year … designing products that worked for that destination. So if it was a trip to Jamaica, it's hot and steamy, we looked at trying to innovate some products that married function and style and worked in a really hot climate.

From a design standpoint, it's always been our goal to try and marry purpose with some fashion. We try not to compromise either side. You don't walk into the bar after you've been out in the bush and look like a goofball. There's no reason why functional clothes can't have expression woven into them and personal style.

Q: WHO ARE THE ROARK AMBASSADORS, AND WHAT MAKES THEM THE RIGHT PEOPLE FOR THE JOB?

RH: So my philosophy is 'What are the types of people that we could invite to a theoretical campfire who can add to the conversation in a diverse way?' So [every ambassador has] some expertise in an activity, whether it be surfing, skateboarding, rock climbing, or even some creative, like being a photographer, or a writer. But I mean, they are all so different, and they come from different countries, they come from different ethnic backgrounds. The one thing that really draws them all together is just that lust to get out there and adventure… and tell the story.

It's important for all of our ambassadors … to really find value in the process, to help our product and storytelling feel authentic and real. Like, what can we do that just allows us to tell a slightly different story so that we're not just telling the same one over and over again that people know.

And to that end, when we'd gone to Jakarta, and Kathmandu, and Tokyo, Hanoi … we'd never take that out of the mix. Just trying to put yourself in more vulnerable positions so you can grow up, I think, is the goal.

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Q: HOW HAVE THE AMBASSADORS AND YOUR PHILOSOPHY INFORMED AND EVOLVED ROARK PRODUCTS?

RH: Even if we launch something, like Run Amok, our trail running line, it's still in the same lane for us. It's still about getting out there, being free, building clothes that merge function and expression. So nothing [about our approach] changes, just a different person sitting at the campfire.

We can all sit down at the same campfire and talk story, because we have common interests in art, and music, and culture, and travel, right? And so those are things that bond us, really. And whether it's 2010 or 2020, it's allowed us to play a little bit with activities outside of like surfing, snowboarding, climbing, riding motorcycles, trail running.

So I've always tried to shape it so that we are inclusive and not super exclusive, and inviting people to join the journey. Those are always the most interesting conversations I've had in my life, where it's not just a bunch of people that do the same thing, getting people that are different together.

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Q: HOW DID THE OAXACA TRIP COME TOGETHER?

RH: There's a stretch of about a hundred miles of the [Oaxacan] coastline that has some of the best waves in the world, tons of right-hand point breaks, sand bars. [If you go inland,] within two hours, you're up into some pretty radical mountains, like the Southern Sierra Madre. They historically have a rich history of mysticism and really deep indigenous Mexican culture. So that was sort of the impetus for going there, was to try and bring this group of surfers, and skateboarders, and climbers to a part of Mexico that just doesn't get a lot of publicity.

The second part of the story is that I have a friend named Matt Costa, who's a musician. He's had a pretty rad career in music. [He has] made like half of his music videos, and they're all DIY. He and his girlfriend shoot them. They're super creative and weird, and cool. And I'm like, "What if you directed this piece [in Oaxaca] like with surfing, and skating?"

We started in Oaxaca City, went up into the mountains to this tiny village called Huautla, which is kind of famous for its psychedelics and magic mushroom healing over the last thousand years. And there's really this weight of mysticism there. And there's this notion of mezcal drinking, for instance, being this transcendental process of healing, and going to a higher level, and exploring your soul.

So we … did some trail running there, and then rode some motorcycles all the way down through the Huatulco area, and Barra, and all the point breaks. And along the way, we shot this film called Donde Los Terremotos, [which means] Where The Earth Quakes. That region's infamous for pretty gnarly earthquakes. It's always rumbling.

[youtube align='center' autoplay='0']https://www.youtube.com/embed/

LLQEA41VVpQ[/youtube]

Watch Roark's new film, Donde Los Terremotos, on YouTube.

Matt shot the film and wrote an album along the way. And it turns out his record label liked the album so much … they're actually going to press it, and they've released it.

Roark's always been more of a serious brand, and the new film's definitely tongue-in-cheek. It's like... Wes Anderson-meets-Anthony Bourdain. But it's funny, and it's deep, [and there's] a really cool monologue that Matt put together and reads throughout. And obviously, the film's scored by the album, so that's the cool part.

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Q: AS I UNDERSTAND, ROARK'S RELATIONSHIP WITH A LOCATION DOESN'T END WITH YOUR TRIP, RIGHT?

RH: Yeah, we also always try and give back. Essentially, we're going to these places and sort of taking, right? We're sort of taking culture [to create our stories and products]. But with that, we always feel like we need to do something to give back to the communities. There was a large hurricane about three weeks ago down in Oaxaca, and it took out a bunch of villages on the coast especially. We're going to support either a water retention program down there for clean water … or there are a couple of community centers that [need to be completely rebuilt.]

I really want us to focus on people. I think there are a lot of environmental causes out there that are awesome, and we do contribute to The Surfrider Foundation and environmental causes. But with the trips, we're really focused on trying to help people. With this tragedy, this felt like the right way to contribute back.

Q: WHAT PRODUCTS WERE DEVELOPED AND TESTED IN OAXACA?

RH: In the Run Amok trail running capsule, there's an awesome pair of shorts called Alta Lights that are this new, breathable, perforated material that we integrated that was really good for those summer months, and steamy jungles – or the steamy streets of New York, perhaps.

There's a new board short called The Passage, which I'd say it's one of the most technical board shorts we've ever made. A lot of board shorts these days are definitely surf-able, but they're really stripped down so they're made more for going to the beach and cruising. So we released a board short called Passage Primo that worked really good down there. It's got some welding and a way more expensive four-way stretch material that's very durable. It's really built for pure surfing, and not just going in the pool or hanging out on the beach.

Q: WHAT IS THE NEW CAPSULE CALLED??

RH: Historically, "artifacts of adventure" is the way we've coined the product that gets inspired by the trips. The Oaxaca [trip and capsule] are called "Wayward in Oaxaca."

We've learned a lot about making apparel. The bigger we've gotten, the better we've gotten at it. So yeah, it's been an epic journey, and it's been cool for me to grow with it and be able to design something that was based on my passions, obviously, of creating, and traveling, and adventurism.

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