SAN FRANCISCO — The wheels of an inventor are turning in Chad Hurley’s head, after leaving the helm of the cultural phenomenon YouTube, which he co-founded, last fall.
This story first appeared in the April 15, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I’ve been enjoying some downtime. Downtime is creative time,” said Hurley, about being off the grid again in the high-tech epicenter of Silicon Valley in Northern California. He’s been so out of pocket that while at the Sundance Film Festival, he missed a presidential invitation for an entrepreneurship event at the White House because he didn’t check his e-mail.
Hurley, 34, now has two projects in his sights — an undisclosed Internet collaboration with YouTube partner Steve Chen and something completely different: expanding a vertically integrated upstart fashion brand, Hlaska, that actually predates his co-inventing YouTube, which was sold to Google Inc. for $1.65 billion in 2006.
The fashion venture — with designs inspired by science, nature, engineering and exploration — has inched forward, starting with select men’s shirts, pants, jackets, watches and a variety of bags that are sold on its e-commerce site and at two stores, one in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights on upper Fillmore Street and another in San Jose’s Santana Row, in Silicon Valley.
This weekend, the brand steps into women’s fashion with six leather purses and totes ($220 to $595), two jackets ($225 and $395), three knit hoodies ($135 to $175) and a wrap cardigan ($165), all made in California using Italian materials.
For men, merchandise includes sturdy canvas and leather briefcases and messenger bags ($200 to $375) made with laptops in mind; weathered waxed cotton sport coats ($375); rugged leather aviator jackets ($550); dress shirts, including a dark brown style called the Scientist ($115), twill pants ($125) and other men’s accoutrement, such as watches ($950) assembled in San Francisco using Swiss movements.
“We have taken our time,” said Hurley, as he gave a tour of the compact Hlaska headquarters, design room and five-sewing-machine factory — a former Silicon Valley auto repair shop in the village of Burlingame that’s now a regular stop for salesmen of Italian fabric and leather.
Designs are conceived by a team of eight apparel and industrial designers with Hurley’s input, and produced in their factory or elsewhere in California and the U.S.
The brand was founded with men and women in their mid-20s to 40s in mind who have creative and technical bents, but without the slightest inclination to dress for the boardroom. “It’s developing products we would use ourselves,” said Hurley, wearing a Hlaska indigo Mariner button-down shirt with the tail out, worn jeans and a Hlaska d-ring canvas belt. Other criteria: “It has to be functional and survive the test of time.”
A fine arts major in graphics, with minors in printmaking and small sculpture, Hurley is drawn to the clean lines and subtle luxury of Italian design, which is also his choice in suits for the rare times he wears one, like the Armani charcoal pinstripe picked for an appearance in 2007 before a U.S. House of Representatives telecommunications committee hearing on the future of video.
However, “I try to absorb all types of style and design. I don’t try and restrict my thinking. I enjoy the old and the new. You need that broad perspective to create something different,” said Hurley, who designed the logos for Hlaska — wordplay on Alaska and Hawaii — and YouTube. Additionally, he designed the emblem for the electronic payment start-up PayPal, which has since been tweaked. Having made an estimated $345.6 million from the YouTube sale, he stepped down as the site’s chief executive officer last October, although he remains an adviser to the company.
Hurley began building his Internet credentials in the Eighties and Nineties, growing up absorbed in the unfolding Web. He tinkered in his family’s Birdsboro, Pa., home, an hour outside of Philadelphia, where he also ran cross-country and track. “I spent quite a bit of time in high school building little electric circuit boards,” he said.
The combination of knowing graphic design and computer code got him a Web designer job at PayPal in 1999, after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It was a year before the Internet economic bubble burst, and “there was a lot of pressure to get it right and get it out,” said David Sacks, PayPal’s first chief operating officer and the founder of Yammer, a social media application. “Chad was responsible for designing the first version of the PayPal Web site. He has a good visual sense and wasn’t just a front-end coder.”
Hurley started Hlaska as a quest for a functional and well-made computer bag in a modern, spare design. He turned to Anthony Mazzei for help, who had a background making messenger and other bags in the Bay Area. Mazzei also shares Hurley’s trial-and-error business style, as well as a shared enjoyment of creating something from scratch. “We’re paving our own road,” said Mazzei.
However, they haven’t entirely been fashion outsiders.
Hurley has the ear of friend and men’s contemporary designer Marc Ecko. Additionally, at an Aspen, Colo., dinner party he talked about Hlaska with Tory Burch, and through channels got advice at Donna Karan. “These brief conversations reaffirm our approach,” Hurley said of taking the long view.
Ecko said Hurley has an “astute view” of popular culture and design. “He’s been on the stage in Davos, around world leaders and has disrupted popular culture with YouTube. He’s not just any guy starting a soft goods business,” Ecko added.
Roelof Botha, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital Partners, who first invested in YouTube, said Hurley understands the importance of “user experience,” whatever he’s making. “A lot of people tried to copy YouTube, but they didn’t understand the nuance of getting the product experience right. That’s part of Chad’s brilliance,” Botha said.
A sports fanatic, Hurley is also part of another business challenge. He’s part of a team of investors who bought the Golden State Warriors basketball team, a perennial underdog in the NBA’s Western Conference that’s based in nearby Oakland.
“I look at building business as a creative process that I enjoy. It would be quite a boring life if you pursued opportunities you already understood,” said Hurley, who sees that the biggest challenge ahead for Hlaska is keeping nimble as it expands to a size he’s not ready to forecast. For the time being, he’s content with progress. “We’re experiencing impressive year-over-year growth. We haven’t seen momentum slow,” he said, declining to reveal specifics.