l i z j o h n s o n - p a t a g o n i a
You know those people who just have that energy about them that you can't describe? Liz is one of them. She introduced Vancouver, BC to Patagonia last year by building an incredible team (family?) and focusing on creating a hub for outdoor adventures and environmental activism. She's a yogi but not one of those 'in your face' yogis, it's subtle and it's appropriate (which is hard to find these days). Above all, Liz has a drive and passion that permeates throughout her work and the life she's created as a West Coast transplant. Did we mention she lives on a boat?
What made you want to be a pioneer for bringing Patagonia to Vancouver?
I had been watching it for a long time and they were hiring a Vancouver store manager and I said “Hmmm, I’m pretty happy where I am but also I have to throw my name in the hat - I can’t not do it. So after a million interviews I was hired in October and I got to do another ten interviews to build my team and I got to do that entirely from scratch which is such a gift. You hardly ever get to do that! The goal of the store is to be a hub for the community that loves the outdoor world and also for environmental activism in Vancouver. I get to be the conductor for my really talented team and work towards goals in those arenas.
That’s amazing! Let’s zoom out a little bit - what were you doing before this?
I went to the University of Toronto with the intention of going to med school so I did the four year undergrad and majored in biology and being a doctor seemed like a really good idea when I was seventeen but then I had a sense and a broader picture of what was out there. I was more into the conservation biology field and loved that so I worked with World Wildlife Fund for a little while and it really whet my appetite for a lot of conservation stuff. I found my way to Lululemon as a part time job and I was a yogi and yoga teacher. It kind of changed my life. I don’t think anyone as a little kid is like “I’m going to work in retail” but a lot of people find their way there and I was really fortunate that I found my way to Lululemon because they taught me so much about leadership and communication and I got all of these cool things out of it - I really learned what it means to focus on people development. When I walked away from Lululemon, that was what I was most excited to take into whatever was next. I always worked in stores for the company - I did some social media stuff and got to come out here and blog the Vancouver Olympics for them in 2010. That was the craziest job ever. They put us up in an apartment and gave us event tickets and we just made videos and wrote blogs all day which was awesome. That was when I fell in love with Vancouver so I moved out here. I thought it might be a temporary move but I totally just nestled in and made my life here.
What a total arc! What would you say is the happiest accident in the whole process of starting the store?
Good question! I don’t know if this is an accident but it’s one of those weird things wherethe universe points you in a direction and it turns out to be a bigger deal than you thought it was. Before I had an actual store and was working on hiring this team, I started to hang out at the Juice Truck just because I liked it and liked doing interviews there. One of my friends, Jess Robson, was like “You need to really do stuff with Zach and Ryan. They’re doing such cool stuff and they love Patagonia - I think you guys could do some cool shit.” So she introduced us and we started chatting. Anyways, they were so keen to get involved - they were one of the vendors at our big grand opening party and now we’re doing all kinds of cool stuff together. We have the Adventure Club going on which is kind of a monthly hike series which is so fun. We also planned an event in early October which was all about rallying the people in our community (the young, hip, kind of slacktivist community) around environmental policies and candidates in the federal elections. It was called ‘Vote for the Environment’ and was all about being an engaging way to get people involved - we had beer and were silk screening t-shirts on site for people, and was just about getting people to rally. What started as a place to have a juice with a stranger turned into a really amazing partnership and friendship.
You talked about Jess, Zach, and Ryan - so how do you see the Vancouver health/wellness/outdoor community. Describe it.
It’s interesting. My perspective has changed a bit since being outside of Lululemon because my life was so in the studio at that time, for a number of years. Now, I am able to shift my field of vision more broadly and look at Adventure Club, for example, and all kinds of cool run clubs. I live in Squamish now so just my realm of understanding of what’s out there has really expanded. Maybe it was the time that I moved here, but Vancouver has a real advantage in that it’s tapped into social media. I guess that’s everywhere but there are a lot of cool, young upstart companies that have been able to leverage that and do amazing things with it. I’m thinking of the Juice Truck as just one example, they’re super successful in their marketing. Also Tight Club, the East Van Run Club, and the Distrikt (they’re amazing). There are a lot of cool, young, and engaged people whose focuses are fitness and health and yoga but they’re broadcasting it in a way that’s so sexy. It’s like “Man, I want to go hiking!”. No matter how somebody gets there, sometimes you have to tie their shoes up for them and sometimes they grew up hiking with their parents, it’s no different. As long as people are getting out there and getting after it. I think that social media is where young people are and that’s the way to get at them. I’m so inspired by those businesses and particularly the way that they’re communicating messages.
I think you’re spot on. The community has become smaller through social media and it’s so easy to feel like you know brands and are a part of them in this city. But back to your role at the store - what was your vision for it?
My favorite thing is mashing two people together and seeing what they come up with. So I wanted it to be a conduit for two people to meet each other and collaborate. That was something that I did at Lululemon and it was the coolest thing. I’d meet a yoga teacher and they’d say “I really want to work on a website” and then I’d tell them someone who I thought would be great to help them with it. I would just set them up on a date and let them go! It’s not about me, it’s about how I put them together. What’s cool about my role here at the store is that I get to create a community from scratch and really connect the communities that I know who relate to Patagonia’s message about environmental activism and doing no unnecessary harm in the world. Just the quality aspect of it. I’m building a web of ‘my people’ and so at the heart of it, I began by thinking “What kind of hub do we want this to be”. It’s a community of people who aren’t afraid to stir shit up. It’s great to be given that long of a leash to make a statement and feel really supported.
"I’m building a web of ‘my people’ and so at the heart of it, I began by thinking 'What kind of hub do we want this to be'".
If you were to say the one key to creating community, what would you say they are?
I have this gift (or maybe it’s a curse) of loving to talk to strangers. When I moved to Vancouver people told me it wasn’t a very friendly city (keep in mind that I grew up in a place that I’m pretty sure is the friendliest city on the planet). When I got there I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about - it’s just the same as everywhere else. You have to come from a place of never judging people or assuming that you’re in a place where there aren’t people worth knowing. You can find people everywhere. So I guess I would just say it comes down to trusting that even if someone doesn’t say hi back in the elevator, it’s not personal. You can just try the next person. The more people I know, the more connections I can create. I would also say it’s meaningful relationships. It’s asking yourself “How can I follow up with people and create trust?”. Send thank you notes! It’s going over to the coffeeshop across the street that brought us coffee during the opening week and having all of my performance reviews there so I can support their business and get to know them. It’s hard work but commitment to relationships and not letting anyone fall by the wayside is so, so important.
Obviously the outdoors means a lot to you and a lot of people in Vancouver. How does nature play a role in your life?
When I started at Patagonia, my life had kind of shifted from being in the studio and in the city to being in the mountains and the ocean. Through that, I found that even when I was at Lululemon I would leave work and change out of my tights into jeans and boots and go out onto our boat in Squamish. It felt like my clothes fit me more - the way my wardrobe shifted was a reflection of how my life was shifting...or something like that. Now I feel like I don’t have to change my clothes anymore when I leave work, I’m wearing them all the time! I live on a boat, we just moved onto it, and in the mornings we’ll hop into our little Zodiac, put our coffee in thermoses, and zip out onto the open water somewhere to let the boat drift. Then we’ll drink our coffee and pet the dogs and talk about the day. Even if it’s just 20 minutes, it’s fresh air and a little bit of sunshine on your face. It’s a small reminder that the things I think are a big deal...aren’t. For me, it’s mostly the ocean. I grew up racing sailboats and when I went to school in Ontario, it felt like that was a hole in my life. Now I’m really lucky to actually live floating on the ocean every day.
Tell us about boat life!
My partner Simon and I bonded over the ocean really early on in our relationship and we would fantasy boat shop just like some people house shop! It’s totally a project of love. Our boat is wooden and was built in 1949. It was a navy patrol boat, then a diving boat, then a guy turned it into a cruiser, and now it’s our house. When I told my dad we were doing this he said, “You know, a wooden boat is a hole that you’re going to keep pouring money into”. But we’re not paying rent, so we’re just going for it. We pulled the trigger and bought it in April. It’s 45 feet and we live on it with our three dogs. It’s off the shore so we have a rowboat to go back and forth and we have a solar panel that charges all of our things and our lights. We have a propane camping stove. We carry water across in big jugs. It’s a good reminder of how resourceful you can actually be and so far so good! We’ll see how I feel about it in February! It’s an adventure that we both wanted to sign up for. I’m sure this is true if you’re a homeowner as well but for some reason living on a boat, I feel like the stakes are higher if something goes wrong because you’ll sink! Every time we fix something, especially if it’s mechanical, we’re so proud of ourselves. Like “Yeah, Youtube just taught me how to replace a gasket on our water pump! That’s amazing!”. I’ve never had to do that before so I feel really confident now that I can figure stuff out.
Do you have any daily rituals or routines?
When my life is out of balance, the symptom that I notice first is that I hit my snooze button too many times in the morning and then I have to scramble to get dressed and rush to work. The ritual that I make time for (and if I’m not making time for it then I need to slap myself) is giving myself a good chunk of time in the morning. Having the dogs is a good catalyst for that because I have to row them over to the shore for them to do their business while I just stand there with my coffee. That’s the morning ritual - it’s our little fur family organization for the day. Taking care of these creatures makes me slow down. I generally schedule myself to close at the store which store managers don’t typically do. I come in later in the day because I like having mornings at home. I get to put in some time with my family and it’s a good way to start the day with a level head.
"It’s weird but people need to give you permission to really talk to them and that’s something I so value - people who are open to connection and conversation."
What is the first thing that you notice about people?
This is going to sound so ‘yogi’ but I look for the vibes that people are putting out. I look for eye contact, handshakes, hugs, smiles, and warmth. The store feels like it’s our home. We put so much work and effort into it and spend so much time there that when someone comes in it’s like, “Hello, welcome to my house!” Because I know that feeling, I’m always looking for people who are inviting me in. It’s weird but people need to give you permission to really talk to them and that’s something I so value - people who are open to connection and conversation. I think working retail has taught me to read that quite well actually. Sometimes someone comes in and tells you all about themselves and exactly what they need that jacket for. Sometimes people want to keep their head down and do their own thing. That’s not wrong either. My intention is that we create connections but if we can’t do that, at least we can find them what they need for their next adventure.
Who inspires you?
I think the person who comes to me right now is Simon, my fiancé. He works really hard as a paramedic. He’s on the search and rescue team in Squamish. We have a working dog named Ketchup who is trained to find lost people in the woods, which is so amazing. He’s so committed to that and he works so hard. He’s also so committed to loving his life and us loving our life together. He’s super ambitious and will be like “You know what, you love being on the water and this is what we do for fun so we should start a charter business and take people out on the water. We can have a website and this can be a part of our life”. Even when we have a day off he’s asking what we can do next and it’s totally exhausting. Sometimes I just want to drink my coffee but I also look back at how much we’ve achieved over the past couple of years and it’s pretty amazing. I’m really grateful for that.
What is your mantra?
This is an easy one for me actually. I have it tattooed on my body so I look at it every day. It’s sanskrit and people always ask me about it which is great because I can say it out loud a lot. The word is santosha and it basically means contentment and satisfaction with your life. The part that I love about it is being responsible for your own happiness and not putting that responsibility on anyone else around you. You are responsible for how you act, how you react, and how you take situations and make something good out of them.
All of these incredible photos were taken by Liz's fiancé, Simon Hayter. Check out more of his work here: