Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Vaping, smoking’s technologically sophisticated and supposedly safer alternative, is inescapable. Despite its sudden rise ("vape" was Oxford Dictionaries's 2014 word of the year), vaping is largely uncool: a metal tube at the lips isn’t nonchalant and it certainly isn't sexy.
One company has managed to transcend the category’s clunky shortcomings and emerge as the "cool" vaporizer, thanks in part to a brilliant alignment with the fashion world. Pax, a San Francisco-based company which aims to "disrupt and redefine the future of smoking," makes two products, Pax and Juul, which are, without a doubt, more visually pleasing than the box-style vaporizers and blue-tipped e-cigs that dominate their respective spaces. (For the uninitiated, vaporizers turn the act of smoking — tobacco, marijuana, what have you — from a harsh cloud to a lovely whisper.) In addition to making a product that looks good, Pax has managed to successfully market itself in a way other vape brands haven’t: as a fashion accessory.
A major step in Pax's smart direction of stylish accessory has been through aligning itself with fashion boutiques. Typically, a vaporizer is something you buy in a head shop; Pax entered fashion stores in March of this year, choosing to launch its redesigned Pax2 product exclusively with Odin. The downtown Manhattan menswear shop sells lines like Acne Studios, Rag & Bone, and Common Projects — terrifically cool company for a smoking device. In the following months, Pax added number of boutiques across the US to its roster: Notre in Chicago, Tenet in Southampton, both of Opening Ceremony's Manhattan locations (including the outpost saddled inside the achingly hip Ace hotel), and LA's American Rag. Each store partnership has been toasted like any good fashion launch with a VIP party replete with a DJ, drinks, and famous faces.
"Fashion, not just from a designer standpoint but from a retail standpoint, allows us to accomplish multiple things," Pax CMO Richard Mumby tells Racked by phone of the company's decision to push distribution through boutiques. For one, fashion-focused stores contextualize the slim, aluminum vessel as an object of design. "There’s a lot of stigma in the vaporizer space," he admits. "It’s cluttered and confusing and there’s opportunity for a premium brand to help redefine the category all together."
Merchandized next to selvedge denim and leather sneakers, the smoking device reads as sexy and subversive. "We spend a lot of time training the retail staff so they can talk about the product knowingly," says Mumby, whose resume includes time at Bonobos and Gilt Man. "This is a new product category for them to sell. We're making sure they can clearly articulate the product's benefits and uses in a way that people understand clearly."
Physically getting in front of the fashion customer, a shopper who gives a damn about good design and isn't afraid to part with a significant coin to look cool (the Pax2 rings in at $280), is another major advantage. "It’s easy for those of us who follow the vaporizer market to think that everybody knows about them," Mumby furthers. "Even if you’ve heard of the category, many people have never had one of them in their hand," he explains, "or they don’t know where they can buy it."
Citing "changing attitudes across culture" — he can't confirm on the record, but it's a given that we're both thinking about the increased legalization, and resultant acceptance, of cannabis — Pax is expertly seizing the fashion customer early on. "No [competing] brand has connected to consumers in this space," he says.
"Pax wasn't an obvious choice," admits Notre's Rob Wilce, "but we pride ourselves on offering a full lifestyle experience and we were thrilled to be able to introduce the Pax2 to our client base. It's a new way to interact with our customers on yet another facet of their lives." That it's a pretty object to have in-store helps: Caleb Lin says he added Pax to the American Rag's mix, which includes pieces from London talent Marques Almeida and Rihanna's instantly sold-out Puma creeper sneakers, because of its "sense of simplicity, design, and technology." Mumby explains "the same designers that approach our product's design come from schools with Apple product designers. There is thoughtfulness, care, and concern to building an exceptional consumer experience from the product standpoint."
"There is a cultural movement for the categories that we're in; a cultural acceptance that’s happening," Mumby explains. "The overall category is growing well and we're uniquely positioned in a few ways," he furthers. "One, our product is the premium of the category that we're in. Second, we're capitalized well to realize the growth that we want. And third, our consumers include really influential, creative, interesting people," he boasts. "Fashion, art, and music aren't just hollow words [for us]. They're very clear areas of connections that we already have and are looking for interesting and relevant ways to magnify."
The growth tract includes adding stockists in Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and overseas, and it sounds like they'll be equally impressive stores to be associated with. "All of the dream stores are honestly in negotiation," Mumby says when asked about the shops he'd love to see Pax in. "We've raised almost 50 million dollars this year, and one of the critical parts of that investment has been to drive our geographic growth," he furthers. Our phone call takes place before he boards a plane to Europe to meet with boutique owners there. "Europe has a surprisingly fragmented acceptance of the vaporization product category," he explains. "It is very different country by country. Adapting to each country in a thoughtful way is going to take a lot of effort." He compares Pax's expansion to that of GoPro, the action camera brand. "GoPro succeeded in the US and as they continued to expand and unfold their retail channels domestically, they moved forward internationally in a very thoughtful way," he says. "We have a very similar approach."
Maintaining close ties with the fashion community and the adjacent cultural worlds of art, music, film, and so on, is also part of Pax's long term strategy. So far it sounds like it's been mutually beneficial: Mumby says "the fashion space allows us to introduce our brand to a new customer and it drives significant incremental revenue to these stores," which Odin's Paul Birardi confirms, saying, "it's a new type of business, so we have no real comparable product," but as far as expected sell-through goes, "we're happy with the sales."
"We’re hoping people see that we are really committed to this category," Mumby says, "and we're not doing a single Fashion Week sponsorship and then walking away because we got a couple [profits]."