I was born in the mountainous region of Idaho. My formative experiences with nature included watching foraging herds of elk come within a stone's throw of our home and the sight and cacophony of Canadian geese migrating high overhead. At the age of six, I enjoyed the freedom to venture into the wilderness, and with ongoing years my boundaries expanded to high-altitude forests, alpine streams and crystal lakes reached on foot and horseback. My companion throughout that 'golden' period was a large Scotch Collie by the name of Prince, we were inseparable.
In my early twenties, the wanderlust that formed my childhood lead me throughout South America, Spain, Portugal and the Middle East. These experiences inspired the beginning of my own business in 1976, a startup in my parents' garage.
This is it.
1975 - 1976
An Improbable Beginning
After completing University in the fall of 1975, I sought an international position in banking and headed to San Francisco for an interview with Bank of America. Shortly thereafter I flew to New York, to meet with Citibank, NA. My visit coincided with an ABA (American Bankers' Association) convention, which my father, then Chairman and CEO of a chain of banks in Idaho was attending. I accompanied him to an evening function where I had the honor of meeting Walt Wriston, then Citibank's Chairman and CEO.
Taking advantage of being in NYC, and just prior to my Citibank interviews I visited Bloomingdales for the first time. While walking through the men's section, I saw some leather jackets that had been produced in Uruguay. Having had the opportunity to live in that country several years prior I became intrigued with the idea of starting my own business as an international importer. The following day I had 5-intensive back to back interviews with Citibank. Upon entering a manager's office for the final and 5th interview and before sitting down he asked why I didn't have an MBA? I replied that it was my intention to earn the degree in the evenings or take a leave of absence after a few years, so as to have an understanding of the tools I'd want from the higher courses. The manager, who I estimated to be in his early 30's, advised that something had bothered him in my other interviews, stating; You're too confident. With some surprise I explained that what he might have assumed as being overly sure of myself was simply that I was comfortable in a banking atmosphere. He queried as to why I would feel that way, and I explained that I'd grown up in a banking family going back to my great grandfather, and that I'd worked as a teller during high school summers in my father's bank. He asked about the specific institution and advised that in three months' time, given his experience with Citibank, he could run my father's corporation far better than dad. Up until that moment my impression was that he was simply trying to rattle me and see how I'd hold up with the cross examining approach, but upon further reflection I understood he was serious and in that instant, I realized that he or someone like him might one day judge me by the length of my hair, color of my tie, etc., and that for those reasons alone my opportunity to advance could be questioned. Sensing that the interview had run its course I thanked him for his time and proceeded to the Correspondent Banker's desk, occupied by Steve Paneyko, who at the time oversaw relationships with sister banks of Citibank, one of which was my father's. Steve was a friend and I asked if I could use his phone to call the Uruguayan Consulate General. I didn't have a clue as to who the Uruguayan official was, but it made sense that if I were to design and import leather jackets from his country the Consulate General would be a best place to start. In retrospect, that was the first of many times I employed a formula that often opened doors others considered locked, a formula based on being mercifully free from the ravages of intelligence! I was invited to the Uruguayan embassy at once. Catching a cab in front of the bank I headed to Battery Place in lower Manhattan, where within minutes of my arrival I was granted an audience with a very gracious Consulate General. Upon listening to my interest in producing leather outerwear in his country, the Consulate General scheduled a meeting for me with the Head General of Exportation in Montevideo, the capitol of Uruguay.
Upon returning to Boise, I met with my father who was also my best friend and confidant. I recounted my experiences with the visit to Bloomingdales, the bank interviews, meeting with the Consulate General and the opportunity to meet the Head General of Exportation in Montevideo. I then made my pitch, asking that my father allow me to use the funds set aside for a Master's in Business Administration to begin a startup I knew nothing about. I can only imagine the thoughts coursing through my father's head but with an open mind and heart he handed me a significantly large P&L (Profit and Loss Projection) from an important corporation and suggested I study the contents and use it as a guide for my own planning. With a somewhat tongue in cheek smile he advised that were my business to fail, I would be a teller in Boise, Idaho for a long while to come! My Spanish major and double minors in Psych and Econ poorly equipped me for the task, but nonetheless I emerged after several days of study and presented the least expensive routing possible to Montevideo, Uruguay, with subsequent selling trips to the Northwest and San Francisco. My expenses projected Motel 6, which in those days derived its name from an actual $6.00 x night room charge. With gasoline at 59-cents/gallon, my business was hatched, and on January 1, 1976, I boarded the first of many connecting flights to Uruguay.
To save $50.00 I added an extra stop in Rio de Janeiro, with a connecting flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, just a 55-minute hop over the Rió de Plata river to Montevideo. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the person sitting next to me deboarded and an American took his place. As the plane started down the runway, I explained my upcoming plans to the new seatmate who asked for my business card, I didn't have one, so he gave me his explaining that he worked in the US Embassy as a liaison with local export businesses. He invited me to give him a call if I were unsuccessful with the contacts awaiting my visit. The next morning, I visited the Head General of Exportation who scheduled appointments with several leather outerwear manufacturers/exporters. To my dismay, each of the manufacturers advised I was too small to be considered a worthwhile client, and on the following rainy morning I sat in my hotel room calculating the dollars I'd already spent from my MBA fund. It was then that I remembered the fellow from the embassy, and I removed the card from my wallet and phoned. My new acquaintance advised that a 50-year-old tannery producing cow and steer hides had recently started a garment factory and therefore might possibly be interested in supporting my ambitions. I caught a cab to the factory and met with the owner-director, Dr. Jose Carlos Pena, affectionately known as Chichi, who became a tremendous supporter.
During my stay I created a small collection of men's leather jackets, with which I returned to Boise, to begin my first sales trip to the Northwest and to attend my first ever trade shows in San Diego and New York. To my amazement, I sold Bloomingdales my very first season.
By necessity the learning curve for importing, warehousing and shipping customers was short and steep. I converted my parents' garage into two rows of double hanging racks and to save costs on materials paid late afternoon visits behind the Bon Marché (which years later would become Macy's), to reclaim the cardboard boxes they'd received and thrown out from other vendors unpacked and discarded. Back in the garage I would remove the old labels and with a felt marker, print the addresses of my newfound retail accounts, pack and ship the orders. This seemed a simple enough process until the merchandise began arriving at destinations around the country. One early morning, when the family phone rang, I was in the basement or world headquarters of Robert Comstock, and answered with one word, 'Comstock,' which could represent the Comstock family or my fledgling business. The caller asked to be connected with the warehouse. In those days the phones were rotary dial, so I asked the buyer to please hold and then placed my finger on the #1 hole moving it to the end of the rotation. I then called out to my mother who was upstairs in her kitchen yelling; Mom, answer the phone and tell them you're the shipping dept.! Always game, my mother answered in her most professional tone; Shipping Department, which gave me enough time to dash upstairs and out to the garage for a quick inventory and reply to the caller's enquiry.
First ad with RC leather bomber jackets
An Early Miracle
In the fall of 1977, I presented my collection of leather jackets at a NYC trade show in the Statler Hilton. A buyer by the name of Kenny Rodriguez from Merry Go Round, a large fashion retail chain, stepped into my room and after a brief review of my wares, he began to fill out an order. My business was barely a year old and up until that time I was the only employee in my enterprise and barely able to cover expenses. Kenny filled out a significant amount of order forms and when finished thanked me for my time and wished me luck. Not knowing Merry Go Round was such a significant enterprise, I began totaling up my order. To my utter amazement the total amount exceeded $800,000.00. Dumbfounded by such incredible good fortune, I suddenly found myself on an emotional roller coaster, from an incredible high quickly followed by the sobering realization that I didn't have the collateral required to produce an order of that magnitude. But good fortune was on my side, when Chichi from Uruguay, agreed to ship the entire order on open account. Once produced and imported I shipped my production to Merry Go Round, Bloomingdales and others, and after collecting the receivables was able to pay Chichi in full and focus on building a serious business.
Finding my direction and philosophy
In an industry I knew little about I was synergized by the thrill of exploring world-renowned tanneries and mills, often in countries I'd previously explored but never before discovering raw materials created by revered craftsmen using a blend of modern technology and age-old methodologies. Intricately woven and knitted cashmere, linen and baby alpaca, and the supple hand and smell of expertly tanned Spanish lamb were elements that spoke to me. The materials themselves divined what they should become in wearable art.
Oldest Tannery in Vic, Spain, 1795
AN EARLY CATALOGUE
International Expansion In the spring of 1979, I was perched on a stepladder with a hammer in hand building my booth in what would become the well-known MAGIC show, where retailers from around the world came to purchase American collections. Three Japanese gentlemen approached and asked; Is Mr. Comstock here? Because the only Mr. Comstock I knew was my father, the CEO of a chain of banks in Idaho, I asked; Why would my father be here? Surprised that such a young fellow dressed in cutoff jeans and a T-shirt was the individual they were looking for, they enquired if I would be able to ship 300 - leather jackets at a time. While thinking to myself that this was the opportunity I'd been waiting for, I replied that this was no problem. The three men were led by Hiroshi Takaku, whose family owned of 500-men's clothing stores in Japan called Taka-Q. Over the years Hiroshi and I became close friends. He called me Cowboy and I dubbed him Samurai. He'd attended Tokyo University and played rugby, and he taught me a great deal about his culture. Over a 12-year relationship we grew the business to over 50,000 units worth sixteen-million dollars per year, and we distributed to nearly every one of the 47-prefectures in Japan.
On the first morning of each visit to Tokyo, Mr. and Mrs. Takaku, Hiroshi's parents, would arrange a greeting at their head office, where oftentimes over 200-staff members would line the street and entry way awaiting my arrival with flowers and applause. I'd never experienced anything like it. The business was to continue into the early '90s.
Mrs. Takaku with my staff
Taka-Q marketing in Japan
Taka-Q Fashion Mail
THE MARTY, 1st annual West Coast fashion award
My first national editorial
My vocation and avocation became one. Often times I organized expeditions that were simultaneously conservation pursuits. At 29 I organized a canoe trip with close friends down the Amazon tributaries.
As a young boy, the Amazon by name and reputation intrigued my every sense. The thought of paddling the faster running upper-most tributaries between Ecuador and Peru was mystical. With a successful business by my late twenties, I knew it was time.
On a flight from Denver to NY, I engaged in conversation with the chairman of an international company called Sweepster about my intended expedition. This new friend referred me to his ties in Quito, to whom I was able to ship the white-water canoes and necessary gear for me and five teammates.
The selection process of my fellow adventurers was based on personal friendships with a fireman paramedic (first aid and emergency skills), an Austrian Ski Instructor (meal planning), a fashion retail buyer from Minneapolis (Photographer), a bohemian type Turkish friend living in DC (canoeing, climbing and white-water skills) and a NY tax attorney (an adventuresome spirit with zero outdoor experience!). The only connection the five men had with one another at the time was their friendship with me.
We were interested in taking firearms for protection but knew that transporting weapons internationally would be a challenge. Always an optimist, I contemplated on the unlikelihood of the head General of the Ecuadorian Army receiving many calls from the US, summarily called their Embassy in NYC, and requested his number. Within five minutes we were speaking with one another about the upcoming adventure.
Upon arrival in Quito, we were met on the tarmac by Colonel Rodriquez, who escorted us directly into the war room to review topical maps of the intended route and notify the military outposts that we were 'friends'. The Colonel warned the team that because Ecuador and Peru were at war, the Peruvian side of the river would not take kindly to a team of Yankees with Ecuadorian stamped passports. We were treated as honored guests by the General’s staff and every hundred miles or so in our descent we’d come upon a jungle regiment at the water’s edge who welcomed us.
Entering the green:
After the military briefing, a day of acclimatizing to the area, prepping the canoes and assembling our gear, we set out on what may have been the most precarious leg of the experience.
The only route to the tributaries we sought to navigate was an old dirt road built by Shell Oil for oil and gas exploration. Built for single ingress and egress, the locals plied the route as if it were a thoroughfare in micro-buses stuffed to the gills with farmers, produce and livestock. On mountain passes shrouded in clouds, drivers with the heaviest feet were the victors at contested switchbacks and hairpin turns. Those forced to the outside skidded on eroding mud embankments where the little gravel that existed spilled down into the verdant gorges and pastoral valleys below. After loading our watercraft, tents and equipment on top of one such vehicle, we were given the window seats on what would be the outside edge of the ascent; it was no safer than the inside track, but a lot more attention-grabbing.
After hours of travel through amazing vistas, the bus arrived at what could only be compared to a wild-wild west frontier town. A single mud street with an almacén (local store) for the barest essentials, one mechanic’s shop and what appeared to be a two-story brothel made up the outpost.
The beginning of the river and a limitless future:
We portaged our canoes a few hundred yards and entered the headwaters of the Río Aguarico (“rich water”). Rounding the first bend we saw a beautifully colored yellow and black beaked Toucan perched atop a tall hardwood tree. I commented to Paul, who paddled in the front of our canoe, “Paul, think of how many guys are married back home with a wife, a nice little house, two kids, a big-screen TV and a ski-boat in the garage… and here we are pal!” Life had never felt so free and limitless.
Sundown and Bullet Ants:
We quickly learned that sundown and sunrise came almost instantaneously, as if someone flipped a master switch on and off. Securing safe camping spots at the end of each day’s paddle could not be delayed. On one particular evening, I was the last to secure my canoe and carry my gear to a clearing where the others were already tying their hammocks to carefully selected trees, so as to suspend their bodies a safe distance from the ground. One of the intrepid explorers affectionately referred to his top-of-the-line hammock as The Jungle Hilton. Anacondas reaching over 20 feet had previously been spotted, and the thought of sharing sleeping bags with a constrictor was not on our list. Given that the prime spots were taken, I spied two young trees with an ideal separation, but as I approached I noted a stump in between the two trunks with an extremely active colony of Bullet Ants, each an inch long. A vine, seven feet up and spanning from one tree to the other, was traversed by other members of the community. My companions looked on incredulously as I, with an air of smugness, began fastening my hammock to the two trees and attached Visqueen sheeting directly to the vine, so as to protect me from the nightly rain showers. My university studies in 500-level Comparative Psychology had taught me that ants follow a formic acid trail from which they do not deviate when collecting from a previously scouted food source.
The longest night:
Upon finishing our dinner of freeze-dried stroganoff, I returned to my sleeping quarters and began to unzip the entry into my hammock. Unlike The Jungle Hilton, my hammock was of the Army-Navy surplus variety. As I slid the zipper from right to left, it became irretrievably stuck at the half-way point of its trajectory. With the challenge of only half an entry, I faced my back to the hammock, placed both hands mid-center of the newly configured opening and leaped up backward into the structure. With my posterior planted in the wobbly nest I assumed a fetal position, pulling my knees to my chin and pivoting right so my feet could clear the sidewall of mosquito netting. Just as I was about to congratulate myself on a successful entry my toe caught on the portal causing the apparatus to twist violently, dumping me instantaneously onto the stump below. As I scrambled to my feet I received the first bite; it felt as though my left wrist had been torn off by a shotgun blast. As I looked down on a sleeping bag swarming with the insects another bit my chest and the heavens opened up with the nightly downpour. Surveying the situation, I had no choice but to head down to my canoe resting on the bank. As I lied on my back like a corpse in a coffin, I thought of the heat my body was giving off – an open invitation to the 20-foot anacondas we’d seen earlier and any other number of creepy crawling night hunters. Lying there with the throbbing pain of the stings and the pelting rain on my uncovered body I pondered the long night ahead. Out of nowhere, something bumped into my canoe causing it to lurch sideways, and for whatever reason the desperation of the moment transformed from anxiety into aggression. With a yell, I lurched upward to blindly face my unknown foe, but in that instantaneous ascent the bridge of my nose and forehead collided violently with the strut of the canoe overhead – I fell backwards as quickly as I’d risen. Whatever had struck my abode was not heard or felt for the rest of the night, and I was left with the rain and pain that kept cadence with my heartbeat until sunrise.”
[The Bullet Ant stretches almost 1.5 inches in length and is known as the first of the top-10 insect stings. The sting contains a neurotoxin so powerful that only a few bites can take down a grown human being. It is called a Bullet Ant because the initial bite is equal to being shot]
Myths and Dolphins:
Legend has it that the Boto (Amazon River Dolphin) can change into a handsome young man or woman with great seduction abilities. At night, a female dolphin becomes a beautiful young woman, an encantada or enchantress. She visits the home of a married man, places him under a trance, and takes him to a secret hideaway. Thereafter, she meets him on the same night for seven-years, at which point she changes him into an infant and places the baby into the womb of the man’s wife–a circle of life.
One afternoon after a cleansing rain and deep in thought, I was paddling a placid section of the river when only a foot to my left the rarely sighted Boto or Pink Amazon River Dolphin exploded into a perfect arc. Though only a fraction of a second in duration, the memory remains an indelible photograph in my mind. To my knowledge I wasn’t seduced, but I was left to contemplate the wonders we were experiencing. In these upper tributaries, never did we see other humans beyond the occasional indigenous tribes and the few military outposts of Ecuadorian soldiers. Experiencing nature for days at a time as a solitary group of friends brought about an inner connection and sense of peace not found in civilization.
Bananas and Bedbugs:
We’d completed another long day of canoeing and were looking for a takeout point when we came upon a deserted Indian village. A small grouping of ripe banana trees and perfectly constructed thatched huts were set on stilts, obviously to protect the former inhabitants from rising water levels. We stood perplexed in the eerie silence observing charred fire pits where others had once gathered for communal meals, storytelling and social events. Feeling very much like intruders, we walked the village’s perimeter but found no one. Somewhat emboldened, I climbed the ladder to enter one of the high-rise domains about the size of a gazebo on a quaint country estate. Crossing the threshold, I instantly gagged as a horrible stench filled my nostrils and lungs. Soon, others who’d climbed up and into the remaining dwellings had the same reaction. Whatever had driven the tribe away had to have been a significant disease or pestilence–I couldn’t get out fast enough. Much to my astonishment, Howie, our NYC Tax Attorney and a lecturer at NYU, decided that the comfort of staying dry for the night far outweighed the oppressive smell of the dwellings. Because it was getting late, Paul and I along with another duo decided to tether some of the canoes and create a makeshift platform floating atop the water. Luckily, we had very little precipitation that night. We were only able to achieve intermittent rest, but we prided ourselves in being able to make do with little. When Howie and his canoe mate Hussein emerged from their hut, there wasn’t a single centimeter on their bodies that didn’t have festering red bite marks. However, both seemed to recover quickly over the next day or so with no lingering illnesses.
Our team member from Austria was a self-proclaimed snake aficionado, who kept a 12-foot anaconda and an 8-foot python roaming freely in his home. On one overcast afternoon, he spied a large anaconda sleeping atop a stout branch above the river. Standing up in the front of the canoe, he requested his rightfully concerned companion to stealthily paddle him alongside the snake at eye level. Anacondas are basically apex predators, and as such he felt confident in approaching the docile creature. Carefully guiding the butterfly net towards the animal’s head with his right hand, he deftly brought up his left to grab its side. As he inched closer the serpent began to flick its tongue, signaling its awakening.
The rapid in-and-out movement of the snake’s tongue samples the air, picking up different chemicals. Upon reentry, the tongue touches the top of the vomeronasal organ, determining the makeup of the outside elements–though they have nostrils, this ability provides an even greater sense of smell. The scent of the nylon net and man’s arm had to have been uncommon compared to the plants and forest debris to which the creature was accustomed. Just as Howie was about to lunge, the anaconda shot forward to grasp his clenched hand. Due to Howie’s quick reflex and considerable luck, the snake missed net’s handle–both the animal and apparatus plunged heavily into the water. It was clear to each of us that had it grasped its target, both man and snake would have disappeared into the muddy runoff below.
Wasps don’t make good bedmates:
Upon exiting the river another early evening for camp setup, I heard a loud yell from my dear friend Paul, the fireman paramedic and expedition’s emergency medical guru. He’d begun cutting limbs with his machete as ballast for his Jungle Hilton, hands down the best hammock on the expedition. As he did so, he inadvertently disturbed an entire nest of black wasps. I watched from 20 yards away as Paul ran faster than I’d thought possible for a big man. A black sphere the size of a basketball was in pursuit and gaining as he ran hell-bent for the river’s safety–10 feet, 8, 6, 4, 2… and a micro-second before the swarm engulfed his shirtless back, rivaling any Olympian, Paul pierced the water in a headfirst dive. After several encirclements, the airborne nest veered off and headed back into the forest. Our very wet but relieved companion selected a new site.
Prior to the wasps’ charge, we’d stowed our canoes well away from the bank; the water line could rise as much as 10 to 15 feet depending on the nightly downpours. After Paul was resettled and we were preparing our meal, out of nowhere an indigenous tribe emerged from the forest, no doubt in wonderment and search of the sounds emitted from the earlier ruckus. They stood motionless observing the six of us, and with no common language we returned their gaze with smiles seeming out-of-place. Noticing that our canoes were out of sight, Paul whispered to me, “You know what they’re thinking don’t you… ‘How’d they get here?!’”
What glows in the dark:
One evening we decided to canoe throughout the night, so as to observe the nocturnal life on the river. Aside from the river a myriad of Bats darted about like shooting stars as the elongated snouts and retinas of Caiman Crocodiles reflected the beams from our electric torches like landing lights on a never-ending runway.
What goes down must come up:
After a week and several days of paddling down the Aguarico, we came to its emptying point into the Napo River. From there we had a day’s paddle up the Napo, a much larger river with heavier currents. Every hundred yards or so we’d cling to overhanging branches to rest our arms and catch our breath before the next leapfrog sprint. Late in the afternoon, a very long dugout canoe made from one of the plentiful hardwood trees came flying upriver, powered by a sizable outboard motor–common craft for the Napo. We frantically hailed it down and gladly paid the asking price to tow our tired bodies and canoes in the northerly route.
When it became too dark to navigate we were forced to disembark on a pier that framed a couple of huts powered with generators and lit by kerosene lanterns. We purchased a meal (primarily made of boiled rice) and laid our sleeping bags on the thatched floor of our ‘dining room’. Worn out from the day’s events, I quickly fell asleep.
Some time after the last lantern was snuffed out and the din of the generator gave way to the sounds of the forest, I was half awakened in-between dreams and consciousness with the odd sensation of something gnawing on the tip of my nose. Having become accustomed to many strange sensations over the previous nights I did not react with a swat as one might in civilization, but merely opened my eyes. To my surprise, I was looking into another set of orbs much smaller than my own. I wasn’t sure which of us was startled the most, but the fully-grown rat’s retreat was much faster than what I was capable of.
With the sunrise came the normal mix of sunshine and rain. As our dugout skimmed up the Napo, we reflected on our experiences and pondered over warm showers and clean table cloths with multiple courses. Just one more journey on a micro-bus and it would all be ours!
Fashion editorials about me began to appear in GQ, Esquire, and newspapers across America.
Ringo Star wearing a RC bomber jacket with a John Lennon pin shortly after Lennon’s death.
I was honored to receive the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Award 1982
Inspired by nature and worldwide cultures my designs took on a distinctly recognizable look
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
THE CAMEL TROPHY 1982
Timing is Everything:
In 1980, I’d canoed the beginning tributaries of the Amazon River, and in the early part of `82, wondered what might be my next expedition. While presenting my collection in Las Vegas at an outdoor trade fair I met Yvon Chouinard, the creator and owner of Patagonia. I asked him what he thought might be the remotest area in the world to plan an adventure. Yvon inquired asked what I’d done previously and upon sharing my experiences in the Amazon, he stated that the only place to go would be Papua New Guinea. He spoke about stone age tribes still existing in the highlands, and I immediately knew I’d found my adventure. Incredulously, only a few weeks later I picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine, which ran an advertisement sponsored by Camel GT Racing and British Leyland Land Rover, announcing tryouts for an American team to compete against drivers from the Netherlands, Germany and Italy in a 1,500-mile rally through the highlands of Papua New Guinea. It was too good to be true! The only problem was that the application deadline had come and gone two days prior.
Never one to ponder lost opportunities or closed doors, I reached out to a fellow Idahoan, by the name of Kenny Hamilton, who appeared in the local newspaper the same day I’d read about the rally. Kenny was the first person from our state to pass the Indianapolis 500 rookie test, and was set to race the coming Labor Day. I called Kenny to introduce myself, and asked if he’d be interested in trying out with me as co-drivers for the Camel Trophy tryouts. My thinking was that he’d do the lion share of the driving and I’d be the navigator. Kenny was game for the challenge but stressed that his sole experience was flat track, and that off Road would be totally new for him. I hurriedly put together a press kit of sorts and sent it to the NY address advertised in the periodical, replete with photos of my Amazon expedition, fashion articles and Kenny’s write-up as a professional Indy pilot. Within two days I received a phone call from the races organizers advising that Kenny and I were invited to go to Sears Point, outside of San Francisco, where we’d compete against a field of 30- other men; the field was to be narrowed down to four representing America.
Quote from the Camel Trophy Website:
By 1982 Camel Trophy had attracted interest from a number of other countries and was well on the way to becoming a truly international event. For the third Camel Trophy, two teams from Holland, Germany, Italy and the United States participated.
The location selected was the island of New Guinea, lying to the north of Australia, or more precisely, the eastern half of the island, Papua New Guinea. Covering an area of more than 460,000 square kilometers with a population of 3.5 million people made up of approximately 700 different tribes, this was an ideal Camel Trophy location: vast, sparsely populated, remote, exotic, challenging and tough.
The Try Out:
We and the other competitors were housed in the San Francisco Hyatt Hotel, where a cocktail party was held the evening before the three-day tryouts. There we met renowned racers, such as Malcolm Smith, one of America’s foremost motocross riders. He’d won the Baja 500 five different times and with Steve McQueen starred in the documentary On Any Sunday, nominated for an Academy. It was credited as the best and/or most important motorcycle documentary ever made. In addition, Malcolm won eight gold medals in the International Six Day Trial, the European cross-country event, and was a six-time winner of the Baja 1000.
Smith and McQueen
Upon introducing myself to the revered sportsman I jokingly advised that he was of little concern to me, I’d never heard of him before that night! He smiled good-naturedly with the serenity of a man who knows he’s the best at what he does and is confident in his abilities.
Also in attendance was Rod Hall, legendary Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee whose string of 35 consecutive race wins in the early 1980s remains the longest unbroken string of race victories in off-road racing history. If not before, it was clear to Kenny and myself that we were well over our depth.
Each pair of co-drivers were assigned the same room, Kenny and I both retired around 11:00 PM, so as to try and get a good rest. However, at 3:00 AM I was still wide awake. Wondering how Kenny was fairing I whispered, “Hey pal, are you sleeping?” His immediate reply was more of a statement than a question; “What are we doing here!” The only solace I felt, which I kept to myself, was that at least HE was the one who’d be driving; all I had to do was navigate…or so I thought.
At 6:00 AM we were greeted by a cold and rainy morning, entering the team bus we noted that several of the competitors wore Nomex fire-retardant suits and had crash helmets tucked under their arms. While pondering my attire consisting of jeans, T’shirt and a nylon windbreaker, Kenny again reminded me that he’d only raced flat tracks. Deep in the throes of these thoughts a man representing Jeep USA, stood up at the front of the bus with a microphone stating that he had prepared the course we were about to take and that it was the most difficult he’d ever designed. He told us that the crumbling terrain and mountain slopes were particularly bad because of the worst rains and flooding since 1955.
“A major winter storm originating over the Pacific Ocean moved through central California in early January 1982. As much as 16 inches of rain fell in Marin County and 25 inches in the mountains bordering Santa Cruz County. The January 1982 flood was the largest since the flood of December 1955...”
Directly after the course description, the head of Camel GT Racing advised that each man was to drive the course and do so separately from the teammate we’d come with. With those words, my stomach took purchase in my throat!
In time, we reached Sears Point and climbed a couple of stories into a control tower/warming hut for a briefing. Because the tryout was broken down into three days I figured odds were good that I might be one of at last to drive, and therefore could learn from others. I entered the restroom and couldn’t have been in a better venue as a loud rollcall announced, “Robert Comstock will be number three on the course.”
Only days prior to our arrival in the Bay area, I decided to visit a specialty off-road store in my hometown by the name of Buck’s 4-Wheelers, to try and get some pointers from Buck himself. Up until the tryouts the extent of my experience with off-roading was in an old Willy’s Jeep, which I drove throughout high school in the mountains of Idaho. Buck advised what he thought the challenges might be, one of them being water. He wisely told me to have my co-driver stand on the back bumper of the vehicle and for me to place the four-wheel-drive into compound low and shift into third gear. “Then," he continued, "you know that sweet spot you feel on particularly deep snow or heavy mud when you realize that speeding up or slowing down will completely get you stuck?". I nodded yes… "Simply motor through without stopping until you reach the end.”
As I left the warmth of the tower and began my descent down the steel steps, I thought to myself that the terrible conditions wrought by the rain would only hinder the experts and help me. With no one in earshot, I said out loud in a volume only I could hear, let’s do it. I was assigned a passenger I’d not met previously, but he was amenable to try whatever I suggested. The first obstacle was a grouping of boulders around 16 feet high that we had to climb up and over, followed by a series of switchbacks with heavy mud roads that lead around a sweeping turn emptying onto a large pond around 40-yards in diameter and three feet deep. Relying on Buck like my only parachute, I instantly instructed my companion to jump onto the Jeep’s bumper and hold on as I put the vehicle in compound load, third gear and miraculously found the sweet spot that Buck had referred to. Out of the thirty drivers I was one of the only two men to make it through.
Making the Team:
Upon completing the 3-days everyone returned to their separate areas of the country and waited for notice in the mail. In what could only be described has happen-chance, my dear friend Paul Haven a fireman paramedic with whom I’d paddled down the Amazon, also tried out and was selected. Of the four men to be selected, Paul and I were selected as teammates for the rally ahead.
Germany 1 – Werner Weiglein & Peter Reinhold
Germany 2 – Franz Murr & Wolfgang Eggers
Holland 1 – Hans Bronsgeest & Ernest van Arendonk
Holland 2 – Willem de Bruyn & Hans Prudon
Italy 1 – Cesare Geraudo & Giuliaro Giongol
Italy 2 – Giorgio Landi & Lorenzo Loreti
United States 1 – Rob Comstock & Paul Haven
United States 2 – Bob Peters & Ken Arnold
Within a month the four Americans were flown to Berlin, Germany, where we met up with the other countries’ drivers to test new Range Rovers in extremely demanding terrains.
From Germany, we were flown to Manila, for a 14-hour layover and a short stay in a downtown hotel. We awoke to a phone call from the lobby horridly advising us that we’d slept through our 1:00 AM alarms and that the other teams were already loaded on the airport bus, we scrambled and made the airport to board an Air Niugini flight in darkness. In a short while we were sailing amongst a forest of clouds outlined with the luminance of a full moon. As we sat in the darkened cabin transfixed by the view, a stewardess approached asking if we’d care for something to drink. Looking up we gazed upon a sight equally as mesmerizing as the one outside our porthole, her face was adorned with an astonishing array of intricate tattoos. If not before, we were now certain that the unknown awaited us.
Arriving in a sunny Port Moresby we met up with the Rally’s support staff of multinational photographers, videographers, mechanics, medics, editors of various worldwide publications and PR personnel. One of them had purchased a local newspaper that was handed from seat to seat as we flew from the sea-level of Port Moresby to Mt. Hagen’s 5,501-foot altitude; the front-page headline announced: Tribal Klansman Beheaded in Fight.
Arrival in Mt. Hagan:
Stepping onto terra firma we were met by locals with faces painted in primary fire-engine red, blue and yellow, and every secondary color possible.
The attire was akin to a Red Hot Chili Pepper Concert, with the men’s townsfolk wearing elongated gourds covering their genitalia, and long leaves protecting their backside.
That evening under the light of kerosene lanterns, the teams were assembled for an overview of the course and rundown on what to expect the following morning and start of the Rally. We knew we were in for a challenging climb, the highest peaks reach 14,793 feet. And, the higher we’d climb the more remote would be the villages. We did in fact come upon stone age tribes that had never before seen an Anglo-Saxon. There was good camaraderie amongst the teams, but from the first night on we felt closest with the Italians.
Should we accidentally hit a pig we were instructed not to stop, the tribesmen prize them so highly that we could lose our lives over such an infraction.
Interfacing with the neighborhood:
At the close of the meeting most drivers returned to their tents, however, my co-driver Paul and I were fixated on the Southern Cross and closeness of the stars overhead. Sharing one earbud each from a Sony Walkman, we walked down a path in shorts and flip-flops listening to Walking The Dog by the Rolling Stones. In time, we came upon a large group of people chewing Betel Nuts. Observing the jovial crowd for a while we noted the repeated process whereby an individual would place a nut in his mouth, and begin to chew while inserting a mustard stick (similar in look and shape of a green bean) into limestone powder (from ground coral) and masticate stick and nut together. All of a sudden one of the squatting men took me by the wrist and pulled me down on my haunches. Excitedly he placed a betel nut in my mouth, inserted a mustard stick into the white powder and with the crowd cheering placed both stick and powder with the nut I’d begun chewing. For a guy who does zero stimulants of any kind, I knew something was up. The fellow then removed the wad he’d been munching from his mouth and excitedly jammed it into my own, this was met by yet another cheer albeit considerably more raucous than the former. I went to stand up but as I did so the whole area began to spin around, I looked at Paul, who had also been plied with the same concoction and stated; “Haven, I don’t think we know what we’ve gotten into!” We were immediately swept up with what must have been the village elders and taken on a tour of each family’s hut as honored guests. We arrived back at our tent in time for a few hours sleep before an early wake up summoned the start of the rally.
Users of betel nut are identifiable by their purple/red teeth, dyed permanently from years of masticating the berries.
Jet helicopters circled overhead as 8-Range Rovers with teams of two co-drivers in each representing Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the US excitedly waited for the flag to drop. From out of nowhere the villagers whom we’d gotten to know the night before gathered round our vehicle and grabbing its underbelly, literally lifted car and drivers off the ground waist-level while chanting deliriously. No one knew about the international friendship mission conducted the night before, and only later did we overhear a few competitors complaining that one of the American teams had paid for a publicity stunt! Regardless of mixed sentiments at the starting line, we couldn’t have left Mt. Hagan with a better sendoff.
Into the Highlands:
With Mt. Hagan at our backs our third passenger was the sense-of-freedom we’d experienced upon rounding the first bend of our Amazon expedition. Pushing the road conditions, we ascended a gnarly dirt road into a wonderland of plants and species of animals we’d never imagined existed. Some 200-million years ago tectonic plates split the ‘super-continent’ or Gondwanaland. Australia and New Guinea migrated northward, and around 25-million years ago collided with the Eurasian plate causing the two to split. The majority of New Guinea’s plants and animals are endemic, meaning they only exist there.
Collaborating with the unfolding of nature’s wonders, the artistry of indigenous patterns woven into the thatched huts became more ornate the higher we climbed. The mundanity of corrugated tin huts, a telltale sign of modern encroachment at the beginning stages of the rally, gave way to geometric ornateness.
As drivers, we were representations of our sponsors, Camel and Range Rover. The prevalent advertising at that time in print and film for Camel was a rough and ready guy dressed in khakis, fording rivers with machete in hand. The Camel Trophy was filmed and chronicled for network and cable television in each of the countries represented, upon returning home we were interviewed on ESPN and a host of other networks from NY to California. On the first day of the rally my thoughts were on anything but iconoclastic add representatives. Looking into the eyes of the indigenous people I saw no facades or pretense, they were completely different from the Western culture I came from. Penetrating deeper into the heart of the forest we came into contact with stone age villages whose people passed right through the 2-foot or so invisible barrier that we maintain with strangers. Akin to an animal sniffing the scent of an unknown entity, they’d come within centimeters of our faces looking deeply while tracing the contours of our eyes, noses and mouths with inquisitive fingertips. I was profoundly moved by their childlike innocence and sincerity. This memory and not the photos of treacherous terrains or artifacts for which we traded our personal knives and flashlights would remain my take home.
The ingenuity and toughness of the tribesmen were beyond anything we’d ever witnessed. At one point a team using a tire iron was unable to remove the frozen lug nuts from the wheel of their vehicle. Observing the situation and no doubt calculating what should have been ample time to perform the task, a warrior dressed in feathers and facial paint stepped forward and with his bear heel kicked the nuts free. At another point in the rally our cook’s truck missed a turn and rolled down a ravine. A neighboring village gathered and watched with interest as the support crew fastened two fully extended winch cables to the vehicle from their trucks still atop the hillside, but after multiple attempts the foreigners were unsuccessful in winning the tug-of-war with gravity. Sensing the failed rescue the men from the village lined up in single file, each grasping hold of an elongated nylon tow line supplied by the crew, with which the pulled the truck straight up the ravine and back onto the trail from which it had fallen.
A Typical Race Day:
Race days began early. After a quick breakfast the timed departures left camp with no meals consumed en route. Depending on navigation errors, broken parts, winching cars mired in mud up to their axels, blown engines and vehicles rolled over in ditches the size of the machines themselves, the exhausted teams often rolled into the makeshift camps in the dead of night with only a few hours remaining before the next day’s start.
Other challenges required skills in rebuilding broken bridges and passing over them in a 2.6-ton vehicle.
Reoccurring punctured tires with changes rivaling the speed of formula-one pit crews were common. Stopping to help other teams in broken down vehicles at the risk of damaging your own times became a moral question.
Trying to escalate one’s speed when already at full-throttle over rough-cut mountain roads was mandatory, even when sheer drop-offs ensured serious injuries or worse. But we were of an age and mindset of invincibility; not a truism of course but at some stages in life testosterone and being mercifully free from the ravages of intelligence are one’s only protection.
The People We Met Along the Way:
In time nothing surprised us, we grew accustomed to bizarrely beautiful self-expression, decoration and adornment.
The Mud Men:
On one particular afternoon, the course organizers arranged for the teams to arrive in a clearing at the same time. Not sure of the reason for the temporary layover but glad for the respite we climbed out of our Range Rovers. From what seemed to be every angle of the dense jungle perimeter, emerged men with large masks made of clay, pig tusks and dogs’ teeth; their bodies caked in dry mud advanced towards us in an eerie silence. Not wavering in their approach, they continuously struck themselves with the limbs and leaves of some sort of shrubbery. It was apparent that this was an organized display of culture, but with no pre-warning of their existence and the fact that there were more or them than us, it was unsettling. One particular fellow approached a writer for German Penthouse magazine, by the name of Axel Thorer.
Axel’s book on the Camel Trophy, 1000 Miles of Adventure:
Axel was one of my favorite men participating in the Rally, he was large in stature, incredibly friendly and full of life. With his bald head and reddish-blonde elongated mustache, Axel had the quintessential look of a Brewmeister. We watched with anticipation as one of the Mud Men continued his advance towards the much bigger individual in an aggressive manner. But Axel held his ground when the Mud Man grabbed the pen from his chest pocket and jammed it through a piercing in his nostrils. With the ambivalent disdain of a much larger dog eying a significantly smaller canine, Axel deftly extracted the writing instrument in one quick motion and inserted it into the bottom flesh dividing his own two nostrils, parallel and just above the whiskers adorning his upper lip. What none of our team knew about his background, and was certainly not comprehended by the surprised Mud Man, Axel had grown up in Tanga, Tanzania, and had his own nose pierced as a youth! Needless to say, the proverbial ice had been broken and a bond between multiple cultures was forever forged!
The history or legend of the Mud Men passed on verbally from one generation to the next, recounts a battle where their ancestors were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee into the Asaro River. Trying to make their escape after sundown they were spotted by their adversaries, however, because of their mud-caked bodies their foes mistook them for evil spirits and they themselves fled in terror
Most of our waking moments were filled with keen focus and adrenaline, but there were times when connections with the locals created special memories. In one crossing of a river not far from a commercial logging camp a small boy, maybe 10 or so, sat on a bridge with a lengthy string tied to his big toe, the other end was fastened to a hook and worm drifting in the fast-moving current. With the camaraderie that one fisherman shares with another, I smiled and looked down from my pilot seat as if to ask how his luck was going, but then spied a previously captured 24-inch rainbow trout lying by his side; the answer was obvious. We’d gained enough time that morning to afford a few minutes from the rally to study his technique. Out of interest we stated the words; President Reagan -- no response, President François Mitterrand – no response, the Pope – again no response, but upon stating Mohamed Ali, the boy’s face lit up and with a huge smile of recognition he excitedly shouted, “BOXER MAN, BOXER MAN!”
You don’t want your man to die:
Whenever we’d come in contact with outlying villages we’d see women from relatively young ages to the very old having faces caked heavily in dried mud. A lighter pasting of the dried clay would cover all other exposed areas. Enquiring as to inclination for the women to be so drably made up and noticeably downcast, we were informed that their husbands had died, and as such they were destined to never marry again and spend the remainder of their lives in mourning.
Up until the last day of the rally we were tied for first, with the final obstacle being a wide river crossing. Calculating the water to be up to our side windows, we hit the river at a high speed to keep the waves of water flowing to the side of the hood. Impossible for us to know at the time, was that our distributor cap was cracked, resulting in the rotors not being able to pass voltage from the ignition coils to the engine's cylinders, which in turn ignited the fuel-air mixture powering our engine. Because of the high-voltage activity the rotor and cap should be replaced relatively frequently, but that was impossible in the nearly impregnable highlands of Papua New Guinea. Progressing at a good clip with the opposite bank in sight our run came to a dead stop, and we had to be winched from the river causing us to drop to an overall third place.
As is the case with any challenging endeavor, meaningful friendships were made with the drivers, mechanics, photographers, route planners, PR representatives, etc. Two of the Italian team were respected Mountain Climbers from the Dolomite range of North Eastern Italy, others were professionals from Milan. A year after the rally I was invited to speak at a gathering of a large Milanese automobile club. The Dutch and Germans were a hearty group for whom we had a great deal of respect. A US photographer by the name of Carroll Seghers II became a life-long friend. We collaborated on several fashion shoots and often discussed how the tie between adventure and fashion could be marketed. Carroll was a leading member of the creative photo revolution in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, he won several Clio Awards, and his works are included in the Permanent Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Man as Art:
At the end of the rally and prior to our separate departures, the participants signed each other’s cover page of a book most purchased titled Man as Art, by Malcolm Kirk, published the year prior by Viking Press. My copy remains a special memento with over 30 signatures. Kirk made seven trips to New Guinea between 1967 and 1980 taking hundreds of photos.
Equally impressive as the photographs for me, was the forward of the book written by Dr. Andrew Strathern, an Anthropologist/Andrew Mellon Professor at the University of Pittsburg. As opposed to western culture where our subjective response is stifled by our reliance upon experts and scholars to codify and tell us what constitutes good art, Dr. Strathern explains how the tribespeople are comfortable with their intuitive appraisals. I was so impressed by Dr. Strathern’s commentary that I’ve often quoted him.
Returning home, my focus returned to my designs and I began to correlate my experiences with the coming year’s collection and the formula that would largely guide my career took shape. A retail group distributing my fashion throughout Japan, closely followed the Camel Trophy and created looks in my shops to mirror the event. The agency overseeing my PR and advertising at the time returned to Papua New Guinea with a photographer, model and stylist. The below image became a billboard in Los Angeles with the following verbiage: "ROBERT COMSTOCK – LIKE EVERY STYLE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN".
Shortly after the Camel Trophy Rally the magazine racks in my local supermarket featured editorials in Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Road & Track, GQ, Playboy and other fashion periodicals; most amusing to me, however, was an article in Popular Mechanics!
Mick Jagger, whose music I loved and listened to on a Sony Walkman during the Camel Trophy Rally wore a RC sweater in GQ
The RC Spring collection took on Sky Diving as its theme. My first jump was an unassisted freefall, accompanied by lifelong friend Doug Swerland, President of Jay Jacobs, then an influential chain of Northwest fashion stores. Directly after our jumps I departed for Italy, where I presented my collection at Florence's renowned Piti Uomo.
Shortly after my Piti Uomo presentation in Florence, Joe Theismann, then a well-known quarterback for the Washington Redskins wore my Spring collection inspired by Skydiving on the front cover of L’UOMO VOGUE Italy
Although typically a Sports Illustrated swimwear model, Carol Alt wore RC for SI’s winter edition in Alaska
When Adventure Becomes Art
PLAYBOY covering both Robert and his collection after the Camel Trophy race
St. Paul Dispatch
Ocean Side California Blade Tribune
“When experience inspires styles, I don’t have to be concerned about making a fashion statement” - Robert Comstock
Selecting Navajo blankets from Bill Hubbell in Hubbell’s Trading Post. Ganado, Arizona
Riding with Native American friend Will Tsosie in Canyon de Chelly
Will Tsosie’s grandmother preparing lamb on an open fire in the canyon.
Making fresh sausage with the lamb’s intestine
Will Tsosie and Robert
Early morning at the foot of Spider Rock
In 1985 I befriended a young man by the name of Robert Hunter, a member and Tribal Judge of the Duck Valley Reservation on the Idaho and Nevada border. Robert had never modeled but we went on to shoot national campaigns and he walked the NY runways. Thereafter, his law degree was supported in part by T.O.F.N.A.E., The Organization for Native American Entrepreneurs, which we started to help women sewers from the Bannock and Shoshone Paiute tribes in Idaho.Morley Nelson’s bald eagle flew overhead as we shot Robert in the Snake River Canyon
We watched in awe as the buffalo surrounded Native son Robert Hunter in the Snake River Canyon
I was honored to work with a close friend and well-known Southwestern artist Frank Howell, and Rick Jimenez an expert printer. As a backdrop for my 1989 Fall collection honoring America’s first citizens, this particular painting ended up in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Ave. in New York.
Sioux City Journal
Robert Comstock Press Kit
A good friend pointed out that the fashion awards seemed to come only after each expedition and cultural pursuit
CUTTY SARK AWARD FOR BEST SPORTSWEAR DESIGNER
Sioux City Journal 1987 Cutty Sark Award
With my best friend and father, Ralph J. Comstock Jr., at the Cutty Sark awards
With dear friend and designer Laura Pearson
Robert Hunter photographed by friend and well-known photographer Caroll Seghers II
1987 LA Times
Czechoslovakian glass beads sewn one at a time onto leather jean labels were placed on RC jeans. The patches supported an organization we called T.O.F.N.A.E., The organization for Native American Entrepreneurs. The beading provided work for Native American women in the Shoshone, Paiute and Bannock Tribes of Idaho.
The Oregonian Portland, Or
1989 Press Kit
Worldwide adventure and conservation gave purpose to my designs, but it was Dawn Mello, then President of Bergdorf Goodman, who 'discovered' me and made possible a 4-page article in the NY Times
NY Times 1989
Dawn Mello Pres. Bergdorf Goodman re. RC
IRA NEIMARK CEO/CHAIRMAN BERGDORF GOODMAN
GOOD MORNING AMERICA WITH BRYANT GUMBEL AND DEBORAH NORVILLE
Bergdorf Goodman windows
NY Times 1989
Bergdorf Goodman Windows 5th Avenue
Arkansas Democrat 1989
We prepared for the Greenland Crossing in Churchill, Canada
WL Gore, makers of Thinsulate, were important supporters not only with Thinsulate as a warming factor in RC garments, but also in helping market our brand
WL Gore and Company ads
Don Vavala of Goretex discusses his belief in Robert Comstock
I was invited to join the Board of Directors for The Peregrine Fund in 1990, and continue serving today speaking for conservation and habitat protection early in my career
Rocky Mountain News
I was designing for The North Face while preparing to ski across Greenland
Bill Werlin, President of THE NORTH FACE comments on why he believes in Robert’s authenticity and understanding of design
Disc 9 Omaha World Herald – What's so special about RC
GQ Robert DeNiro
Neiman Marcus Catalogue
RON FRASCH SR. VP NEIMAN MARCUS DISCUSSING ROBERT COMSTOCK
TERRY LUNDGREN CEO NEIMAN MARCUS SHARES HIS THOUGHTS ON ROBERT COMSTOCK
GQ Kurt Russel
DNR RC Sportswear
German Textil-Wirtschaft cover
I appeared several time on the cable show ATTITUDES, hosted by Linda Dano & Dee Kelly, where I shared my philosophy of fashion and concerns for endangered species and disappearing habitat
King Juan Carlos of Spain with whom I was connected via mutual friends visited the NY showroom. We gave him the suede blazer he’s wearing on the cover of HELLO, just after he’d suffered a broken leg skiing.
To Robert Comstock with my affection,
This was particularly meaningful because of my studies in Spain as a student, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco was in power and Juan Carlos remained excelled.
DNR ON RC OUTERWEAR LEADING THE INDUSTRY
Traveling from NYC’s Port Authority, to the US Air force Base in New Jersey…
Authenticity comment by Senior buyer for Marshal Fields
Along with Dr. Bill Burnham I had the privilege of banding Peregrine chicks on Greenland’s Mt. Dundee.
OPENING TO 1995 FASHION SHOW NOTE: The video stays dark for 10-SECONDS
ROBERT WITH ROBERT PERRY III GREAT GRANDSON OF NORTH POLE EXPLORER ADMIRAL ROBERT PERRY
THE NY TIMES on my relationship with W.L. Gore and Goretex
1996 – 1998
After forming an alliance with the Hart Marx Corporation, I moved with my wife and first son to Italy
With the help of 3M, manufacturers of 3M™ Thinsulate™ Insulation, I was able to support a conservation project for the Peregrine Fund in Outer Mongolia
By 1999 I’d been serving on the Peregrine Fund Board for 15-years, and was purchasing Thinsulate, a product produced by 3M as an insulating material for my outerwear. Knowing the company’s interest in marketing, I requested an introduction to their marketing group and PR head. A face-to-face meeting was scheduled in Minneapolis, 3M’s headquarters, where I was able to explain the worldwide conservation efforts of the Peregrine Fund, based in Boise, Idaho, that protected endangered birds of prey and their habitat. With my ongoing distribution with Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and other high-end specialty stores, 3M was highly interested in supporting the proposal. I immediately called Dr. Bill Burnham, the President of The Peregrine Fund with the good news and enquired where in the world he might be interested in investing out efforts with 3M's support. Bill immediately suggested Outer Mongolia, where for over 1,000 years the Kazakhs have hunted with Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) with 6-foot wingspans. Whereas the ancient sport of falconry is practiced with falcons and hawks, the Kazakhs are the only culture in the world to do so with eagles. I knew this would be an adventure equal to the rally I’d raced in Papua New Guinea, and the 300-mile canoe expedition down the upper tributaries of the Amazon Basin.
As we began our planning we contacted a noted ornithologist from Taiwan, who served as a fellow Director on the PF board. He introduced us to Jalsa Urubshurow, a first-generation Mongolian, who grew up in New Jersey, and owned a highly respected eco-tour company by the name of Nomadic Expeditions. Jalsa was the first to introduce environmentally friendly travel to his ancestral home, which after seven decades of communist rule held its first free election in 1992. Unlike many underdeveloped countries where natural resources have been poorly managed Mongolia’s timber, ores and natural gasses have only been harvested in the last few decades. During this time it has been Jalsa's mission to try and help influence politicians and educators that development should proceed with conservation and sustainability at the forefront. The President of Mongolia depends on his Jalsa’s knowledge and input in those efforts. As a cultural preservation, he single-handily organized the Golden Eagle Festival, which enjoys worldwide recognition and prominence.
Arrival in the capitol:
Our flight took us from Boise, Idaho to San Francisco, Seoul Korea and finally Ulaanbaatar. Sheldon Severninghaus, a professor and expat from the US, met us upon our arrival in a cold capital; it was November, and we were to experience single-digit weather throughout our stay. We were driven to what must have been a grand hotel during the Soviet’s rule, the cavernous rooms wallpapered in velvet and ancient maroon carpeting emoted the vibe of a bygone era when regular guests were comprised of communist party officials.
We awoke to a cloudless November Sunday and decided to visit the local market. Of particular interest in the open table bazar were bronze and ceramic badges, once given to Soviet mothers for having children; the greater the number the more ornate the pin-able emblems became. Moving on to a major department store presenting rice-cookers and basic sundries, we saw four-cornered silk embroidered red hats trimmed in fox fur; we would discover similar headwear used by the Kazakh eagle hunters. Late in the afternoon we were taken to an auditorium to see folk dancing, contortionists, and throat singing. I’d never seen nor heard of the latter, which left me spellbound. A man with a Kobyz, a string instrument held by the knees and played with a bow, began singing in a guttural lower tone. After several verses a higher and independent octave emanated from his throat, so that the two harmonized as if two separate singers were performing. I came to learn that the art is called overtone chanting, in which the singer manipulates the resonances created as air travels from the lungs, past the vocal folds and out of his lips.
A day with Darwin:
On Monday morning we were graciously met by Dr. Bold, who at sixty-four years of age was a senior scientist and Academician of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, who received his Doctor of Science from the Institute of Animal Ecology and Evolution from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He was a highly respected ornithologist who’d explored more of his country than any other biologist. Dr. Bold’s enthusiasm and pride for a gargantuan collection of avian corpses spoke volumes.
The archive in which the petrified birds were kept was a huge room about the size of a collegiate basketball court. Encircling the perimeter were multiple level cubby holes one on top of another, in which a single carcass occupied each slot. The collection represented what must have been every avian species in Mongolia.
Bill commented to me that the attempt at stuffing or preserving the mummified birds was akin to the European and Russian collections from the 1700’s, such as Peter Simon Pallas, a Prussian zoologist/botanist from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences who from 1768-1774 worked in similar areas as Doctor Bold, such as Urals, West Siberia, Altay and Transbaikal.
A two-fold Conservation Goal:
- Cultural: Our aim was to preserve the custom of falconry with Golden Eagles, as well as the birds themselves. Ülgii or Ölgii, is the farthest Western province in the Altai Mountain range where the vast steppe is home to one of the world's last surviving nomadic cultures. An estimated 25 to 40 percent of Mongolia's three-million population live as nomadic herders of sheep, cattle and horses. At the time of our visit, the newer generations of herders viewed eagles as a threat to their livestock. Given the opportunity Golden Eagles will prey upon lambs, goats, etc., and the herders were indiscriminately killing the raptors. Our mission was to help the younger populace view the Golden Eagles and their unique tie with falconry as a national treasure and cultural icon to be protected.
- Scientific: Scientifically our intent was for the Peregrine Fund to establish an ongoing alliance with Mongolian biologists for the preservation of habitat and raptors in general. To aid with both endeavors Bill asked Dr. Bold to identify a promising young biologist who we could bring to America, to further his/her scientific studies at Boise State University. Dr. Bold selected a young man by the name of Nyambayar Batbayar or Nyamba for short. From 2000-2004 Nyamba worked as a research biologist for the Peregrine Fund and attended Boise State University to earn his master’s degree in raptor biology. He went on to earn a PHD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Oklahoma. Nyamba has authored a field guide to the common birds of Mongolia and numerous research papers that have influenced conservation policies.
Today, Nyamba is the Director and Research Biologist of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and Research Associate of the International Crane Foundation based in Wisconsin. Fluent in English and Mongolian, he is editor-in-chief of the Mongolian Journal of Ornithology and Conservation.
Ülgii via Casablanca:
After two full days in Ulaanbaatar, we were ready to depart for Ülgii, the farthest western province of Mongolia. Our flight was scheduled for a 6:00 AM or so departure, but we arrived much earlier with no small degree of anticipation. Jalsa Urubshurow had arranged for us to meet with someone in Ülgii, who would accompany us throughout the adventure. Walking across the tarmac in a frigid overcast, we were motioned towards an aircraft looking like the tail-dragging Lockheed Electra 12A used in the iconic farewell scene separating lovers Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
The plane sat eight people with the well-worn seats slightly twisted in unique angles. Overhead reading lamps no longer functional dangled on cords freed long ago from their encasements. As we contemplated the safety of the aircraft and likelihood of arriving at our destination the pilot and co-pilot came aboard dressed in leather trench coats looking more like WWII German Luftwaffe officers than commercial airline employees. Without a glance at the passengers and a considerable air of superiority they strapped themselves in as if they were testing the most advanced jet aircraft of our time.
With the briefest of onboard pre-checks the propellers coughed to life, their irregular revolutions slowly beginning to synchronize and tug at our ship, while wing flaps responded to the pulling of levers. Believing that we could cheat death one more time, passengers and pilots focused complete concentration on a lurching takeoff down a frozen runway. In time we were flying above the snow-shrouded Altai Mountain range that reaches 14,873’ in altitude and extends approximately 1,200 miles from the Gobi Desert to the West Siberian Plain through China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. [Daniel’s photo of plane’s window] We were headed to meet the Kazakhs of the Bayan-Ülgii, where the majority of the population were ethnic or Altaic Kazakhs, who’ve hunted with Golden Eagles for over 1,000 years. Dr. Bill Burnham, my photographer friend Daniel O’Neil and I sensed a grand adventure.
The lean diet layover:
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, one of only 16-paved airstrips in the entire country appeared below and our pilots wasted no time in touching down to refuel. Our propellers sputtered as we came to a stop upon a barren plane surrounded by mountains on every side, the door opened and the subzero temperatures that would accompany us throughout the rest of our stay rushed in. The thought of purchasing a hot snack from the single building outpost seemed a good idea. However, upon entering the minimalistic structure we were directed back outside to several rows of single filed objects about a foot long and three-inches in girth. There, we discovered what our fellow passengers considered to be a snack bar. Neatly aligned and placed directly on the tarmac like popsicles were raw and solidly frozen river fish for immediate consumption.
With tanks refueled we boarded, belted into the customized seats at our own discretion and jolted full-throttle down another icy runway hellbent to gain as much lift as possible. It became obvious that our unperturbed Commandants had hurdled the looming peaks many times before and thinking no longer of our demise we eyed the splendor of the Altai Chain with confidence.
From Ulgïï to the Kazakhs’ Hunting Grounds:
Landing in Ulgii, we were greeted by __________ a good friend and staff member of Jalsa’s organization. After a quick bite we walked through the local market where hardened locals sold their wares and showed fledgling Golden Eagles. [Show Eagle and toothless man] Excited to reach our destination we climbed into a four-Wheel Russian Lada [Photo of vehicle] and headed into the heart of the Altai Mountain range. The dirt roads and tight suspension of the vehicles were on par with the plane ride and we settled in for the 6-hour journey ahead. Studying first and then gingerly passing over semi-washed out bridges brought back memories of Papua New Guinea and the Camel Trophy. [Photo of bridge] The countryside itself was incredibly reminiscent of our southern Idaho topography, and the amazing vistas rolled into infinity. There were very few signs of life excepting an occasional lone herder using an oversized old Russian bicycle to oversee Bactrian camels, the two-hump variety.
Art of the Ger and First Night:
Arriving at our encampment, we met our Kazakh eagle hunter hosts, a hearty lot ranging from a twenty-something year-old young man to the elder of the clan who appeared to be in his 80’s. Gers were assigned, and we laid our 40-degree below freezing sleeping bags on cots within. Each structure had a stove that burned coal with a chimney exiting the roof. As these are pastoral nomadic peoples, gers are made for disassembling and moving from one remote valley to the next, wherever fresh grasslands can nourish their herds. Collapsible wooden poles are connected to build the frame, upon which the walls and roofs made of sheep wool or fleece are attached. Akin to lighter weight Austrian boiled wool jackets, the sheared wool from the herder’s own flocks are home-spun and boiled. The individual hair or fibers of the sheep catch onto one another becoming forever naturally woven or matted. The natural lanolin oil from the sheep is impervious to water and the material is an excellent insulation in winter with cooling properties in the short summer months.
Later that evening we gathered inside the cooking ger where a rich broth of mutton stew was on full boil and kerosene lanterns illuminated the jovial repartee with which we learned more about one another. It was a sheer delight to listen to Dr. (Jalsa’s main guy) explanation of the on-going conservation projects and the love for his native Mongolia. He was a very large man who had obviously been a great wrestler in his youth. Wrestling in Mongolia is a national pastime held in high regard and greatly enjoyed by participants and admiring public alike. It is customary for a visitor to wrestle the head of a household on friendly visits. One wonders if it is not the great distances between these pastoral families that creates the openness and mutual appreciation. Dr. Burnham, Bill, was able to share his vision on creating a synergistic and on-going relationship between Mongolia and the Peregrine Fund. With full stomachs and sincere appreciation for the friendships being formed, we agreed to reconvene at sunrise, each of us eagerly anticipating the first day’s hunt.
Soaring With Eagles:
The next morning like those to follow began before sunup with porridge and hot tea. We were surrounded by foothills framed by the endless Altai mountains. Each of us were assigned a saddle and horse, neither of which excited Bill who had a long abiding disdain for anything equine. [photo of saddle] Daniel’s and my only concern was the height of our steeds, which were incredibly short and I wondered aloud if they’d be able to carry us up and down the mountains ahead. [photo of Robert looking into his horse’s eyes] In the coming week I was to discover that our Mongolian ponies had the most powerful and sustained endurance of any horse I’d ever ridden. With this and other learning points that lay ahead we dutifully followed the hunters and their mounts as they traversed up the mountain sides. Several remained below, however, to ride the wide valleys flushing up game typically comprised of hare and fox. The eagle hunters have been known to take wolves and on a subsequent day we did in fact trail a wolf pack for a significant period. [Photo of Hunters on the ridges looking down into the valley] Becoming accustomed to the routine we also took turns flushing game in the valleys while hunters crested mountain tops. As with all falconry the hunters placed leather hoods on their raptor’s heads causing them to remain docile and nimbly balanced upon what looked like large wooden slingshots rested on the pommel of the saddle and supported by the Kazakh’s forearm. The apparatus was made from a two-foot or so wood handle with a two-pronged fork and leather strap spanning either side that served as the eagle’s perch. [Photo of perched eagle] Peering over the majestic granite pinnacles the hunters removed the hoods, after which the raptors scanned the valleys below. Unseen by our eyes the slightest movement of a hare or fox was easily spotted by the bird’s, whose binocular eyesight is eight-times more powerful than humans; eagles can see their prey from two-miles away. In what seemed a ritual movement they moved their heads rapidly from side to side and in circular motions so as to triangulate or measure the exact distance. Completing these calculations in mere seconds the majestic birds launched from the Kazakh’s arm to briefly soar upon the thermal updrafts that surged from below, but this buoyancy lasted only until they brought their wings close to their bodies, tucked legs and talons against their tails and gave themselves to gravity in the stoop (dive) that followed. Comparable to the Peregrine Falcon, the Golden Eagle is the second fastest animal in the world reaching speeds exceeding 150 mph and above. With no verbal articulation horses and riders instinctively galloped down the steep mountainsides pursuing the eagle as best we could. Inevitably the bird would be atop its prey before our arrival, and as we’d ride up to the hunter and hunted our Kazakh counterpart would quickly dispatch the quarry with a single shot from his rifle. This was done to protect the eagle from losing an eye or broken wing from an errant bite or striking claw.
Daniel’s focus on capturing such scenes with camera and video was unparalleled. At one point in filming a moving target he attempted a hurried dismount to steady his already rolling camera while his horse traversed the mountain at a fast canter. As he did so either his coat or some other paraphernalia caught in the saddle rigging and to my astonishment and uncontrolled laughter he kept his eye on the subject to continue filming with no concern as to where or how his rapid trajectory might end up. Daniel’s feat rivaled any rodeo trick rider and encapsulated the spirit of our adventure, each moment brought new discoveries and we didn’t want to miss a single one.
The Kazakhs we came to know are a Turkic people, meaning their language is closely related to a large group of Altaic languages of western and central Asia. They are descendants of medieval Mongol tribes, Huns and ancient Iranian nomads who populated the area between Siberia and the Black Sea before the 5th and 13th Centuries AD. it’s important for a Kazakh to know his or her genealogical tree no less than seven generations back. They keep an epic tradition of oral history and have managed to preserve the distant memory of the original founding clans. When they themselves meet one another it’s common for Kazakh men and women to enquire as to which tribe they come from. With old hostilities long forgotten they now consider themselves one nation. Kazakh’s hail from three originating tribes:
- The Senior Horde or Hundred is also known as Elder or Great, Uly juz.
- The Middle or Central, Orta juz
- The Junior or Younger/Lesser, Kishi juz
Kazakh was written with Arabic script during the 19th century, when a number of poets, educated in Islamic schools, led revolts against Russia, and in 1927, a Kazakh nationalist movement sprang up but was soon suppressed and Arabic script was banned and replaced with the Latin alphabet. Soviet interventionists replaced the native Latin alphabet with the Cyrillic alphabet in 1940 but there’s a movement in Kazakhstan today to go back to the Latin script.
For the most part the early ancestors of the Kazakhs believed in Shamanism and Tengrism. It appeared to us, however, that the predominant religion was Islam, which was introduced during the 8th century by Arab missionaries in Central Asia, and by the 14th century the Golden Horde had well established the belief. During Soviet rule only remote areas like our destination were able to hold onto their Islamic faith. Those who descend from the original Muslim soldiers and missionaries command respect in their communities, but pre-Islamic beliefs, the worship of sky, ancestors and fire continue along with Shamanic ways. Several years after this initial visit I had the opportunity to explore the Gobi Desert and witness a Shaman blessing a recently discovered burial site. One has the feeling of being as remotely removed from the western world as can be imagined.
The Warmth and Culture of Nomadic Homes:
During the week’s ride with our hunter hosts we were invited into nomadic homes separated by vast distances. The isolation was mandated by the need for plentiful grazing pastures, thus creating single unit families generating their own source of education, social and cultural stimuli; they were masterfully adept at doing so. I sensed that these distances fostered respectful soft-spoken communication, and not unlike their raptor companions, the Kazakh’s held an abiding respect for one another’s space. Coming from the wide-open and sparsely populated areas of the North West, I was sensitive to their appreciation for elbow room.
Upon our arrival into a home, we were treated as honored guests. A lamb was taken from an outside coral made of piled stones and quickly and humanely harvested in a back section of the living quarters with a clean swipe of a knife under its neck. Immediately the animal bled out into a strategically placed pot from whence the crimson liquid protein would be boiled and placed into the animal’s bladder or stomach for future consumption, nothing was left to waste.
The genuine warmth of their friendship, musical talent and beautifully prepared meal of mutton, fermented mare’s milk and airdried cheese curds was a cultural experience. [Photos and video of the family meal] [Video of music performance]. One of the children, a small boy possibly four-years old, sat on the lap of his grandfather. I noted that the elder did something that I myself enjoyed with my own son just a year or so younger. Cupping his hands over the young one’s head and forming a seal around his nostrils he breathed in deeply, I often did this because the smell of my little one was his very essence. I inquired as to the grandfather’s action and was told that it was how paternal kisses, or a showing of love are communicated; it made perfect sense. Bright eyes and flushed cheeks of smiling children was a testament that an absence of television, mobile phones and computers had no effect on happiness [photo of girls in window and mickey mouse shirt]
Departures and Ongoing Conservation:
All land masses emote a feeling, but none are bolder or more memorable in geography and multiplicity of inspiring cultures as Mongolia. When we completed our objectives and prepared to return home we did so changed by this great land and its indomitable presence. It is not a country you leave behind, rather, it becomes a part of you, a milestone in a life of incomparable experiences.
Two months later in January, Bill and Daniel joined me in NY to present our experiences translated into fashion, conservation and adventure coinciding with 2001’s fall fashion week. As gracious as ever, Jalsa Urubshurow, who’d arranged our travels and logistics in Mongolia was on hand. Daniel’s photography was presented in a gallery format and my fashions were worn by live models who mingled with the crowd of fashion editors, the President of Bergdorf Goodman, longtime friend and outspoken Native American activist Russell Means, and a host of good friends. Our most notable guest, however, was a Golden Eagle by the name of One-Eyed Jack, who’d been rescued from a power-line accident that blinded him in one eye. Jack was used to working with crowds and all present were enamored with his regal persona.
The Cornell Club was the perfect venue for our gathering. Tom Cade, the founder of the Peregrine Fund, had been a professor of zoology at Cornell when his pioneering studies in the demise of the Peregrine Falcon not only discovered the cause of the bird’s disappearance but it’s complete return and removal from the endangered species list.
From The Peregrine Fund’s website:
Forty years ago, The Peregrine Fund began its work with a simple mission to save the Peregrine Falcon from extinction. Today, we work around the world, conserving birds of prey faced with habitat loss, poisoning, and other challenges. Peregrine Fund founder Tom Cade remembers the past and looks toward the future.
Dr. Cade’s response to what he sees for the future of The Peregrine Fund?
The Peregrine Fund grew to become much more than anyone originally envisioned. Today it carries out projects on raptor conservation all around the world, as well as continuing two major domestic projects on the endangered California Condor and Aplomado Falcon.
At the end of the last century, the staff, under Bill Burnham’s supervision, undertook a major effort to look into the future and to come up with a plan of operation for the 21st century. It involves greatly expanding our commitment to efforts carried out overseas, particularly in places like Southeast Asia and South America, where many species of endemic raptors are likely to need help in the coming decades.
It also provides for increased training and education of raptor biologists from foreign countries, while remaining vigilant in regard to developing problems in North America, such as those that likely will arise from the effects of climate change. These plans were reviewed several times by our board of directors and approved by them. They remain our best guideline for the future
No One Visits Mongolia Once:
It is said that no one visits Mongolia only once, a simple statement that I know as of fact. Jalsa Urubshurow became a close friend and in the years that followed he showed me the magnificence of the Gobi Desert, where we found 3,000-year-old petroglyphs of Ibex and their hunters with drawn bows and arrows. And, alone and without guides we explored the Flaming Cliffs rich in dinosaur fossils, from where the NY Museum of Natural History procured its famous eighty-million-year-old Fighting Dinosaurs display, a battle between a Velociraptor and Protoceratops frozen in time. There are other chapters I have yet to learn and experience, and via this site I intend for others to join me.
CNN INTERVIEW UPON MY RETURN FROM MONGOLIA
MONGOLIAN SUMMARY VIDEO
MY THANK YOU AND FARWELL TO FELLOW BROTHER AND KAZAKH EAGLE HUNTER
RUSSELL MEANS WITH ROBERT COMSTOCK AT CORNELL EVENT
Esteemed friend and President of The Peregrine Fund, Dr. Bill Burnham. discusses the relationship between TPF and myself
I was invited by Dillard’s to create exclusive collections, which ushered in an opportunity to enter the mid-tier market. Lifelong friendships were formed with Senior Management
"INTEGRITY MUST COME FROM THE CORE"
ROBERT ADDRESSING DILLARD'S STORE MANAGERS
An investment was made by both Dillard’s and RC to provide uniquely designed glove-soft leather garments with incomparable quality and value
A new showroom established in midtown Manhattan
I was featured in AMERICAN FASHION MENSWEAR
The Denver Post
DENVER POST 2011
2013 - 2014
A continuance with Dillard's and approaching opportunities with Federated/Bloomingdales
FALL C&Co Video prepared for Dillard’s and Bloomingdales
RC SHOP OPENING IN BLOOMINGDALES
“MEET THE INDUSTRIES EXECUTIVES WHO INSPIRE US, ENTERTAIN US AND MAKE US BETTER"
Idaho-Born Robert Comstock
Words by Kitt Doucette
Successful fashion designer, world traveler, adventurer, and conservationist. Yes. We know. He rocks. And that hair… hello Bob.
Robert Comstock has stories to tell. Hewn from experiences on the frozen tundra of Greenland and off-road races across Papua New Guinea. Tales of hunting with golden eagles on horseback alongside nomadic Mongolian Kazakh tribesmen and participating in a three-day Native American Sun Dance—the only non-native person invited to do so. He's trekked through remote Peruvian valleys, travelled down the Amazon River, and calls people like the late fierce Native American activist and actor Russell Means and the famous North Pole explorer Robert Peary's family close friends. As a board member and field researcher for the world-renowned Peregrine Fund, he's helped bring the peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction.
Hearing about his adventures and conservation work you might think Robert Comstock is and does any number of things when he's not exploring the most remote parts of the globe and living with native peoples. That he works in high fashion, as a leading designer and entrepreneur, would probably not be one of them. But that's exactly what makes Robert Comstock so successful; he's an enigma in the fashion world and refuses to bow to the rapid-fire trends that control it. In fact, he just simply refuses to bow to any societal trend or pre-conceived notion of what his life should be. How he landed in the fashion world? Well, that's a damn good story.
SEE REST OF ARTICLE: https://www.biglifemag.com/idaho-born-robert-comstock/