All Ways Down: 20 Years of Rome SDS

Rome Snowboards hit the ripe old age of 20

It’s hard to believe, but this winter Rome Snowboards – a brand founded by two ex-Burton employees as the punk rock antidote to corporate culture – hit the ripe old age of 20.

“The initial flame was to create a brand that kept rider feedback at the core of all decision making”

“The initial flame was to create a brand that kept rider feedback at the core of all decision making,” recalls Matt Stillman, Rome’s Marketing & Team Manager. “Its full name has always been Rome Snowboard Design Syndicate – or Rome SDS – and the concept is that anyone who rides our product is a part of the Syndicate; we welcome feedback. That might seem really straightforward in this day and age, but in 2001 the industry was flush with copycat brands and pointless jargon that didn’t leave the passionate rider with many meaningful options.”

Famously, Rome OGs Josh Reid and Paul Maravetz weren’t allowed to build their own boards for a couple of years after leaving the (ahem) other Vermont-based manufacturer, owing to a ‘Do Not Compete’ clause in their contracts. As soon as they had a green light from the lawyers, though, they set about realising their vision for an upstart brand – starting with a logo. “The Rome Star was the product of endless revisions by our initial designer,” says Stillman. “She worked in multiple design references that came together to become the Star.” Then there’s the iconic ‘Break’ logo – seen across all this winter’s 20th anniversary product line. “It’s inspired by the image of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar on the cover of the Clash album, London Calling. It’s a nod to the idea of breaking from convention – to those anti-establishment themes of the album and which are in the brand’s DNA.”

Looking back at some of Rome’s classic ads and graphics over the years, that same rebel aesthetic permeates everything, while phrases like ‘voices of dissent’, ‘kids on shred’ and ‘corrosion of the corporate’ are peppered through their catalogues. For Stillman, it’s representative of “a DIY ethos – that scrappy East Coast ‘born of ice’ attitude.” The original thinking behind the SDS, he explains, “was really about telling the story of people who made snowboarding their life’s work. The idea is to listen to their voices to help design the product and set the course for the brand. From events and visuals to just… trying to be disruptive in the sense of being true to snowboarding.”

“Rome OGs Josh Reid and Paul Maravetz weren’t allowed to built their own boards for a couple of years after leaving the (ahem) other Vermont-based factory”

Central to this crusade has been the rider team – both the pros and Rome’s extensive ‘AmArmy’. The first recruits back in the day were Matt Downey, Jonaven Moore, Jesse Fox, and Gregg Wilson, soon followed by stalwarts like Marie-France Roy (MFR), Laurent-Nicholas Paquin (LNP) and Will Lavigne. Did these initial ambassadors have something in common?

“I always saw the early group of riders as a crew who prioritised snowboarding above all else,” replies Stillman. “Riders with their own unique take on how things could actually be ridden, or what they wore or what terrain they wanted to ride. A mixture of passion, personality and talent, I suppose.” Looking at a current roster that includes the likes of Stale Sandbech, Rene Rinnekangas and Madison Blackley, it’s hard to disagree with his assessment that “we still haven’t strayed too far from that framework.”

Beneath the attitude and the artwork, though, you’ve gotta have a good product, and Rome’s engineers have delivered some of the best innovations of the past couple of decades – not least on the binding front. AuxTech (those webbed straps that are now used by a bunch of brands on their high end models) was pioneered by the SDS; so too their PivotMount system, which took customisation to a new level, and their radical AsymWrap chassis that leaned into the movement for ‘surfy’ board feel. “Our binding team has really been ahead of the curve for some time,” agrees Stillman. “Those innovations embody the ‘riding first’ ideas that we pride ourselves on.” And as for their latest designs? “Right now, I’m pretty jazzed on Flax Walls and Flax Impact Plates. What I really like is just the notion of: ‘flax – isn’t that something in my smoothie?’ The idea of taking an existing material but finding a way to use it in a wildly different iteration is just peak innovation in my mind. I also got to ride a lot of Flax Wall protos so I feel like I have a good sense of and what it does – which as a marketing manager-slash-garden variety schlub of a boarder, is a really rewarding part of my job.”

“Those anti-establishment themes are in the brand’s DNA”

Ah yes, board testing. Being headquartered in the same timber frame building in Waterbury, Vermont for the whole of its history has enabled Rome to generate instant product feedback at the nearby mountains of Stowe, Subarbush and Bolton Valley. And because the local conditions are (how can we put this?) not quite J-Pow, you can be sure the kit is built tough. “Vermont can be a cruel mistress,” muses Stillman, “so we absolutely need our gear to stand up to the rigours of the season.” As the former home of the US Open – and still the destination of choice for thousands of college students who want to shred – those Vermont roots have also kept Rome embedded in the culture of snowboarding. “It’s emboldened our ‘All Ways Down’ ethos,” Stillman explains. “Our seasons are wildly unpredictable, but we’re just always keen to ride. Come hell or highwater – pow, ice, slush or boilerplate hellscapes – there’s always some fun to be had.”

It’s all too easy, when celebrating the 20th birthday of a brand like Rome, to wallow in nostalgia. God knows they’ve got a stacked highlight reel (“Filming and releasing Any Means, No Correct Way and The Shred Remains,” says Stillman when pushed to name a few of his own favourite moments. Then [deep breath]: “MFR winning Transworld rider of the year and video part of the year; winning the Transworld Team Shootout; Luke getting the cover of Snowboarder Mag on the Agent; Bjorn getting the cover of the TWS Photo annual (also on an Agent); the entire scope of the 12 Months project, then following it up with the Find Snowboarding series; Stale getting silver at the Sochi winter Olympics; Stale, Rene and Ozzy winning the Dew Tour Team Challenge; Madison winning Queen of Corbet’s Couloir; Rene winning Real Snow Street – the list goes on and on and on.”)

“SDS was really about telling the story of people who made snowboarding their life’s work”

But the thing is, Rome’s never been a brand that spends much time focusing on the past. Its ethos is to stay true to snowboarding’s roots, sure, but the priority is to give a platform to current riders and push the culture as it exists RIGHT NOW. In fact the secret to Rome’s longevity, argues Stillman, lies in the constantly evolving energy of the collective. “The idea behind the SDS has always been that it’s bigger than one rider, one contest win or one product.”

So where does the fabled Syndicate go from here? What do the next 20 years hold for Rome? “We want to go snowboarding!” laughs Stillman. “All Ways Down till the edges rust out, the laces rip and the last patch of snow melts. Since 2001 till infinity.”

Amen to that.

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