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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Free Air

Nate Gray, founder of Free Air Life Co., prepares to press a shirt design in his garage, the place where most of the shirt-making magic happens, on Monday, April 11. // Photo by Matt Pearson
Nate Gray, founder of Free Air Life Co., prepares to press a shirt design in his garage, the place where most of the shirt-making magic happens, on Monday, April 11. // Photo by Matt Pearson

Senior Nate Gray smiles as he recalls the 75-day bike ride that prompted him to found his nonprofit clothing line, Free Air Life Co.

With a kayak strapped to the top of his Toyota 4Runner and a bright green “Free Air” sticker on display in the center of the back window, Nate Gray steps out dressed in a red checkered flannel and green fleece shorts.

Gray can immediately be taken as the stereotypical Bellingham man, though this is not the case.

Gray encourages people to venture outside through his line of outdoor focused T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies and accessories.

In the six months the company has been up and running, Free Air Life Co. has donated all of its proceeds to charity.

“This is solely a way to give back, it’s not necessarily a business that I want to grow as a money-making thing,” Gray said.

With a minimalistic design approach, Gray said the line reflects who he is as a person and his passion for the outdoors.

“I took a bike ride across the country last summer and I wanted to raise a lot of money for charity and I really didn’t know how to do that,” Gray said. “I came up with some hats and shirts and whatnot and I was able to raise $2,000 just from product sales to give to charity.”

Bayly Peterson, who joined Gray on the bike trip, said Gray has found a balance in his life with the creation of Free Air Life Co.

“Go climb that mountain, go run and be uncomfortable. Find yourself in that way.” 

Senior, Nate Gray

“I think there was probably a mutual relationship between Free Air Life and the bike trip,” Peterson said in an email. “Nate wanted to do the trip really badly but needed funding, coincidentally he had always wanted to start a nonprofit as well and was able to see the opportunity that laid ahead.”

Originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Gray made the move to Bellingham at the age of 21 after previous trips to the Pacific Northwest confirmed his desire for a change of pace.

With the initial plan of going to law school to get his MBA, Gray took a risk by creating Free Air Life Co. and adapting a completely different lifestyle.

The idea of a clothing line fell into place after he made the decision to purchase the equipment necessary to print apparel, which he did himself.

“I had a lot of support from local businesses before I left for the bike ride,” Gray said. “Wander Brewing let me set up a table a few times and Boundary Bay let me set up a table. There was a huge support system I had and that support system is a large part of why we’re here today.”

“One thing that we’d really like to convey is having a sense of discomfort,” Gray said.

As REI and Instagram have both popularized outdoor living, Free Air Life Co. aims to push people toward uncomfortability, Gray said.

“Go climb that mountain, go run and be uncomfortable. Find yourself in that way,” Gray said.

Junior Burch Ault and one of Gray’s two designers said the idea behind the minimalistic approach is “super simple and outdoor-minded.” To Ault, simplicity is key.

“Keep the fun between your legs” is one of the company’s taglines, reminding people to get out on their bikes and enjoy nature.

Senior Kelsey Fausko, Gray’s other designer, designed the apparel for Nate’s bike ride and jumped onto Free Air Life Co. afterward.

“It’s nice that Burch and I have different styles because Nate can say if he wants something specific that Burch can do, he’ll hand it off to Burch and just be like ‘draw this, do this,’” Fausko said. “But if it’s something more my style he’ll give it to me. So we split that way.”

Free Air Life Co. creates a foundation of working and focusing on one charity each year and all proceeds from product sales go directly toward the charity.

“As a business owner as well, I enjoy the process Nate has pursued [in] his endeavors,” Peterson said in an email. “People often become too enveloped with their job and lose track of life. He has managed to live fully each day while simultaneously contributing to a greater good and grow his business.”

In their first official year of business, Gray, along with his design team Fausko and Ault, have chosen to partner with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, a community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring sustainable wild salmon runs in Whatcom County.

A Free Air Life Co. shirt hangs in display on Sunday, April 10. “The Hammock Design” is one of many original designs that reflect Burch Ault’s Pacific Northwest inspiration. // Photo by Matt Pearson
A Free Air Life Co. shirt hangs in display on Sunday, April 10. “The Hammock Design” is one of many original designs that reflect Burch Ault’s Pacific Northwest inspiration. // Photo by Matt Pearson

Gray said the decision to work with Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association came after the organization’s development manager, Adrian Shulock, reached out to him.

During the process of choosing a charity to work with for 2016, the group focused on looking at local youth charities in particular, Ault said.

“Nate and I grew up having the ability to go to camps and be in the wilderness and we want to make that possible for kids who can’t afford it in Whatcom County,” Ault said.

Ault, Gray and Fausko decided on Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association because they take the youth in Whatcom County and put them into restoration programs. This is a concept the team likes because it gets the youth into the outdoors and teaches them about the outdoors, why they are there and what they are doing for the habitat — all for free, Ault said.

“Our focus is getting kids outside and that’s what it always will be,” Gray said.

Even though the company has only been established for six monthws, Gray has received a lot of support from the community.

“I enjoy the process Nate has pursued [in] his endeavors.”

Bayly Peterson

Gray said the Downtown Bellingham Partnership is an organization that has continuously supported them.

The Downtown Bellingham Partnership has a mission of accelerating the development of Downtown Bellingham and a vision to inspire Bellingham with projects that build beautiful spaces, support local businesses while advocating for new ones.

Though Free Air Life Co. has received a significant amount of support, there have also been times of challenge for the company.

Every day comes with its ups and downs, Gray said. The company was recently denied a spot at Bellingham Farmers Market on the grounds that their nonprofit status gave them an unfair advantage. Gray didn’t necessarily agree. Although Free Air Life Co. gives 100 percent of its profits to charity, it is technically a for-profit business, he said.

Downs aside, Gray said the company’s goal moving forward is to get their product in more places, especially Seattle.

“It’s stressful sometimes, but at the end of the day it just is,” Gray said. “I made the decision to start it, do it and run it, so it’s my decision and my choice to do it. I’d rather be tired doing something I’m passionate about than working for someone else and just going through the motions.”

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