Directions to Oakley headquarters in Foothill Ranch, California, read like coordinates to a secret rebel base: Turn on One Icon Drive. Pass the abandoned motocross ramp. Take a right at the helipad. And we're the 400,000-square-foot gray fortress at the top of the hill. Yeah, the one with the giant cylindrical spikes protruding from it. There's a torpedo out front. Can't miss it.
Inside, beyond heavy, unmarked doors, stands a cathedral-ceilinged chamber of riveted steel, like the air lock for a massive interplanetary docking station. As your pupils adjust to the dim interior light, it becomes clear that the creatures seated in the four B-52 ejector seats are not alien foes but surfer types who couldn't be more psyched to be here.
Oakley prides itself on aggressive nonconformity. "We obsess about every component of our business," says Oakley president Colin Baden, who first worked for the company as the architect of the unconventional headquarters. "This place wouldn't be this place if we weren't so design driven." To cultivate and control a distinctive vibe, Oakley keeps R&D, design, publicity, even advertising and marketing in-house, as well as the majority of eyewear manufacturing and distribution. These obsessive-compulsive tendencies prompted Milan-based, the largest eyewear company in the world (and owner of longtime rival Ray-Ban), to acquire Oakley — whose sunglasses are known for their sleek, futuristic forms — for $2.1 billion in cash this past November.
Baden came to the company after advising founder Jim Jannard on the design of a home. "We'd build half of it and tear it down," Baden says. "We did that a few times." Jannard wanted something inspired by Blade Runner, and while the house was never completed, the company HQ finally delivered on that vision. The typical glass box that is de rigueur for many SoCal corporations just wasn't an option. Baden recalls: "We said, Why not create something very progressive, but build it as if you didn't know if it was happening a thousand years from now or happened a thousand years before we got here?" Baden, who came on staff as design director in 1996 and became president in 1999, says his lost-in-time aesthetic borrows mostly from 1940s sawmills (maybe if you squint just so). In fact, much of the steel fabrication was done by an industrial shipbuilder in Tacoma, Washington. He also sourced industrial relics, including massive working exhaust valves. To amplify the absurdity, he requested ridiculously huge bolts and rivets (some in the entryway are a foot wide).
Strange though it may seem, the arsenal of bullets, torpedoes, and camo strewed throughout the building serves both fashion and philosophy. The company caters to two disparate audiences: athletes (including the skate/surf/snow constituency that Oakley is increasingly marketing to) and military and law-enforcement agencies with which the company holds enviable eyewear and footwear contracts. "These are close-knit communities," says Baden (who has been known to douse himself with water in meetings to prove the beading quality of Oakley lenses). Plus, he continues, "from a design standpoint, a torpedo's a pretty cool thing. Sure we could put Herman Miller couches in the lobby, but it's those B-52 ejector seats that leave the lasting impression."
Which brings us to the tank.
Any day now, a World War II-era Soviet T-34 tank will arrive at One Icon Drive. "Bringing a weapon of war into this country is kind of an interesting challenge," Baden says. Still, he sees it as yet another opportunity to reinforce the unconventional Oakley ethos. "I'm requiring that everyone at this company get a tank- driver's license," he deadpans. "New hire? Great, here's your new-employee paperwork. Now get out there and drive."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.