Nathan Fielder, the Canadian comedian best known for his TV series Nathan for You on Comedy Central, opened a pop-up store in Vancouver this Sunday to promote his clothing company, Summit Ice Apparel. Fielder's business venture functions as equal parts philanthropic effort and performance art piece, or as he describes it, "an outdoor apparel company that openly promotes the true story of the Holocaust."
One look at its website is enough to understand that outdoor clothing and Holocaust awareness education is an absurd mix, and while that contrast is the gag, the nonprofit business is actually legit and all proceeds from the pop-up shop will be donated to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. The shop also offered free jackets in exchange for any Taiga jackets, a local Vancouver outdoor apparel company affiliated with Holocaust denier Doug Collins.
Knowing Fielder's panache for awkward stunts at the expense of others and Vancouver's un-ironic love for outdoor gear, the event was bound to be a weird one. I went down to the pop-up shop in East Vancouver to check out Fielder's retail vision for Summit Ice Apparel.
At 11:00 AM roughly 200 people—a mix of in-on-the-joke hipsters and active outdoor lovers—stood on the sidewalk in the pouring rain waiting to step inside the one-day-only store. Casually posted beside the entrance was a disclaimer noting that anyone entering the premises agreed to be filmed. Not many people read the notice as they were too distracted by the window display, which offered a large banner explaining the atrocities that took place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Directly beside the banner stood a statuesque topless blond dude with a six pack and a man bun, modeling an unzipped Summit Ice jacket.
As people began entering the store, a bouncer standing behind red rope stanchions asked every patron the same question, "Do you have gun or bomb?" His thick accent didn't help matters, but many customers were confused and clearly had no idea this event was partially humorous. Some people explained that they didn't know who Nathan Fielder was or what the event was for, but they simply saw a line, so they thought they should get in it. Others were there to exchange Taiga-branded jackets but seemed largely indifferent to the Holocaust imagery. All of this is part of Fielder's brilliant balance between business and comic performance art, showing that people will blindly support a company without concern for what it stands for.
In a brief interview, Fielder explained how Summit came to be and his personal beef with Taiga. "When I was younger, and until recently, I used to wear a jacket brand called Taiga, which is from a shop just down the street. I discovered recently that they published a tribute to a Holocaust denier in their winter catalogue, but I was wearing their jacket on my TV show. I felt like that was bad because I was giving them publicity. I didn't know what jacket company to trust, so I thought it was easiest to start my own company."
Summit Ice was first announced during an episode in the third season of Nathan for You. In the episode, Nathan worked in partnership with a rabbi in an effort to build a display for Summit Ice that would live as part of a Vancouver clothing shop. Going off the rabbi's suggestions, the in-store display they created came out hilarious and tasteless with swastika flags, concentration camp uniforms, and an oven filled with fake human bones. The owner of the store rejected the pitch and told Fielder to find a new career. I guess he showed them.
I expected to witness some of the above mentioned imagery inside the packed shop but was surprised to see that the store looked largely similar to every other outdoor clothing store in East Vancouver. There were mannequins decked out in Summit Ice fashion, racks of clothing, and even a TV playing a looped skiing video. Interspersed between the clothing displays were more banners featuring Holocaust imagery and information. When asked if the rabbi helped in this store's design this time around Nathan responded, "The rabbi wasn't involved with this. We kind of had creative differences in terms of where we were coming from. He's no longer officially involved with Summit Ice."
Fielder worked the check-out himself, greeting fans of the show and serving customers. Beside him was a bin piled high with old Taiga jackets that toppled onto the floor, right beside one of the Holocaust banners. Intentional or not, one can't help but appreciate the irony of a pile of discarded clothing (made by a brand affiliated with Holocaust denial) beside Nazi iconography. The website says the Taiga gear "will be disposed of in a manner deemed appropriate by Mr. Fielder," and I imagine those plans will be revealed in the next season of Nathan for You.
Aside from exchanging jacket, clothing sales, and accepting donations, the Summit Ice pop-up was also handing out free buttons bearing the company's apt slogan, "Deny Nothing." The catch? You had to listen to an employee tell you facts about the Holocaust. Afterward, the worker asked you a single question, "Do you believe the Holocaust happened?" If you answered "yes," the button was yours.
Despite being founded on a joke, the company found success in its philanthropic efforts to further Holocaust education. Fielder explained, "We didn't expect to get the amount of support we did. We did half a million dollars of sales in the first six months, and it became this bigger thing than we ever thought it would be. We came back recently to give the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, a check for 150 grand, which were our profits, and we opened up this store as a thank you to Vancouver and to sell more and get more money for VHEC."
However, to take this whole event as a joke would be reductive considering Fielder speaks earnestly about the cause, and all these sizable donations are being made at a time when neo-Nazism and the alt-right are coming out of the woodwork. Maybe selling jackets and Holocaust awareness isn't such a stupid concept. It's all part of the schtick. While Fielder's given plenty of ludicrous business advice on his show over the years, he's adamant that Summit Ice proves he knows what he's doing. "Well, I'm not sure if you saw the line around the block, but we have a lot of people coming through here and a lot of sales, and clearly I know what I'm doing and what I'm talking about when it comes to business. I studied at University of Victoria business school. It is my formal education, and I'm trying to use it as well as I can. The important thing is that you know it is about raising awareness, but the jackets are high quality with a soft-shell inner lining. They are water and wind resistant. So it is a quality jacket."
It's not certain if the quality of the jackets is responsible the company's success, but many celebs have been spotted wearing Summit Ice gear, including Fielder's high school friend Seth Rogen, Jack Black, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, among others. Fielder said, "When you start a good company that stands for something good, it's not a surprise when celebrities come aboard. We embrace it fully and think it's great. When people see it on celebrities, they want to buy it as well."
When I left the shop a few hours later, the line hadn't gotten any shorter. Though short lived, the pop-up nailed Nathan Fielder's particular brand of earnestness and his desire to push comedic boundaries by engaging with the real world. It's performance art with tangible political results. It's a joke that transcends its punchline. I can't wait to see how Nathan for You uses the tape to make me look like a fool.
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