Everybody has a dream. For Rich Kunkel, it wasn’t to work in finance — although that is where he got his start in business. But Kunkel did leave the finance world with a solid dream, and part of that included living in Tahoe. He just needed to find a way to live here — an even bigger dream.
While his big dream wasn’t exactly to work in the glass dildo industry either, that was the path on which he set out, only to learn that idea was already blowing up when he thought of it … but, we digress. Rich Kunkel’s dream, back in 2002, was to find a way to make living in Tahoe financially feasible. Kunkel and a group of his best friends challenged each other to come up with their own entrepreneurial ventures that would allow them to continue to survive in our expensive mountain community.
The group of buddies came up with three business ventures. Then, they took a deep breath and moved down to Los Angeles to start their respective endeavors. Today, one still survives — actually, it thrives. It took Kunkel eight and a half years to make it to Tahoe once again, but the business he founded has afforded him a great life in the Sierra today.
To explain, a flashback: It all started years before in New York City. Kunkel and his buddies bought fun velour tracksuits at “The Number One Hip Hop Shop” and started wearing them around Tahoe. One night during a trip to Los Vegas, one of the buddies wore a tracksuit out to a bar.
An intoxicated stranger wandered up to the group and stood there, curiously looking at the guy.
The mystery woman tapped him on the shoulder and began to speak, slurring her words and swaying slightly, gently leaning to one side then the other. Her breath smelled of rosemary and lavender, the aroma captivating — or was it rum and cigarettes? Then, the drunken maiden cast a magic spell on Kunkel and his friends, one that would change his life forever.
“Why are you wearing that sweatsedo?” she questioned. It became a long-running joke among friends, and the business name was born. Kunkel soon found a bulk supplier and began selling velour tracksuits — sweatsedos — in custom colors, with personalized logos and designs embroidered or patterned in sequins.
“We were driving down to LA, not really sure what we were doing, and this guy calls up … ‘I know where to get sweatsedos [made] in downtown LA,’ he said. And so, I bought $5,000 of them on a credit card, put ‘em on a website, and people actually started buying them!” Kunkel remembers.
Slowly, the business took off. They sold maybe 50 units that first year. But in the end, that ultimate in luxury and comfort — the tracksuit — sold itself. People started catching on to the business, including the Green Bay Packers, whose quarterback Aaron Rodgers made the “green machine” design famous. Another highlight was when Jay Pritchett wore one on the ABC show Modern Family.
“It’s the best thing. A robe you can [only] wear around the house, that’s obviously the most comfort, but not necessarily acceptable outside of the house. The tracksuit, some people look at it as ‘oh I can go to the grocery store in it’ and other people look at it as ‘I can go out and have a really good time in it,’” he says.
For Kunkel, who is, in fact, a Squaw Valley ski bum through and through, the sweatsedo is the ultimate in après ski wear. Rumor even has it he’d like to open a shop locally within the next year. Imagine a little shop tucked away at — are you kidding? We can’t disclose where yet! — where locals can roll through and order a custom outfit and either have it personalized on the spot, or ready within 48 hours.
That’s made possible by Kunkel’s hard work, having grown the business to the point that it has weathered the steep tracksuit-making learning curve. Four years in, the business began sewing the tracksuits in-house, having learned about garment making through the process. Today, he’s acquired enough tools to move the business almost entirely to Carson City, making it feel more local to Tahoe. At the Carson hub, there’s an industrial sewing machine and a special fabric cutter, both of which are programmable, that will allow the team to build a garment to a person’s specific measurements.
Imagine what drunk-Vegas-lady would say now: Kunkel owns a thriving business all because of her wild comment many years back? Yes ma’am. But it wasn’t just that lady. In fact, we may be giving that lady too much credit. Because, really, talking with Kunkel, it’s easy to see that the business embodies his fun-loving spirit, and that maybe he would’ve found this life path even without the magic fairy.
“I definitely like to have a good time. I don’t look for it necessarily, but I don’t turn away from it when it shows up. I have always had a fun streak to me, no matter what’s been going on,” he says.
Kunkel definitely hasn’t turned away from the kind of fun that led him to create a thriving business. Some days, it’s still hard to believe for him. Many years ago, on that first day he left the three-piece-suit finance world, he let his bosses know he planned to leave, and people began asking if it was for real. “Where are you going?” they teased.
“I’m gonna go to Lake Tahoe and become a ski bum,” said Kunkel. “And everyone thought I’d go for a year and see how I liked it. And that was 2001. So, I liked it.”