Ski Crafters and Culture: Is Boutique Better?

Imagine yourself in your preferred ski shop perusing some new skis. You look left down the line, then right. Bright colors radiate from beneath taught plastic, and designs that look like they would not be misplaced on outsized pecs and biceps jump from the top sheets. At the sight of these artworks a primal desire germinates. It is a lust to use gravity rather than fight it. A libidinal pulsation to transcend inhibition, and exchange it for the exhilaration of freedom.

The urge to strap on the planks and go for a slide is elemental by nature, blissfully compelling, and in many skiers spiritually important. The wall of skis in front of you suddenly becomes much more than a trendy merchandise arrangement developed from conscientious consumer research. It becomes a monument to fun; a collection of companions in the darkness of winter; a promise that your daily toil will ultimately be worth it once you hold your edge down a fast groomer, or bury your fatties in an untouched stash. How then do you go about relating to this wall? Which companion should you select?

This is not a gear guide, I will not be hashing out the minute technological details that makes one ski superior to another in a given set of conditions. If that is what you want to know, get off the internet, go to a ski shop, ask some questions, and touch some skis. This is a cultural guide to your ski choices, designed to inspire introspection into the community you help promulgate, and the activity that brings you joy.

In my head ski crafters can essentially be broken down into two categories: corporate brands (think Dynastar, Rossignol, Atomic, K2, Volkl, etc.) and boutique brands (think ON3P, Moment, Liberty, Icelantic, DPS, SkiLogik, etc.) At some point all of these brands, and many more, have produced high quality skis that many skiers have ripped as well as anybody. Yet, smaller more localized ski makers are gaining significant popularity within the industry. The small business model these companies are bringing to the industry is conducive to a winter sports community that has its roots in fringe culture, expression of self, and the pursuit of personal transformation. They foster artistry, technological innovation, and balance community and individualism in their products.  This ethos of product aligns with the idealism of the skiing community at large.

Individualism is a meaningful product to a skier, because skiing can be such a deeply personal experience. We build a fruitful bond with our skis because they make the entire act skiing possible. Skiing makes the self feel physically and emotionally accomplished. You may hit the slopes with your friends, or stay safe on big tours with your trusted partners, but in the end the self-contained act of skiing is based on one’s own physical ability and mental fortitude. You carve your own line, perform tricks with your own style, and ski on your own skis.

Post-modern westernized humans (that’s us) love to feel unique. It drives our emotions and day to day decisions. A more unique ski clearly caters to this obsession. Boutique crafters are offering up skis that draw eyes in the lift lines, but also exude the satisfaction of rarity. Humans also naturally seek out and form communities; solidarity is important to us. The more intimate the community is the more vital it feels. Think about how adamantly some skiers and riders represent their home mountains? How they religiously grill in the parking lot, or adamantly believe in earning your turns? We’ve all seen a roving posse of boys skiing with an exuberance insured by the support of their group. Whether they are slugging beers on chair, dropping f-bombs, or actually trying to improve their ability, they tend to act like a gang; blissfully ignorant of the opinions of others because they have their own.

As well as being a part of the skiing community at large, skiers have broken into smaller more emotionally immediate communities, and it is these communities that give the sport its flavor.  A localized ski manufacturer creates these types of communities with their products, enriching the culture in the process.

Skiing is a simple pleasure, very physical and primal in its expression. In describing their skis, a ski manufacturer will often appeal to this simplicity by saying this like “intentionally designed” or “crafted with purpose.” These phrases reinforce the idea that the people making the skis are eliminating distractions and solely focused on making a great ski, for the sake of making a great ski. It is a lovely concept but one that is much more believable and transparent in a smaller business. All businesses have to make enough money to sustain themselves, and when a business grows it requires higher volumes of cash flow. For a ski manufacturer that means selling more skis, to sell more skis it must appeal to a broader customer base, to appeal to a broader customer base it must make a more universally appreciated ski, or fracture its focus into many different models. If it grows big enough, all of the sudden the purpose behind the design is less about skiing and more about selling, compromising its authenticity.

All of this is irrelevant however if the skis being made are low quality. A ski needs to charge, no exceptions. Across the spectrum of ski manufacturers there are numerous brands, both big and small, that are putting out high quality and technologically advanced skis. To that end, anybody in the market for skis should carefully consider which ski would best fit them and why. If the Rossignol Super 7 fits your skier profile then I would never advocate not purchasing it simply because you will see about 30 other pairs on the mountain on any given weekend. It’s a good ski, with a good design philosophy, from a proven manufacturer. However as a consumer you benefit from a multiplicity of good skis and good design philosophies.

This is the pragmatic effect localized skis have on the industry. The money generated by Rossignol may fund a huge research and development department that led to the Super 7, regarded by many as truly fun ski to blast around on, but a few people in Avon, Colorado decided to start using laminate bamboo cores in their skis, and constructed the most fun ski I have stepped into, the Liberty Origin. The point is that ski crafting is a function of innovation, of trial and error, experimentation, and the restless pursuit of creating something superior to that which preceded it. By putting more minds to this task—by creating an influx of creativity and perspective—ski designing will see a quicker and more exciting evolution, benefiting skiers worldwide with a plethora of the most-fun-ski-ever.

Buy a ski that suits you, the beautiful thing is that there are plenty of options out there. But remember that purchasing skis is more than just a transaction, it is an exercise in culture, in ski culture. Work to create a culture you want to be a part of. I want to be a part of a ski culture that celebrates individualism, artistry, and authenticity. I want to support brands that keep that humble primal pleasure at the front of their business philosophy, and want to give back to the culture that created them. The unfortunate news is that this sport’s days are limited as climate change is having an irrevocable effect on our ability to ski. The foreseeable years will still yield snow, and the lifts will still run for a multi-billion dollar industry, but cultural change takes time, a long time. Let us maximize the time we have left to focus skiing not on those billions of dollars, but on the simple joy of getting down the mountain.

 

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About Drew P