MUNICH — Abominable snowmen, beware. A new breed of fur-bedecked skiers with a penchant for glamorous styles is sending the outdoor and ski apparel category to new heights, despite the slowing economy and later starts to ski seasons.
While recent snowfalls in Europe have given the industry a welcome boost, an avalanche of lodge-loving luxury customers — particularly from Russia — are buying into chic outdoor sports styles and couturelike premium lines that can be worn both on and off the slopes.
The International Trade Fair for Sports Equipment and Fashion, also known as ISPO, which ran here from Jan. 27 to Jan. 30, was awash with "Doctor Zhivago"-style ski jackets with fur trims by Bogner, Vist's limited edition Aurum collection with 24-karat gold trimmings and William Sharp's cashmere wraps studded with 43,000 Swarovski crystals, slated to retail at about $20,000.
"Russians are heading to luxury resorts in Europe in great numbers," said Sharon Campbell, buying director for Snow & Rock, the U.K.'s largest independent outdoor and mountain sports retailer with 17 doors, including three in central London. With a new Snow & Rock store planned to open in Dublin next spring, Campbell said she would increase her budget for next winter, but only slightly.
"Retail is difficult right now, but the ski industry is more resilient. We have had a good year because it snowed. Add-on items such as scarves, gloves and hats are the margin makers, while high-end brands continue to sell well," she added.
"Harrods has had a fantastic season with both fashion and technical brands. The late start to the season has not affected the overall sales of fashion or technical ski brands," said Kerry Jones, sportswear buyer at the landmark London department store. "The added detail of gorgeous trims and embellishment adds that touch of elegance and glamour whilst on the slopes and means jackets can be perfect for both the ski slopes and après-ski."
Buyers agreed that sporty styles in monochrome color palettes with added injections of vivid colors such as red and cobalt blue, as well as plum and aubergines would be key directions for next fall. Allover prints, especially in snowboard styles, also punctuated collections here. Meanwhile, ultrafeminine silhouettes in stretch fabrics embellished with gold detailing, fur trim and Swarovski crystals were increasing in demand, according to retailers."We didn't feel the pinch," said Nicolas Engels, co-owner of Sport & the City, a 7,600-square-foot shop based in the Belgian resort town of Knokke-le-Zoute. The shop's brand portfolio counts high-end labels such as Bogner, M. Miller, Hell Is for Heroes and Prada Sport. "We have European customers with no limit to luxury purchases and we are also backed by a new clientele from China and especially Russia."
High-end skiwear firm also s have noticed an increasing demand for couturelike ski styles.
"The Eastern European market represents 40 percent of our sales," said Oliver Pabst, member of the board of management, sales and licenses for Bogner. Taking sports fashions to the ultimate extreme, Bogner said it was considering a new ski-couture category for its well-heeled clientele. "We have had record-breaking sales for the past two consecutive years," Pabst said, noting that Bogner's 2007 sales increased 10 percent to 170 million euros, or $249.1 million.
"We were unharmed by economic and environmental conditions because we have such a diverse fashion collection," said Pabst, noting that, in addition to its Bogner and Fire & Ice brands, the firm has expanded into watches, denim, luggage, eyewear, shoes and a golf line.
With more sports styles coming down from the mountains, sport brands here were expanding their retail reach in luxury resorts as well as city locations. Bogner, for example, will open its New York City flagship in May, Sweden's Peak Performance is gearing to open doors in Amsterdam and Vancouver, while The North Face says it's going to substantially increase its store count within the next three to five years to include more key cities in Europe as well as Alpine resort villages.
"The outdoor market has fared well, insulated from macroeconomic trends," said Topher Gaylord, president of VF Corp., outdoor and action sports international, which includes The North Face, Vans and Reef brands. According to Gaylord, the brand's diverse product offering enabled it to rise above unsteady economic and environmental times. The North Face unveiled Cryptic, an apparel line for free-ride skiers, at the show.
"Our high-end range is a bestseller," said Paul Goldstein, founder of the budding London-based label E+O. The brand boasts a variety of vivid colors with technical detailing, such as laser-cut seams, as well as fashion elements such as fur-trim and slim-fit pants as well as corduroy ski outfits. The collection retails for between $400 and $800.Blurring boundaries between the slope and the runway, fashion brands continued to have a strong presence at the show such as Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Emilio Pucci's collaborative lines for French ski firm Rossignol. France's outdoor firm, Lafuma, presented two debut collaborations collections by Thierry Mugler and Agatha Ruiz de le Prada. Meanwhile, Tommy Hilfiger unveiled its revamped ski apparel line for men and women. Taking its inspiration from free-ride skiers, the collection boasts technical and more fashion categories in red, white and blue.
"The market is going very premium," said Jan-Hein Habes, president of Tommy Hilfiger ski and sailing categories. Meanwhile, the Best of the Alps capsule collection features rustic ski styles. Royalties of the label will be donated to a charity in order to preserve alpine environments.
Indeed, environmental preservation is a natural part of ski and outdoor brands' DNA.
Take The North Face. While organic fabrics still only represent a small portion of the collection, the label is gearing up for a green revolution. "We are looking into more sustainable fabrics such as bamboo and organic fibers," said Gaylord. The North Face will unveil a new concept store built out of sustainable materials next year. In fact, green buildings are expected to be the next generation of retailing for outdoor brands and multibrand sports shops.
Gaylord applauded REI's recently opened green building prototype in Boulder, Colo. "We are taking a systematic approach to sustainable fashion. It won't be just one element of the collection, but the entire supply chain of the brand," Gaylord said. "Sports retail is shifting its strategy, the ones who are winning are those with an innovative retail concept. There is a big opportunity for highly specialized stores with an edgy concept."
Meanwhile, brands here continued to turn to the expert skiers for inspiration. Roxy, the Quiksilver-owned lifestyle brand, tapped 21-year-old Australian snowboard world champion Torah Bright to create a signature line for the brand.
"I'm a girl of fashion both on and off the slope," said Olympic gold medalist and Rossignol-sponsored athlete Julia Mancuso, who showed off Rossignol's first heated women's ski jacket. "It's still a man's market, but brands are working hard to combine feminine fashion with functional elements."
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