THE BIG SKI COMPETITION
Byline: Daniela Gilbert / Rosemary Feitelberg, New York / with contributions from Alessandra Ilari, Milan / Jessica Gurkoff, Paris
NEW YORK — The race is on. When it comes to skiwear, can designers compete with authentic sport companies? And, do they even want to? The answer is yes, and yes.
As more and more designers enter the sports apparel arena, skiwear has proven to be an important market for their affluent clientele. Last year $772.6 million worth of ski and snowboard apparel was sold in the U.S., according to statistics from Ski Industries of America, an organization that oversees ski retailers and manufacturers. Industry experts estimate that sales of women’s apparel accounts for about half of that figure. Advancements in textile technology have helped, too — designer skiwear can now compete with traditional skiwear as far as function.
Everyone — sport enthusiasts included — wants to look the part when participating in a sport such as skiing and with the recent Seventies and Eighties revival in fashion, designers just might be in luck.
Ski looks from the early-to-mid Nineties — largely influenced by the onslaught of snowboarding with bigger, baggier clothes in muted, neutral colors — have taken a back seat to the more flashy, glamorous looks that were popular 20 and 30 years ago.
New introductions by labels such as Chanel, Prada Sport and Gianfranco Ferre Sport have heeded the call for more fashion-forward skiwear, and certainly, the fashion-conscious consumer will bite, but what about hard-core athletes, say, Olympic-caliber skiers? Would they give these designer looks a second glance, or dismiss them as unauthentic?
Nikki Stone, the 1998 Olympic Aerial Gold Medalist, said that since her retirement, she is a lot more open about wearing things other than traditional skiwear.
“I’m really girly when it comes to what I like to wear and although ski slopes are really not a place for fashion shows, I think designer skiwear can compete with traditional skiwear because the technical elements are there.
“Traditional skiwear, on the other hand, is doing much more in the way of fashion,” she noted. “Styles now are not as boxy as they were and clothing from companies such as Phoenix, Salomon and Bogner are definitely looking more feminine.”
Kim Reichhelm, world skiing champion in 1995, agrees that both markets are viable ones. “I love to look good,” she said. “With my Women’s Ski Adventures [which she founded in 1989], I’m on the mountain at least 100 days out of the year. What I wear has to keep me warm and dry, but I also want to look great.”
Reichhelm is sponsored by Nils, a company she actually pursued instead of the other way around. “I appreciate their clothing, because it’s more stylish than say, Obermeyer, and as functional as The North Face.
Designer skiwear, she said, can compete as far as function, yet Reichhelm thinks they fail in their marketing and advertising ventures. “I think the mistake a lot of these companies make is that their ads feature models and not real skiers. They need to give the clothing to real skiers, have them try it out and then use them in ads, in order for ski enthusiasts to take them seriously.”
Isolde Kostner, an Italian skier who placed third in downhill skiing at the last World Cup tournament, said although she’s never tried designer skiwear, she’s curious to see if the technical aspects would be up to par.
“I have never had the opportunity to try out the fashion brands, because I have to wear our sponsors and they supply us with plenty of clothes,” she said.
“If I did have the occasion, however, I would be eager to try some to see how they work technically, because in our field a piece of clothing has to be more than pretty.”
After all, pretty won’t cut it in the great outdoors, but designers insist they’re more than aware of that.
“Our standpoint from the start was that the skiwear had to be technically correct for a real skier,” said Barbara Cirkva, executive vice president of Chanel’s fashion division in the U.S.
“It’s not just a ski ‘look’ we’re doing,” she offered. “Whereas we definitely wanted fashion, it needed to be technical as well. It’s not for the apres-ski crowd, it’s for the real skier.”
The collection, which is new for fall 2000, includes both cropped and knee-length jackets, as well as knit pants and turtlenecks.
“We were looking to cater to the Chanel customer who also happens to be a great skier. She wants that Chanel style for ski as much as she wants it with other parts of her life,” she said.
While the fashion is unquestionably there with a house carrying the reputation that Chanel does, Cirkva also pointed out elements, such as fabrics and details, that make the pieces highly functional.
Along with polyurethane double coatings on the fabric, details include snaps on the sides of their powder pants and zip-off sleeves on the parka.
While Chanel freestanding stores and their boutiques in department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman will be the only retail venues to carry the collection this fall, they are looking to go forward and “explore other outlets that carry high-end skiwear, such as stores in Aspen and Vail,” said Cirkva.
Meanwhile, some established skiwear firms seem to be able to combine fashion and function without much difficulty. Brian Mangione, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Bogner based in Munich, Germany, said shoppers buy his brand and designer labels “from a fashion standpoint first and then expect it to be technical second.”
Bogner’s design team takes into account what Prada, Chanel and other designers are doing, but “puts a twist on it,” Mangione added.
Competing with traditional skiwear companies, however, is not really the goal at Gianfranco Ferre. “It’s a very different customer,” said Marco Brusamolin, a spokesman for the international press office of IT USA, Gianfranco Ferre’s parent company. “Ours is a very European approach to distribution.” The Gianfranco Ferre Sport line, which includes the skiwear collection, is available in Ferre boutiques and in a very select group of stores only. “We really have no plans at this time to distribute to more sport-driven stores,” added Brusamolin. “These pieces were created with the Gianfranco Ferre customer in mind.”
The collection can, however, compete with traditional skiwear as far as function. “The focus is really pre-ski or after-ski, but you can ski in these clothes. We are using the latest in technological fabrics,” he added. Examples in the collection include Tactel nylon and other performance-driven textiles that regulate body temperature.
Retailers, for their part, are divided on the issue. While some stores are open to featuring designer skiwear, some are still convinced that it’s still exclusive to the social set.
Kenny Friedman, owner of The Lodge at Vail, questions the authenticity of the technical features designer labels are offering.
According to Friedman, designers are pitching their style and brand status, since technical features can’t compete with performance-oriented lines like Spider. Given that, labels such as DKNY and RLX Polo Sport, among others, are geared more to department stores and specialty stores, he said.
“Designer brands copy ski designers. Oversized down jackets have been made by Gerry and The North Face for years. Now a designer gives it a gloss finish and suddenly it’s a new style,” Friedman said. “Vests have also been selling in the ski market forever.”
At Bernard Charvin Sports, located in the French town of Couchevel in Savoie, the buyer said they don’t sell designer lines because their clientele “is more serious about the sport.”
“As an instructor,” she added, “I wouldn’t wear it. We stick to more traditional ski clothing such as Jet-Set and Rossignol.”
At Blue Velvet, also in Couchevel in Savoie, a representative for the store said that although he feels designer skiwear is indeed for the social set, technically it’s up to par with traditional manufacturers.
“Although we sell Versace, D&G and Moschino, serious skiers still don’t tend to buy them because they are more expensive. So, it really depends on the economic status of the buyer.”
For Donatella Minuzzo, owner of Giuliana Minuzzo, a high-end store in Cervinia, a ski resort area in the Alps, many designer skiwear pieces are just not practical.
“Sometimes temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius are the norm,” she said.
One designer label that stands out, however, is Prada Sport.
“It’s some of the best,” Minuzzo said. “Thanks to their investment power and avant-garde research, which is very costly, they deliver one of the best products on the market. Their fabrics and treatments, which include great nylons, as well as Teflon and Gore-Tex coatings, are some of the best around, because they are simply indestructible.”
Killy, Outrage, Aspesi and Moncler are other brands she supports.
Connie Lashley, clothing buyer for Princeton Sports, with shops in Baltimore and Columbia, Md., said designers have helped to make skiwear acceptable as streetwear.
“They have certainly made skiwear more mainstream,” she noted. “Everywhere there are people walking around in ski jackets. Before, that wasn’t considered appropriate streetwear unless you lived in Colorado.”
Two domestic skiwear manufacturers were more skeptical about designers’ impact on the women’s business.
Barbara Owen, director of sales and marketing for Sport Obermeyer, doesn’t think designers have had a major impact on the ski industry. But she does concede that DKNY and Prada have made inroads in the market by serving up fashionable sweaters and jackets. Most specialty ski stores buy these looks to jazz up their sales floors or window displays, she said.
“Retailers buy designer goods as part of their advertising budgets almost. They use them to merchandise their windows or displays,” Owen said.
Designer skiwear tends to be purchased by women trying a sport for the first time who are familiar with the label, or by women who have shopped in the same ski specialty store for years and want to try something new, Owen said.
Mike Herman, vice president of marketing for Rossignol, said Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have “squeezed” their way into the already-crowded skiwear market with their marketing muscle. Hilfiger, for example, opened a boutique at the main entrance of Utah’s Snowbird ski resort.
“Those are the guys we watch and worry about because of the size of their marketing budgets,” he said. “They are able to buy real estate and rack space, while the rest of us kick and scratch for it with the best product and values we can offer. “
Ski specialty stores tend to be a “pretty fickle” group, and loyalty is not sold based on style, Herman said. Designers have to produce performance-oriented products to be in the business.
“Everybody has a technical story to tell. You have to or you can’t be in business. We’ve been in business for just shy of 100 years, so we think we have a little more horsepower to go out there to get people to ski in our clothes.”