As Thoren steps down, the country’s first ever women-only ski shop will live on as Outdoor DIVAS
When we heard at the 2015 SIA Snow Show that Kim Walker was taking over the reins at Jeannie Thoren’s Women’s Ski Center in Vail, we were excited to know the legacy of the first women-only ski shop would continue.
Thoren has solidly claimed her spot as a ski legend, cemented by her induction into the Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame last spring. Walker has been an authority on women’s ski retailing for over 15 years. There could be no more perfect fit to transition the shop in Vail.
In order to fully understand the significance of this event, we knew we needed to get the bigger picture of how and why the country’s only women-specific ski shop came to be, and what the future holds for both women.
So we headed out to Boulder to visit Outdoor DIVAS, which Walker has owned and run with her husband Mike Callas since 2002. Outdoor DIVAS sells skis in the winter and does expert women’s boot fitting, along with supplying Boulder area women with the gear for any outdoor adventure, year-round. It is a similar version of what Thoren was doing in Vail, but not ski-only, and it’s the only other shop we know of in the country that does women-only ski gear in any capacity.
Outdoor DIVAS also runs various clinics and races throughout the year and has a great following of Boulder outdoorswomen who rely on the shop for the all-important mix of fashion and woman-specific function. The space is colorful and eye catching, and at this time of year, the great array of summer gear made us want to head for the hills on a trail run ASAP.
It was a gorgeous, sunny Colorado day, so we sat outside the shop with Walker as we got in touch with Thoren by phone. Thoren and her husband Tom Haas had already left Vail and headed to Minnesota, where they have a summer house. Haas developed some medical issues recently that made it difficult for him to be at altitude, which is the reason for their current retirement from retailing. When Kim got Jeannie on the phone, we were able to have a great chat about the next chapter for both women.
Of course the first thing to discuss was how happy Jeannie is about Kim and Mike taking over the shop. “We know that they will do the best job. They are the ones that already have the experience. They have the vision. Tom and I couldn’t be more thrilled that they will keep the shop going, because it’s so important to us.”
“What I really want is for this women’s ski shop never to go away,” Thoren said. “Because I really believe that it is the future. We are the first, but we are just the beginning. All the women I have seen in my clinics over the years, they didn’t want to settle for an ill-fitting boot or a ski that won’t allow them to improve. Women these days don’t want to settle for anything and shouldn’t have to. They want to grasp everything that this sport has to offer and we want to be there to help make that happen.”
Thoren has been a crusader for women’s rights to properly fitting equipment ever since she started skiing back in the 50’s, and while we were on the phone she gave us some background about how the shop in Vail came to be.
Thoren explained that when she started to ski there was no women-specific equipment. She began to customize her own equipment and saw a direct connection between her gear and the improvement in her technique. Soon she was on a mission. “In 1981 I held my first women’s gear clinic, at Buck Hill in Minnesota. And eventually this grew to around 70 per season, across the country, from 1988 to 2006. I traveled around with a van full of skis and boots, helping women see that the correct equipment could make a world of difference.” Over the years, her “Thoren Theory Women’s Ski Equipment Seminars” helped thousands of women throughout North America to improve their skiing.
SIA research director Kelly Davis is one of those women who has been helped by the Thoren Theory clinics. “I remember when Jeannie got in there and did a proper boot fitting for me, it was a revelation,” Davis said. “My feet didn’t hurt, and I could feel the ski under my boot so much better. It was easier to turn. When we got out on the hill and she showed me what a difference it could make, I was blown away.”
This is what you hear from women across the country who have been helped by Thoren, and it’s why she is known as the “Johnny Appleseed of Women’s Skiing.” She has truly planted the seed for thousands of women to grow as skiers.
Alongside her clinics, Thoren worked with the ski companies to develop women-specific gear. In 1986, she worked with Blizzard to design the first-ever women’s ski. While traveling the country with her clinics, she also worked as a marketing consultant and wrote for Skiing Magazine, popularizing her mantras that “women are not small men” and that women’s equipment can’t just follow a “shrink it and pink it” method. While working for Dynastar Lange, she designed the woman-specific Exclusive Carve Ski which was SKI magazine’s ski of the year in 2007.
As Thoren tells the story of opening her shop six years ago, it feels like an adventure. “I had just finished working as a women’s category manager for Dynastar Lange,” she said. “I was doing a clinic at Buckeye Sports, in Cleveland, and when we were leaving, the owners of the shop, Jim Armington and his wife Cheryl, said, ‘If you ever wanted to have your own ski shop, you go find it. We’ll back you.’”
“Tom and I got in the car and he said, ‘Did you hear what I heard? Did he really say that?’ And I said ‘Yes!!’ So we called Heidi Bintz who I used to do clinics for at Double Diamond in Vail, and who is also a realtor. That’s how I found the location at Chair 8 and the Gondola. We wanted to be in that exact location so women could test skis and boots right outside the door.”
“That’s how we started. It was just a song and dance and people that believed in us and backed us. They said, ‘You’re the ones that know what you’re doing. Go ahead.’ And since then we have gained by 10-20 percent every year for six years. It shows the tremendous response we got from women who needed the personalized service and expertise that a women-only shop can offer.”
4-time Olympic skier Sarah Schleper lives close to the shop and was a frequent visitor. “The atmosphere of Jeannie Thoren’s shop was absolutely delightful,” she said. “In passing on my way home I would always want to stop and chat either about skiing or about anything. Jeannie and Tom are rays of light and that shop just lit up inside. I saw their shop as filling a gap for women in our town. Women who wanted great fitting boots, or alignment or skis specifically designed for women. Jeannie and Tom are masters in defining what a woman needs for her style of skiing, for her body shape and the esthetics that are so important to women.”
“I think Jeannie’s name is so big and she was adamant that the shop be passed on to business owners who know women and know skiing. They could not have found a better match with Mike and Kim and the Outdoor DIVAS crew. Things sometimes work out just right, and this is one of those things,” Schleper added.
It’s been a smooth transition as Walker takes over the Vail shop. “This summer it’s a Lolë pop-up shop. That’s the easiest way for us to get it going. We’ve had some busy weekends so far and it seems great. We’ll really get up and running in October or November. We’re hoping Jeannie will come out in December and help us out. Then we can develop a year round program and work on a schedule for clinics and events. We’re really looking forward to it,” Kim said.
Jeannie enthusiastically agrees that she’ll be there. “I’m not retiring!” she exclaims. “I have a lot more work to do. I think that mentoring is one of the most important things we can do, and I believe that we need more women-only shops and women-specific gear to make skiing as accessible and enjoyable for women as possible.”
“Another area that I think needs work is in the rental market,” she added. “If a woman can’t get well-fitted rental boots then it’s game over and you’ve lost a potential addition to the consumer base. Not to mention the rest of her family. To me, that’s so tragic. The industry’s got to have women’s rental boots. It’s my new mission to kick some people in the hiney and make this happen. So, there’s a lot still to do. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Walker agreed that while progress has certainly been made in the industry, and continues to be made constantly, there is still a lot that can be done to help women skiers.
“You go back to the whole thing if momma isn’t happy, nobody’s happy,” Walker said. “Jeannie’s absolutely right. If your feet hurt and you’re cold and you’re miserable, why bother? I think we still need to change the industry. It is getting better, but I think trying to have a women’s ski center that’s focusing on women’s rentals and demos is really important. Something that is going to keep women in the sport so that the family stays skiing instead of going to the beach. You know, it’s still a dude-fest, as much as I don’t want it to be, and as much as I think it isn’t. It still is. But it has definitely changed and come a long way, thanks to Jeannie, for sure.”
The Support Crew
Walker and Thoren give a huge amount of credit to the men behind the scene, their husbands Mike and Tom. “Mike is really the boot fitter for Kim and Tom is really the boot fitter for me, and that is key,” Thoren said. “We’re both so lucky that we had someone who believed in us, and also two males who didn’t have to get the credit. We get all of the credit. It’s always been Kim at Outdoor DIVAS and Jeannie at the Women’s Ski Center. They are really the guys behind us that keeping us moving.”
Both Tom Haas and Mike Callas are well known as expert women’s boot fitters, as well as trustworthy salespeople. “Over so many years of working only with women, they’ve learned how important it is to include the women in the buying and fitting process, and not to just have a guy say, ‘Here, take this. I love this one, you’re gonna love it.’ In fact, after the women would leave our shop and were thrilled with their boots, their husbands would bring their own boots in and ask Tom to help. We were always happy to do that. We’re equal opportunity,” Thoren joked.
Correct boot fit is a serious matter for Haas, and he agrees that the industry needs women-focused shops in order for women to stay in the customer base. “The ski industry is so male-centric that without a separate department or storefront that is exclusively for women, it is highly unlikely that the average women consumer will get properly fitting equipment. As an equipment based activity, your success in skiing is largely dependent on how well the equipment fits your physiology. Without a staff fully immersed and trained in the concepts of women’s physiology as it relates to ski equipment, it is much harder for the woman consumer to be properly outfitted for maximum success,” Haas said.
Both women agree that this formula is one that can be replicated in any mountain town, and should be. “Mentoring is so important for both of us. We’ve shown that women can do this, that it’s a necessary service for women to have a shop of their own so they can rent and buy well fitted equipment, and we want to help other women do the same thing. We hope it’s the wave of the future,” Thoren said.
In the meantime, the women of Vail as well as Thoren and Walker’s supporters across the country are thrilled to know that the Women’s Ski Center will live on in the expert hands of Kim Walker and Mike Callas.
As Sarah Schleper concluded, “Both Jeannie and Kim are role models for me as an aspiring mentor for women. Jeannie’s legacy continues to shine through our town, through our ski nation and through the world of women’s skiing. Kim is a woman with feeling, passion, creativity and heart for skiing, our town, and mostly for women in sports. This shop will continue to be a huge success in Lionshead and I wish them both nothing but the best.”
From SIA, a big thanks to Kim and Jeannie for a fun afternoon of chatting about women in retailing and the industry. Outdoor DIVAS in Vail is officially open with Lolë, and will feature a full ski inventory starting in the fall. We’re looking forward to visiting the renovated shop this winter. And of course, we can’t wait to see what Jeannie Thoren does next. We wish her tons of luck in her next endeavor and know that whatever form it takes, it will benefit women skiers everywhere.
For more information about Outdoor DIVAS, visit outdoordivas.com. For information about Jeannie Thoren, check out her bio at the Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and go to her website at jeanniethoren.com.