Industry News

Athlete Designers: Brands Kick Collaborations With Pros Into Overdrive

April 25, 2016 | 0 Comments

Athlete-brand collaborations are nothing new, from Jack Nicklaus-designed golf clubs to Air Jordans. And they’re not new in snow sports, either, with everyone from Shaun White to Tom Wallisch lending their expertise to better apparel, accessories and hardgoods. But lately, it’s kicked into turbo drive, with more athletes doubling as designers as manufacturers market their gear to a socially engaged generation and capitalize on something they desperately crave: feedback from pros in the field. 

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Big mountain skier Sean Petit partnered with MyPakage to create a signature action series line of boxer-briefs and baselayers.


Athletes and Apparel

“The work we do with our ambassadors is an integral part of our design process for technical snow and alpine equipment,” says Patagonia’s Corey Simpson. “We integrate their input with feedback and testing results from the field to ensure we’re making the best products possible. It’s a great way to get feedback at every stage of the design and development process, from initial prototype concepts through testing for performance, durability and ease of use. It’s invaluable.”

So sums up athletes’ contributions to the apparel side of the industry, with Patagonia one of many companies leading the charge. Case in point: Freeskier and social phenom Kye Petersen helping with R&D on Patagonia’s new stretchy and breathable Reconnaissance jacket and pants. And he was more than happy to lend a hand. “I feel privileged to help develop a kit tailored for avid backcountry users,” he says. “All the input I’ve given is directly related to how I use my gear in the backcountry. The Reconnaissance eliminates extra layering; I carry an outer layer to throw on at the top, but my jacket always stays on and allows my under layers to expel moisture that can be a nuisance or even dangerous.”

Kye-Patagoniagrove_g_0667-jm.jpgFreeskier and social phenom Kye Petersen partnered with Patagonia on its new Reconnaissance jacket and pants.

Smaller companies are also tapping athlete R&D, for fit as well as function. “We use pro skier Amie Engerbretson as our fit model,” says FlyLow Gear President Dan Abrams of the Warren Miller star. “She has tons of input on what we make and how it fits, especially for medium-sized women.”

The approach works for less core apparel, as well. This year SmartWool teamed with alpinist Conrad Anker to help develop its new PhD Mountaineer Socks, whose reduced in-boot bulk, heel compression cup and integrated mesh zones are a direct result of his field-testing. Conrad_Anker_PhD_mountaineer_sock-jm.jpgFor his efforts, a Conrad Anker emoji and Himalayan skyline adorn the sock tops. “I wanted a sock with comfort, fit and performance that could withstand the rigors of alpine climbing,” Anker says. 

And don’t overlook the contributions of big mountain skier Sean Pettit to the often overlooked underwear world. His recent partnership with MyPakage led to a signature Action Series underwear line of boxer-briefs, as well as backcountry-oriented first layers. “We’ve turned our Action Series into a canvas for athletes,” says spokesman Brian Schroy, adding that pro snowboarder TJ Schneider has also helped with its undergarment program.

Accessories

Accessories are also on the receiving end of athlete collaboration. POC has given three marquee winter athletes – Julia Mancuso, Jeremy Jones and Aaron Blunck – their own signature lines based on their design suggestions, including a helmet, goggles, sunglasses and, in Mancuso’s case, gloves. Involved in the entire process, Blunck debuted his collection last year after an R&D trip to Sweden led to the all-new Auric helmet design, which works with goggles and a beanie underneath, which is how he likes to wear it.

Bolle_JULIET_ANNA_FENNINGER_SIGNATURE_SERIES-jm.jpg Bollè athlete Anna Fenninger provides feedback for the company’s helmets, including three new ones for 2016 – a racing, recreational and junior – all with Fenninger-inspired graphics, including the Juliet, one of the helmets in the Anna Fenninger Signature Series. “It’s great to work with organizations like Bollé who are interested in more than just my success on the slopes,” she says. “Racing has given me insight into helmets’ performance, safety and comfort, which helps drive their development.”

Hardgoods

Perhaps nowhere is athlete input better received and used than in hardgoods, the most direct relation consumers have with the slopes. K2 has long been a leader in this realm, most recently enlisting pro Pep Fujas to help design its new Factory Team line, with input from fellow pros Pettit, Andy Mahre, Clayton Vila and Sean Jordan. “Our 2016-17 line is driven by athletes’ ideas, all of whom know a thing or two about having a good time,” says K2 brand director Mike Gutt. “And that’s what it’s all about for our customers.”

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All-around pro skier Pep Fujas helped K2 design its new factory team line, along with fellow pros Sean Petit, Andy Mahre, Clayton Vila and Sean Jordan

The team has created two new skis in the Factory Team freeride line, the 106-mm-waisted Marksman and 96-mm Poacher, both featuring a Double Barrel core utilizing denser material over the edges for durability. Influenced by the ski styles of Fujas, Pettit and Mahre, the Marksman also has asymmetrical tips and tails for such moves as butters and presses; the park-oriented Poacher reflects the styles of Jordan and Vila, with a Carbon Ollie Braid for pop and rebound. “The majority of my ski days are in less than ideal conditions where my skis take a beating,” Fujas says. “The Double Barrel Core maintains its ruggedness longer.” And the Marksman’s outside taper, he adds, “lets you cut through soft snow while still having a platform on the downhill ski and dominant foot.”

Marquee freestyle skier Tom Wallisch also joined Eric Pollard this year to develop two new models for Line. The new maple/aspen, 117-90-112 Tom Wallisch Pro includes a Carbon Ollieband to help skiers jump on and off anything. “Tom’s feedback, insight and general passion for being able to make gear he’s proud of motivates everyone in the company,” says brand director Josh Malczyk. “Having athlete involvement like this helps us stay one step ahead.” Malczyk sings similar praise for Pollard’s new Pescado, an easy-flexing directional powder ski adorned with Pollard’s timeless topsheet and base graphics.

Athletes are equally involved on the snowboard side. RIDE’s new Warpig stems from a weekend at the Dirksen Derby race where its entire seven-rider pro team, including Jake Blauvelt, rode all conditions all day. “They got weird on everything possible,” says RIDE spokesman Keith Cozzens. “It was a great, full-team collaboration effort, resulting in an awesome new board.” Another athlete-inspired feature is the Squad highback on the Rodeo binding. “The team refers to themselves as a ‘squad,’” Cozzens says. “When asked how to improve the binding—a team favorite—they wanted a new highback with the same flex.” Their feedback also carries over to graphics, with the new Kink showing each team rider in cartoon character. “We gave artist Sean Cliver little hints of their personality traits, and he transformed them into illustrations,” Cozzens says.

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Ride’s new Warpig Snowboard was built after a weekend when its seven-rider pro team rode every condition possible.

Brands like Icelantic also rely on athlete time in the trenches. “We have a team of about 16 athletes, four of whom are pros and the rest we supply with product,” says CEO Annelise Loevlie. “Each year, we give specific athletes relevant prototypes to ski as hard as they can and then they give us feedback on them. We don’t have a specific pro model or one specific athlete that we’re designing around, but that may come in the future.” This year, she adds, they did work with athlete Jason Levinthal to help develop Icelantic’s 2016-17 lineup.

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The Volkl Revolt was developed with input from pro Ahmet Dadali 

Even more venerable brands like Völkl, which has long used World Cup racer feedback for its carving skis, has expanded from its racing relationships to athlete feedback for its freeriding skis. Developed with Ahmet Dadali, the new 21-meter-radius Revolt, with tip and tail flex points for buttering, is targeted at younger riders and has a non-symmetric shape for jibbing. “It’s the first time we’ve done something like that, having such direct involvement on a twin tip ski,” says Völkl’s Geoff Curtis. “Ahmet was involved throughout the whole R&D process to realize the right flex, width, rocker profile and skiability.”

The bottom line for manufacturers is feedback they can’t get in the office. “Our entire team lends assistance as we work through prototypes,” says DPS team manager Erme Catino, whose team—consisting of Zack Giffin, Piers Solomon, Olof Larsson, Santiago Guzman and Drew Petersen – is affectionately known as the Koalas.

Solomon, he adds, worked with company founder Stephan Drake this past year to launch a new ski to accommodate his big-mountain jib style. “We were borne out of the grassroots mission to build skis for those who live and breathe the sport,” Catino says. “Our pro team fits right in with that. Their feedback on our skis, brand and films is all intertwined.”  

Behind the Design

For an inside look on how athletes help with design, we asked Scarpa athlete Chris Davenport, who most recently helped design the company’s new Freedom RS boot, what’s involved in bringing a piece of gear to fruition.

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Q: What do you like about helping develop product?

CD: I’ve spent most of my life in ski boots, on skis and wearing ski apparel, so I have a unique understanding of what works and what doesn’t in a variety of skiing disciplines and environments. I’ve always been a gear geek and love tinkering with my gear to try and make it better. Boots are really tricky to get right; it’s more an art form than a science. Fit is paramount, and those first seconds when a consumer steps into a boot are so important. I love the process of product development, going from a concept, to a series of prototypes which we test over and over, to a production product is really satisfying.

Q: How do you help in the design?

CD: I come in at the concept phase and am involved in the discussions with the designers and product engineers as to what this product should ultimately look like and who the target consumer is. Later, I ski in prototypes to test things like flex, torsional rigidity, ease of getting in and out, and other things. I act as a lens into the market’s needs and desires and try to fulfill them with the product team.

Q: How do you quantify your recommendations?

CD: The main filter I use when recommending a change or suggesting an upgrade is, will the consumer benefit from these changes or upgrades? Will it ultimately help us sell more product? And do I have a positive intuitive feel for the recommendation? I have to listen to my gut instinct and pass that information up the line.

Q: How does it feel to see your suggestions come to life?

CD: When we launched the first Scarpa Freedom SL boot it was a thrill because I’d been involved since the very beginning of that project, and the boot has gone on to become our best-seller. We correctly identified a market need and filled it with a product that has become the leader in the freeride touring category. Whether it’s boots, skis or apparel, when my ideas and visions are implemented in a smart and strategic way it’s an incredibly rewarding experience and one that has become a big part of my business in skiing. —E.B.

 Find the full SIA Snow Show Daily article in Day 3, page 14. 

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