When it comes to the American business dream — testing and developing your own products, staying true to your passions, making things in your own backyard, staying debt free — a little-known apparel brand is keeping the bar very high. And not just because they’re designed and tested in the mountains outside of Leadville, Colorado.
Freeride Systems is what founder Michael Collins calls a “maggot brand” — hand forged through sheer determination, hard work, and authenticity, infiltrating the market in unlikely places such as the TGR Forums and made-in-America-friendly direct-to-consumer venues like Colorado gun shows for the last 10 years. He keeps his hair long and his head high, and while other brands seem to be beating the word authenticity into something unrecognizable, Collins is scraping it up and making some of the best jackets I’ve ever worn from it.
And in the last few seasons all this hard work has begun to pay off. In 2013 ABC News picked up the storm shells after Collins replied to an RFP for American-made apparel, and the jackets can now be seen on newscasters in snowstorms and hurricanes around the world. He says he walked in with his samples, long hair and all, and laid it all out on the table. And apparently the folks at ABC appreciated his “authenticity” as well.
Last year he started making jackets for Copper Mountain Ski Patrol. Other pros that use Freeride Systems jackets and fleeces include Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) forcasters, Search & Rescue (SAR), public transit and airport authority workers, plow drivers, and others who appreciate storm wear designed and tested at 9,600 feet. This caliber of small-batch client is more important to Collins than how many jackets he sells per year — and that statement alone speaks volumes.
These are hands-down some of the highest quality ski jackets out there — fully featured, seam sealed and crafted with Polartec NeoShell. Each jacket is hand made in Denver, Colorado. They feature one-hand-operation YKK zippers, “EZ UP TruHood” for true helmet compatibility, and they’re 100-percent waterproof/breathable, windproof, and with a three-way “Thru Powervent” for heat dumps. It’s the jacket Collins wanted when he moved from Tennessee to Leadville, but couldn’t find anything as good on the market, he says. He’s the classic ski-bum gear snob who won’t be satisfied with anything less than something locally made, minimizing global impacts, that allows him to ski as much as possible…not sit in a boardroom kowtowing to investors. Yet somehow he’s managed to make it work.
One of the interesting things about these jackets is the fact that they not only started off being sewn by the owner of the company in his garage, you’ve heard that one before, but they are still hand-sewn and seam taped in Colorado, bringing the highest amount of local economic impact to the state, and the country, with no foreign “sweatshop labor” as Collins puts it on the label. The brand also touts the fact that no debt or corporate ownership influences its designs or business decisions. And they also utilize their state-of-the-art seam taping technology in Denver doing contract work for other Colorado-made brands. He’s able to offer a wide size range to perfectly fit almost any sized skier body.
And while the product line hasn’t grown much — there’s still only three models of storm shells and a few fleece jackets and accessories — Collins doesn’t care. He’s happy being holed up in his cabin, working his ass off to make the best products at the best prices possible, so that ski bums like you can afford them, made and tested in your own backyard.