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The American Resistance

The American Resistance

Indie ski makers continue to subvert ski culture from within, playing by their own rules, bringing new ideas to the slopes. All revolutions start small, but the mainstream regime has been put on ...
By Joe Cutts
posted: 12/21/2012
The American Resistance Tout

There’s a ski factory in Bangor, Maine. It’s not a big one. Chris Bagley, a recent graduate of UMaine Orono and longtime Sunday River and Sugarloaf skier, hopes to press 50 pairs of skis this year under his nascent Volition brand. 

“Sometimes I’ll grab beers and have some buddies over to help out,” Bagley says. And his fiancée’s studies in structural engineering come in handy. But otherwise Volition is a company of one. And Bagley isn’t even full-time. During the day, he puts his new-media degree to work as a web developer.

Bagley doesn’t sound like a bitter guy with a stick-it-to-the-man agenda. He wasn’t dissatisfied with the big-brand skis on the market. He’s just an avid skier and a committed consumer of local products. After a day of work developing websites, he likes to get his hands on something more tangible. The cliché is unavoidable: Making skis is his labor of love. 

Knowing exactly how many indie brands exist in North America, much less how big a share of the market they control, is impossible. The industry trade group SIA carefully tracks sales of skis sold in shops, but many indie brands sell directly to consumers, and those sales go uncounted.

“The best you can do for now is try to estimate their market share,” says SIA’s CFO, Bob Orbacz. “If there are eight or 10 of them doing four or five thousand pairs, plus a bunch of smaller ones, you might be looking at something like five to 10 percent of the market.” Orbacz’s estimate sounds about right to other industry veterans.

What do the big brands think of these (mostly) American upstarts? “There are guys who hate it,” says the U.S. general manager of one well known Euro brand. “Brands that sell direct-to-consumer aren’t supporting specialty retailers, which are the backbone of the industry. And they tend to cherry-pick the high end of the market—no rentals, no kids’ stuff. But I really don’t have a problem with it. Innovation is good for the sport, and they challenge us all to be competitive. Plus they force European factories to be more responsive to the needs of the North American market.”

Bagley’s Volition is unusual in that it’s based in the East. The majority of indies were bred in the Rockies. And the small-batch phenomenon isn’t entirely new: Brands like Miller, Igneous, Goode, RD, S Ski, Scotty Bob, and others—many long defunct—date back to the ’80s and ’90s.

With help and inspiration from the online community at Skibuilders.com, Bagley started out with a press he built from plywood. This year he upgraded to one made of metal. He’s had his struggles along the way. Getting materials delivered promptly from suppliers who have much bigger accounts can be tough, for instance. Other indies have learned even harder lessons in ski retailing. Moment Skis founder Casey Hakkanson, for instance, says last year’s snowless season crimped his cash flow, forcing him to cut back the number of skis he’ll build this year. Retailers struggling to pay for skis that didn’t sell sometimes choose to settle up with the big guys first, knowing those brands are more important to their success. 


But walk into just about any ski shop these days and it’s likely to have a couple of token indie brands on the wall. Cruise the message boards and you’ll see plenty of unreserved enthusiasm for U.S.-based manufacturers. Salt Lake City’s DPS, for instance, says it can’t keep up with demand. There’s a waiting list for its Spoon model, a radical powder ski design featuring a convex base. 

Indie fans have differing reasons for spurning mainstream brands. One message board poster admits there’s just a “cool factor” to having something no one else on the hill has. Some are ardent supporters of U.S.-based manufacturing (though many indies outsource manufacturing to Asia, just as some of the big guys do). 

As for the quality of the indie-brand ride, it’s uneven—even within the lines of some brands, and even from pair to pair of a given model. Bob Gleason, the Telluride shop owner and longtime SKI Magazine tester—likes two brands well enough to carry them in his shop: Wagner and Armada. He’s especially impressed with Wagner, based in nearby Placerville (though its custom creations start around $1,800). Gleason, like other testers, says some brands he’s tried still have a ways to go. 

What ultimately matters, though, is what sells, and for many skiers, “Made in USA” is enough. Bagley says now that he’s developed contacts, he gets all the components he needs from U.S. suppliers. Graphics are the easy part—he admits he’s more artist than engineer, and his Volitions are beautiful.
Ski making probably won’t pay the bills this year or even the next, and Bangor will remain a quiet outpost of the manufacturing world. For now, he gets more out of it than he puts into it, and that’s profit enough. 

 

Made in the USA 

For lots of indie ski buyers, supporting domestic jobs is a big part of the buzz.

Check out a gallery of notable American brands that manufacture on U.S. soil.

reviews of The American Resistance
Great article, Joe. I love seeing all the new indie ski manufacturers popping up. Not only can you buy in the USA, you can get even more local than that, as I did with my pair of 7B Skis from Sandpoint, Idaho. It's a good feeling to support your local ski town manufacturer, and it feels even better when they ski like a dream. I encourage everyone to spend their dollars in the USA by getting a unique, handcrafted gem that you should be able to find in your own backyard. I personally like the design of the Powder Claws by 7B Skis (Check 'em out at 7bskis.com ). Now, back to the powder....
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Thanks for the article Joe, This is a somewhat complementary article to the one by Frederick Reimers in the November issue of the sister publication "Skiing Mag" (http://www.skinet.com/skiing/articles/independents-day/) . When you say "Knowing exactly how many indie brands exist in North America, much less how big a share of the market they control, is impossible."...it's not quite true, we keep track of more than 300 ski companies at ExoticSkis.com, and the listing page has a filter for US ski makers, where about 90 U.S. companies show up (with manufacturing in various countries)...some companies are defunct, and new ones are always cropping up...but it's a fairly complete listing...not perfect...but not too bad. Knowing the VOLUME of sales for these indie brands is nearly impossible...that IS true! While the one "U.S. Manager of a European Brand" thinks the indie builders don't support the specialty retailer...and don't have "kid's stuff"...that is not true...many have had success drilling a spot into specialty retailers very well...and giving retail shops a shot in the arm with new and exciting products...normally sold at the same price on-line through the builder's website as in the retailer. Indie companies such as Praxis and Kingswood make some excellent kid-sized skis with innovative shapes and constructions for the junior set. The indie movement is here to stay, and you can spend your money on skis from a big corporate brand, or spend the same or even less to get an innovative, hand-made ski from some great small companies you can call directly and talk to about your ski's construction and personalization. Try calling one of the big-10 brands and ask to talk to the designer or technician doing the layup! Quality ranges from "garage-brand" to "elite specimen"...and everything in-between. Thank you for keeping the indie brands in the media...ski enthusiasts will benefit, and the industry becomes more diverse...all good things! Let it snow! Eric Edelstein Founder - ExoticSkis.com
I understand that it can be hard to track sales of indie brands that do much of their business direct-to-consumer but that caveat means you missed one of the best indie skis out there: Romp. These beauties are custom-made for each client. That includes the length, ski shape, camber, stiffness and even graphics. The core of each ski is made with sustainably-grown poplar and they are made in Crested Butte, Colorado, where people know a thing or two about high performance skiing. You can check them out at http://www.rompskis.com/.
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