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Home / Articles / Adventure / Adventure /  The Strafe story: How two CU students have created one of skiing's most interesting brands
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Wednesday, November 21,2012

The Strafe story: How two CU students have created one of skiing's most interesting brands

By Tom Winter
Photo courtesy of Tom Winter

The one-piece ski suit. It’s an object of ridicule. The preferred garb for gaper days and end-of-the-year parties. The kind of outfit that evokes pity when seen on a Texan and scorn from locals in Vail lift lines when the wearer paid north of $1,000 for the latest fur-trimmed Bogner design from the boutique at the base of the gondola.

 

But consider the other side of the one-piece. They’re warm. They keep the snow out when you fall. They’re worn by arctic explorers and fighter pilots. What would happen if someone could make a one-piece for skiing that’s cool? Something hip and fun and designed for the raddest skiers on the mountain, with high-tech fabrics and pockets in the right places and no stupid fur trim or leather fringe?

This was the question asked by two University of Colorado students, Pete and John Gaston, brothers from Aspen and the founders of Strafe Outerwear. The small brand based out of Aspen is quickly gaining a big reputation for quality and performance.

The Gastons were not your normal students.

“We were pretty unique in our freshman year in college,” John Gaston says. “We didn’t spend a single weekend in Boulder.”

“We lived in Aspen in the winter,” adds Pete Gaston. “We’d go down [to Boulder] Monday and on Thursday we’d be headed back to the mountains. We commuted. All four years.”

Their commute was made easier knowing that it was a sacrifice to be close to their passion, skiing, and that they’d have pole position on weekend powder days. Given their drive, it was only natural that they’d start to consider non-traditional careers as graduation loomed.

“Around our junior year we knew we didn’t want to get 9-to-5 desk jobs,” recalls John. “We took a trip to the Arlberg area in Austria our senior year, and that opened our eyes to the opportunity, to the big-mountain apparel presence in Europe and to the lack of similar brands in the United States.”

For those unfamiliar with skiing history, the Arlberg is where modern downhill skiing developed. It was here that early skiing pioneers, such as Mathias Zdarsky (the inventor of the first modern ski binding, which held the heel down on the ski), developed both the technique and equipment innovations that took skis from a tool for travelling across the rolling landscapes of northern Europe to a sport based on skiing down mountains. This region, with myriad big and small resorts, rich history and epic descents, is a cultural touchstone for skiing. It’s impossible to be in love with skiing and not be deeply influenced by a visit here. In the Arlberg, the past mingles with the future, providing a vision of what skiing was and what it can be. It is a powerful environment, where the landscape oozes the culture of the sport.

With inspiration from Austria’s legendary home of alpine skiing, the brothers were galvanized to take the risk of creating their own brand. They aimed to manufacture high-quality outerwear for a core consumer — the kind of people who live to spend their days outdoors in high alpine environments and who aren’t afraid of charging into a blizzard to score powder turns.

But the famed slopes of the Arlberg weren’t their only influence.

“When we were commuting, it was so we could ski Aspen Highlands,” says John. “It is where we learned to ski and it’s a little unique, with the bowl, and you hike and earn your turns.”

According to John, Aspen Highlands provided “the foundation of where our designs came from,” including an emphasis on breathability to handle the exertions that skiers and snowboarders are subjected to when hiking to terrain like Highlands Bowl.

“The first designs came about in 2009,” John Gaston recalls. “We spent almost 14 months in development, making different prototypes and designs, and then did a mini production run in 2010.”

And in an unlikely move, one of these first designs was their interpretation of the much-maligned one-piece ski suit, dubbed The Sickbird.

“I was pumped,” laughs Pete. “It was my first time wearing a real one-piece — it looks ridiculous!”

But it’s ridiculous in a good way. Designed with “a looser fit to make something we like,” says Pete, the suit has now become an iconic part of the Strafe line up, and is worn by some of the world’s best skiers, including Oakley White-Allen, a top competitor on the Freeride World Tour and the founder of eco-conscious bamboo ski pole company Panda Poles.

“The one-piece is fun and crazy, and it has complete functionality,” says White-Allen. “It’s my favorite piece of clothing to ski in.”

White-Allen rocked the suit this last summer when he was part of an elite group of athletes competing in the Swatch Skier’s Cup, held in Valle Nevado, Chile. The colorful garment suited the high alpine environment of the Andes, and it stood out, making White-Allen one of the most recognizable athletes at the event.

But while the Sickbird one-piece is the most iconic item in the Strafe line, it would be a mistake to think that the brand is being built around a single garment. There are four items in this year’s lineup, from jackets to pants, all of it inspired and influenced by serious ski time.

“We all ski 100 days a year,” says John. “We have a pretty diverse group at Strafe. Some are park, some are big mountain, so we can tap into as many different opinions as possible.

“From a product perspective, we make sure that our gear is lightweight,” he adds. “To have some looser, comfortable gear that is the same weight as what is offered by a technical mountaineering brand is pretty inspiring to us. We like to lap chairlifts, or tour all day, so the versatility is key for us.”

The Gastons also take as much feedback as they can so the brand reflects not just themselves but their staff and their customers.

“Because we are a small brand, we can take into account what our customers like in our product,” John Gaston says. “A lot of the testing for skiing [gear] is to go skiing.”

With a sponsored athlete stable that includes White-Allen, Katrina Devore, Whit Boucher and Baker Boyd, the brand isn’t starved for feedback, or toptier testers. “Our athletes are really important,” says John. “They ski as much and as hard as anyone, and they are tough on their gear. Their comments help us refine our designs.”

For John Gaston, this refinement is an ongoing process of re-evaluation of what the brand stands for, tweaks to existing products and the development of new ones.

“I’m really proud of our bibs,” he says, adding that Strafe has a new puffy coat in the works, along with a primaloft mid layer. A new softgoods line is also in the design phase.

Regardless of what the future brings, don’t expect the brand to move far from its roots. The company now has a combination office/showroom at the base of Aspen Highlands, and Pete and John Gaston still try to ski every day the mountain is open.

“It’s beneficial for us to be as close to the environment that we are building the brand [for],” says John. “We didn’t want to be a brand without a face. We are members of the community, and we wanted to create a hospitable environment, with a little lounge area to come and talk skiing.”

Or better yet, a place where those who love the sport can stop by and pick up the latest must-have item in ski wear: the reinvented one-piece. Which proves that some things in skiing — like powder days — never go out of style.

To learn more about Strafe, the clothing line and where to buy its products, visit strafeouterwear.com.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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