Going off piste: the story of skiing’s radical reimagining

Skiing was on a downhill slope in the early 1990s, but thanks to a radical development in product design, the sport was reinvigorated. Today, its revitalisation continues through different means, writes Elizabeth Matsangou

 
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Despite its current popularity, skiing has not always held an elevated status – in fact, back in the early 1990s, it was on a downward spiral

Soaring at adrenaline-boosting speeds, surrounded by blankets of pristine white and sublime mountainous ridges with the bright sun overhead, skiing is a truly special pastime. Today, millions of people from around the globe – and across a broad set of demographics – enjoy the sport. According to the 2019 International Report on Snow and Mountain Tourism, the industry sees around 400 million skiers take to the slopes each year.

Despite its current popularity, skiing has not always held this elevated status – in fact, back in the early 1990s, it was on a downward spiral. Stuck in a rut of the European racing style, the sport had become boring. Snowboarding, on the other hand, was blowing up; it had become the rebel sport on the slopes.

“Skiing at the time was on a really big decline – it was really shrinking, and snowboarding was taking all its customers,” said Jason Levinthal, the man behind ski brands Line Skis and J Skis. “Ski companies were not able to come up with an answer to snowboarding’s popularity to get them to buy skis and participate in skiing.”

All in the design
At the time, an evolution in product design had taken place across a number of action sports. Skateboards, for instance, became twin-tipped, allowing both forward and backward motions and making a whole range of new movements possible. Wakeboards, meanwhile, had evolved from water skis, while BMX bikes were developed from traditional bicycles, enabling individuals to race down mountains and perform awe-inspiring tricks.

The skiboard design enabled the wearer to take off and land backwards, as well as ski backwards down a slope – something that was not possible before

“As a kid, I watched and participated in a lot of action sports,” Levinthal said. “They all were rejuvenated by a redesign of the product itself. [With skiing]… there had been no evolution or progression in the design of the ski for decades.” In fact, skiers weren’t even allowed in terrain parks – they were strictly snowboarders’ territory. “I was frustrated with the current design of the ski products at the time because I felt they were holding me back,” Levinthal said. “[With] snowboarding, I could go backwards, I could carve, I could float better in powder, and it was easier to do more tricks.”

Levinthal set forth on a mission to change the boring ‘run’ that skiing had taken. While studying graphic and product design at the University at Buffalo, Levinthal designed a radically different type of ski. As opposed to the long, slender skis that were sported at the time, which were designed specifically for racing, his version was considerably shorter, a fair bit wider and twin-tipped. In fact, it had all the attributes of a snowboard, which was actually the springboard for Levinthal’s creation and also explains its name: skiboards.

Levinthal’s new design enabled the wearer to take off and land backwards, as well as ski backwards down a slope – something that was simply not possible before. The skis could carve and turn like skates, and enabled tricks off big jumps, just like a snowboard. But unlike the latter, a long-leaning curve was not needed, thanks to the two-footed design.

After graduating in 1995, Levinthal transformed his parents’ garage in Albany, New York, into a workshop, constructing the machinery needed to start manufacturing his design. Product in hand, Levinthal went to his first trade show in Las Vegas to exhibit his new brand, Line Skis. Little interest was shown.

Shortly after the show, however, his company received its first order for 1,000 pairs from a Japanese distributor. Recruiting friends and family to speed up production, Levinthal managed to fulfil the request, significantly increasing his previous capacity of one pair per day. But that was the only interest he received at the time: “No one paid attention in the US,” he told European CEO. “Snowboarding was super popular – skiing was declining.”

Salomon on board
By the following year, at that same trade show, Levinthal spotted his design being exhibited by a number of different companies. Among them, the biggest was sporting goods giant Salomon. Like Levinthal’s design, Salomon’s version, which it called ‘snowblades’, was shorter, wider and twin-tipped.

Levinthal is cleverly tapping into a key consumer trend: the desire for individuality

Salomon had the financial clout and retail presence to get snowblades in front of the general public and it had approached the task with gusto, carrying out demonstrations and spreading awareness about this new type of skiing: it was fun, rebellious and gave snowboarding a run for its money. Snowblades quickly gained traction, particularly in Europe – the company’s home turf.

Salomon had another strong hand to play as the sponsor of ESPN’s Winter X Games, the biggest winter action-sports event in the world. By the following year, Salomon had convinced the event’s organisers to include skiing for the first time, and in 1997, the X Games featured a slope-style event for skiers. Levinthal entered the competition, along with his friend and ‘ski pioneer’ Mike Nick, who went on to win the gold, with Levinthal securing third place.

“That really launched the brand [Line Skis], because we became kind of the rebels; the hardcore originators of this new segment in skiing,” Levinthal said. This growing interest drove Salomon to push harder. “They had global distribution and strong marketing; they educated everyone on this new segment of skiing,” Levinthal told European CEO. The press soon came calling, and in 1997, New York magazine wrote that snowblades “are destined to rule the slopes”.

The rebellious aspect of snowblades was important to young skiers. “Fast forward [10-to-15] years [and] the early adopters of snowboarding became parents, and their kids wanted to kind of do something different than their parents,” Levinthal explained. “Skiing was rejuvenated with the younger generation – it was suddenly appealing again.”

What’s more, this new type of skis had an even broader appeal than first anticipated – they weren’t just for people wanting to do tricks. A 1999 article in The New York Times, which delved into the new “craze”, wrote: “With its 10-second learning curve, skiboarding offered virtually instant fun for everyone, which is good news for absolute beginners.” Another piece by The New York Times confirmed that skiboards had become a big hit with novices thanks to their ease: “You can learn to turn the blade on its edge and carve almost immediately”. Seasoned ski instructors also favoured them: chasing children around during lessons became a whole lot easier when they were able to ski backwards and move deftly with these more nimble devices on their feet.

Jason Levinthal with a pair of unique J Skis. Image © A Perry Heller (apheller.com)

Getting graphic
Though the popularity of Line Skis had grown massively, being a small fish in a big pond quickly became unsustainable. “I couldn’t compete as a standalone business selling skis – it would have required us selling 30,000 or 40,000 pairs a year,” Levinthal said. “I started in 1995, and by 2006 we still couldn’t get there, no matter how much money I got invested into it. So we had to sell it or go out of business.” Levinthal sold Line to K2 Sports, another giant in the arena, which paid off the company’s debt and gave him a job heading the subsidiary he had created.

“When I worked for K2, we were able to go from 5,000 pairs when I sold it to them to 40,000 pairs seven years later. And that was only because of their distribution… Globally, their manufacturing and supply chain was so efficient and economical – all the things that [enable] a big company to scale up easily, using their existing resources. Finally, the Line Ski brand was financially sustainable.”

Thanks to his role at K2, Levinthal had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of how a big ski conglomerate operated. With this new breadth of experience, Levinthal decided to start again from scratch with his own business venture. He launched J Skis in 2013 with the intention of selling his skis exclusively online.

“I didn’t let myself get distracted by any retailers or distributors and I just focused on the end consumer,” Levinthal explained. Giving rough figures, Levinthal said it costs around $200 (€178.28) to build a pair of skis. They are sold to a retailer for around $300 (€267.42), with the retailer then selling them on for some $600 (€534.85), leaving only $100 (€89.14) of profit per pair for the manufacturer.

With a sustainable business model in place, Levinthal found the freedom to be creative and shake things up in the industry once more

By selling straight to the consumer, Levinthal was able to increase his profit margin fourfold: “It was much more financially feasible – only sell 3,000 skis [a season] and run a totally sustainable business. Because I wasn’t forced to have to be bigger, I could be small, more profitable and more efficient, also because of all the things I didn’t have to do. I didn’t go to trade shows, I didn’t have sales reps, I didn’t have sales meetings, I didn’t have to hire someone to chase retailers to pay me… [By] selling direct, I was getting paid by my end customer immediately by credit card online.”

With a sustainable business model in place, Levinthal found the freedom to be creative and shake things up in the industry once more. “I’m able to do what other bigger ski companies can’t when it comes to being more nimble and having more fun with it,” he said. The marketing, for example, is fun and fresh, and distinctly different to that of other players in the market. “We’re a lot less uptight about our marketing,” he added. “We kind of make fun of things – we make fun of ourselves.”

Another unique aspect of J Skis that draws in ardent fans is the limited edition graphics adorning each pair. The company uses a variety of different sources for inspiration and works with artists from all over the world to create unique designs, usually making just 300 of each. There’s one pair, for instance, that’s decorated with The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the world-famous print by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. For another, Levinthal collaborated with MC Killa of legendary hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan to produce a bright yellow graphic illustrated with images and wording associated with the group; of these, only 136 pairs have ever been made.

“Once they’re sold out, they’re gone forever, so that’s just stuff you can’t do with a big ski company and isn’t being done anywhere else in the industry,” Levinthal told European CEO. He also personally signs and numbers each ski, for that extra personal touch.

With this approach, Levinthal is cleverly tapping into a key consumer trend: the desire for individuality. “We’re all very visually driven… People want to be unique and stand out and they like things that look good, right? It’s just human nature, man,” Levinthal said. “It’s more fun, instead of just making another black ski with a big logo, like everyone else does.”

Keeping it fresh
He’s also tapping into the appeal of interacting directly with a brand and its owner. The company makes an active effort on social media, posting regularly on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and interacting with customers through various platforms. Levinthal features heavily throughout, even personally answering customer emails on occasion.

By doing things differently from others in the game, Levinthal continues to revitalise the sport of skiing

The company also sends bi-weekly emails, not just about products and company news, but with pictures and videos that are simply entertaining. According to Levinthal, around 25 percent of the company’s purchases come about as a result of the emails sent by the company, showing the appetite for this type of engagement. J Skis also has a live chat facility on its website, as Levinthal believes this extra care when it comes to customer service is a big driver of sales.

Speaking about this active strategy of engagement, Levinthal said: “For skiers, they love it. They know who they’re buying from – who designed the ski, who designed the graphic, [and] they know that they have a one of, say, only 300 skis on their feet. So all of that is doing something for skiing in terms of keeping it fresh, alive and creative, that other big ski companies can’t.”

That J Skis are regularly featured in ‘best skis to buy’ lists and have received rave reviews from a horde of ski publications attests to the quality of the product. Levinthal added: “There’s not as much room today as there was decades ago to really create something revolutionary [or] physically different in skiing, but there’s plenty of opportunity to – on the marketing side and interacting with your consumer – do something that’s not being done in the industry.”

By doing things differently from others in the game, Levinthal continues to revitalise the sport of skiing – something that has been his mission for decades now. Through fun graphics, engaging directly with his customers and always trying something new, Levinthal continues to take the business of skiing in a new direction.

His latest ventures – the acquisition of 4FRNT Skis and experience platform Roll With a Pro, where fans can purchase one-on-one time with their role models in sports and business – attest to his drive to keep moving forward. Thanks to proponents like Levinthal, skiing has stayed fresh for this generation and the next.