When you can’t find a ski that does what you want, sometimes you just have to start a ski company and build one yourself!
For a long time the ski industry was dominated by the same few big corporate brands, but in recent years more and more small indie brands have been popping up in resorts across the world. Getting on a chairlift fifteen years ago you could comfortably bet that your neighbours would be riding either Salomon, Rossi, Atomic or Völkl skis, and ski shop racks at the time were all filled with the same handful of brands. These days you’re as likely to come across a pair of Whitedots or Black Crows – like the beer world, craft skis and microbrews are disrupting the industry and changing the way we think about ski design.
In some ways, it’s like a return to the old days when when every village in the Alps would have had their own ski maker, building skis suited to their local terrain and snow conditions. When you only need to sell a few hundred or thousand skis each year to stay afloat you can afford to experiment and specialise in ways that the big players, with their requirements of mass market crowd appeal, just aren’t able to get away with. Indie ski brands are able to design and build more specialised and more radical skis, knowing that somewhere out there on the internet there’s a customer looking for exactly that blend of rocker profile and sidecut. The ideas they come up sometimes shape the direction of the whole industry – who doesn’t make a wide rockered powder ski, or a super light carbon touring ski these days?
Here are five of our favourite European indie ski brands, building eye-catching skis designed to thrive in the Alps.
British brand Whitedot was originally founded in 2007 by Andrew Phyn, a New Zealander who spent his time fixing and servicing skis near his home in Taihape. Andrew wanted to offer a really focused collection of skis with a simple and obvious direction in freeride, honed for the conditions encountered by European skiers in the Alps. Whitedot are best known for their popular Preacher, a unique full camber fat ski designed to carve icy pistes as much as float in powder which has won two FWT titles. Their innovative Carbonlite line utilises carbon and flax in place of fibreglass to produce incredibly lightweight (25% weight savings over their standard construction) skis that are still damp and powerful enough to charge on.
Down are one of the most unique ski brands on the market. Their whole premise and business model is fundamentally different, cutting out middlemen by selling factory direct skis designed with genuine community input – they’re even experimenting with the idea of crowdsourcing ski design, to build the skis that skiers really want. They specialise in creating very specific and niche skis for particular uses, like their intimidating 202cm metal charger the Showdown, and lightweight Lowdown freeride touring skis. They’re firmly focussed on core skiers, and don’t compromise on function just to appeal to more people: while many brands shy away from large turn radii that sound intimidating to those used to piste carvers, Down specifically promote the looseness, predictability and agility of their ‘long radius concept’ and incorporate it in many of their skis.
Black Crows was started by French pro skiers Camille Jaccoux and Bruno Compagnet when they couldn’t find a freeride ski on the market that really inspired them and suited their needs in Chamonix. Their vision was a powder ski big enough to withstand high-speed turns with a shape which could endure sudden changes in direction – a big stiff straight ski – at a time when the general trend in the market was for narrower skis with deep sidecuts. Thus, the Corvus was born, designed specifically to charge the high altitude steeps of Mont Blanc. Today the Corvus remains their signature model and dependable big mountain charger, but is accompanied by their alpinism-inspired Freebird line and the powder surfing fully rockered Nocta.
Faction was started twelve years ago by a bunch of Verbier-based British, Australian, American and Canadian ski bums, angry that the mainstream brands were focused on the cash cow of racing and ignoring the burgeoning freeride and freestyle movements: “We couldn’t find the gear we wanted – skis were skinny, flat tail, capped and directed towards piste-skiing families.” Right from the start they’ve been building the skis that they wanted to use in the alpine playground of Verbier, skis that have to be affordable, durable enough to survive full seasons without servicing, and most importantly of all be FUN to ski – whether your idea of fun is lapping the park, maching huge turns in the alpine or climbing and skiing a remote couloir. As an original ski bum brand they have a wide appeal among season workers, and their Chapter 106 and 116 are among the best ‘do everything’ daily drivers for seasonaires.
German brand Amplid is one of the few brands that cater equally to both skis and snowboarders. Founded in Germany in 2005 by Peter Bauer and Anian Thrainer, from day one they were all about building the sticks they wanted to ride but the market couldn’t provide – skis built to ride well rather than sell well. With their roots in snowboarding, it’s no surprise that Amplid have a particular focus on freeskiing and air time – their flagship powder ski the Hill Bill is even capped at 120mm wide specifically to maintain aerial agility. Their skis are further enhanced for freestyle with tech like HEXO2, which uses a honeycomb structure in the tips and tails of the ski to reduce swing weight and maximise rotations, while ‘stomp guard tech’ (titanal strips near the ski edges to prevent blow outs) and ‘abuse base tech’ (a thin coating of metal particles beneath the base that conducts heat away from hot spots when riding tails) result in bombproof skis able to take hits in the park and backcountry all season long.