SGB was first exposed to the latest in Ortovox mountain apparel after Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in January in anticipation of its fall launch into the U.S., and we finally had a chance to sit down with Ortovox U.S. Brand Manager Tom Mason to gain a better understanding about what this apparel means to retailers, to end users and to the U.S. outdoor market. Sit back and enjoy this conversation on one of the most technical and forward-thinking brands coming across the pond for Fall 2015.
By Aaron H. Bible
For the last several seasons we’ve reported on the influx of European mountaineering brands into the U.S. Why now for Ortovox?
From roots in avalanche rescue equipment, Ortovox set out to create apparel designed for backcountry skiing, freeriding and mountaineering and Ortovox Mountainwear has experienced exceptional success in Europe with the growth of the backcountry market. The backcountry market is also growing rapidly in the U.S. We believe the same things that made Ortovox Mountainwear a success in Europe will propel its adoption in the U.S. – unique and innovative material combinations and well-made, highly functional styles designed specifically for the backcountry user.
Tell us a little about the history of Ortovox apparel.
In 1980 Gerald Kampel and Jürgen Wegner developed the first double-frequency transceiver and distributed it under the Ortovox brand name. It was the first of its kind and quickly became the best selling transceiver and the industry standard. Three years later Ortovox introduced backpacks and shovels for ski touring. In 1988 we began making touring jackets, sweaters and accessories with wool integrated into every style. Ortovox was a pioneer with the use of natural fibers then as it is now. Today Ortovox Mountainwear is distributed widely across Europe and includes all the apparel you need to safely explore the mountains from hats and gloves to base- and mid-layers to shells and insulation.
I was told in January you’ve had 400 percent growth in Mountainwear/Apparel in the last three years. Can you explain that number a little bit?
We’ve steadily built a loyal customer base that has come to rely on the performance of our gear. In recent years we’ve experienced exceptional growth with the introduction of new markets and the expansion of our line. This year Ortovox developed a new line of low profile ski packs for resort and ski touring to compliment our already available line of ABS packs.
How will you differentiate yourselves against the North American mountaineering brands like Patagonia, Marmot or Arc’teryx? What are people looking for that they aren’t getting?
There are many brands that offer competitive products. Ortovox is unique in that it is committed to using wool – Tasmanian merino and SwissWool (from Schoeler) – as the material of choice for its unique and versatile performance qualities. Every piece of Mountainwear, from base-layers and accessories to shells and insulation, features wool as a principal component of construction or utilizes wool in a unique way. We are true wool experts. In addition to wool, Ortovox Mountainwear uses top-quality technical fabrics from Schoeller, Dermizax, Lenzing, Pertex and others.
How will you market to U.S. consumers?
Ortovox has deep roots in avalanche rescue equipment in the U.S. Those familiar with our brand know Ortovox is synonymous with safety on the mountain and Mountainwear is an extension of that message. Those new to Ortovox will appreciate our high quality and functional equipment in both hard goods and clothing. Ortovox offers the complete system for a shared safe experience in the mountains. We intend to use traditional marketing channels and our established network of sales representatives to get Ortovox on the sales floors of specialty retailers in key markets.
Will having your apparel in North America help grow your hardgoods business; or is it your notoriety in beacons and snow safety tools that you hope will inspire North American customers?
Both, to separate degrees. Our history in avalanche rescue equipment is a healthy launching pad and serves as a solid introduction to the Mountainwear line. At the same time, Mountainwear is an easily accessible part of the Ortovox brand and will help introduce Orotovox’s long-standing mountain safety and avalanche awareness message to those who might not be aware of it.
Will all North American dealers have access to the entire European catalog? And how many doors will you open this Fall? Do you have to be a Deuter dealer to get Ortovox product in North America?
Yes, all U.S. dealers have access to the entire European product selection. Currently, we have 11 Mountainwear dealers for the Fall/Winter 2015/16 season, including specialty retailers and large online retailers. They do not need to be Deuter dealers.
Tell us a little bit about your “Made in Europe” story and why that’s important to you?
Ortovox has always made a commitment to quality, whether in our rescue equipment, backpacks and also in our Mountainwear line. We’re cognizant of the global supply chain in all that we do both in sourcing and manufacturing. Ortovox’s European manufacturing is a statement of quality. It is a commitment to process that matches our commitment to sourcing the best available wools and performance fabrics. We’re also interested in lessening the environmental impact of doing business. Shortening the distances the materials and finished products travel are part of that mission. The results of our Made in Europe program are: products of uncompromising quality, designed to perform, constructed with the utmost care and the best available materials.
Where does Ortovox source wool and other materials from?
For wool we use SwissWool as insulation and Tasmanian merino for baselayers and other unique uses. Ortovox’s wool program is more than the benefits of the fibers for performance purposes; it is a commitment to sustainable and traditional agricultural structures. In the case of SwissWool, Swiss sheep farmers were nearly driven out of business because second-shearing wool cannot be woven directly and therefore did not attain competitive pricing in global markets. It is, however, best used as a high-quality natural insulation material. The use of SwissWool in this way led to fair prices for farmers, stimulation of a regional economy and modern products with regional origins. Our merino wool comes from Tasmania, where Merino sheep have been bred for over 180 years. We source merino from four carefully selected farms that not only produce the highest quality merino, but have earned recognition for sustainable and ecologically friendly farm management practices. We are proud to support both the Swiss and Tasman agricultural heritages.
You said Ortovox created the first Merino hard shell (possibly in the world) two years ago. Have you looked at what any of the other brands in the space are doing with Merino outerwear such as Icebreaker or Voormi?
Of course we pay attention to what others are doing, but we remain focused on how we can produce the best functioning equipment in a responsible fashion. The Guardian Jacket and Pants, the only Merino lined hard shell on the market, exemplifies how Ortovox’s unique and innovative approach to material combinations leads to better performance and design. The Guardian was in design for four years before coming to market. The result is a performance hard shell with the broadest comfort range on the market.
What do Americans still need to learn about the high alpine backcountry? How is the market and access different in Europe? The Ortovox mission has always been to help facilitate safe mountain adventures. There is a large gap in avalanche awareness and practice in the U.S. as well as in Europe. Ortovox has worked to close the gap in awareness by providing retailers with our Safety Academy Lab materials. These materials serve as a starting point in avalanche awareness and the beginning of the education process for backcountry customers. We’ve also partnered with and support AIARE and their education efforts as well as the goals of Project Zero.
What are a few of your personal favorite Mountainwear styles or technology innovations for Fall 2015 we should be looking forward to?
I think the U.S. market will be interested in seeing how Ortovox integrates wool in a way others are not. From insulation and hybrid construction to merino softshells, Ortovox offers a fresh perspective on the use of wool. It’s much more than a next-to-skin material. Some of the styles we think will be best received in the U.S. market are:
Piz Palu – A hybrid touring jacket made for high-exertion cold-weather pursuits. The torso is Pertex Microlight insulated with SwissWool. High motion areas including armpits and sleeves are NatureTec Light, Ortovox’s proprietary performance soft shell merino blend.
Lavarella / Piz Boe – Pertex Microlight and SwissWool combine for insulation on the coldest days. Stretch underarm Merino NatureTec Light panels for dexterity and breathability. Hooded design and pockets for quick access to accessories.
Piz Grisch / Piz Cartas – SwissWool insulated vest with reversible design for different colorways.
185 Rock-N-Wool base layers – Ortovox’s full line of 185g/m2 merino base layers for both men and women in funky and bright color-blocking style. The line includes underwear, boxers and sport bras, cropped and full-length pants, short sleeve and long sleeve tops.
Pro Lobster Glove – The German-engineered luxury car for your hands. Merino lining for comfortable microclimate interior, high loft SwissWool insulation for warmth, Breathtex waterproof membrane, goat skin palms for dexterity and durability.