Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was no women’s ski market. In the 1970’s, a couple of women’s models popped up here and there, but there wasn’t enough of a product nucleus to be considered a market. More like a curiosity, like the ski Bogner – hardly a credible ski maker – created as a fashion accessory for Suzy Chaffee.
When a women’s market finally did form, it coalesced closer to the bottom of the market than the top. At the Snow Country Magazine test I conducted in 1993, my female testers essayed 25 models, none of them priced higher than the middle of the market. Bear in mind, in this era, the low-end, package ski market was huge, while the very top of the product pyramid was tiny. This is the exact opposite of today’s situation, which helps explain why the women’s market has evolved the way it has.
By 1997, the carving craze was in its heyday, which was probably a factor in the emergence of a women’s performance ski market. The template for the performance women’s models were mid-priced men’s models, just as the entry-level women’s skis were clones of men’s package skis. No one was seriously trying to make a women’s model from scratch, and no one targeted a woman who would self-describe as an expert. Expert women, like men, skied race skis. Period.
In 2002, Dynastar introduced a women’s-specific series inspired by Jeanie Thoren’s work on the needs of female skiers. Thoren advocated tirelessly for women to be positioned more forward on their skis, to compensate for a lower center of gravity when in a skiing stance. Dynastar went all-in on Thoren’s precepts, an indication that henceforth, the women’s market would be treated seriously.
The Present State of Affairs
Flash forward to today, and every brand presents a parallel universe of women’s skis. The overall impression is that for every unisex ski there’s a women’s counterpart, but that impression, like so many other aspects of the women’s equipment market, is misleading when not actually incorrect.
When examined category by category, the Alpine market treats the various genres unevenly when it comes to gender differentiation. Among Non-FIS Race skis, there isn’t even a hint of gender influence. Skis are made for individual racers, of course, but these modifications aren’t due to their gender, per se.
Another genre where gender fades to insignificance is Powder, skis over 113mm wide at the waist. The few brands that include a women’s Powder ski in their collection do so because they need one for their star athletes so they might as well offer it. Retail sales tend to be so anemic that making a different model just for women isn’t going to pencil.
The remaining five categories are where 90% of the action is, and in these well-populated genres women’s skis are on a roughly equal footing with the unisex collections. But being marketed (and decorated) as a women’s ski and being made as a women’s ski aren’t the same thing.
Deep powder doesn’t know what gender you are.
The one factor that all women’s models address, and very few unisex models do, is offering smaller sizes. Generally speaking, the smaller sizes will undergo some associated alterations in core profile and shape to suit a smaller skier. Some brands may move the mounting point 1cm or so forward, but that’s the extent of the accommodations for the skier’s womanhood for many of the major brands.
Why make a “women’s” model if its only concession to gender is sizing and decoration? Because the name of the game is market share, measured in slots on a ski wall. Remember, today’s market is the inverse of yesteryear’s: all the market proliferation is in the high end, where the profit lies. The more high-end models one offers, on whatever pretext, the more territory a brand can hold on a shop wall, whether that “wall” be virtual or material.
Wherever the distinction between a unisex and a women’s model is slim to none, women who are heavier, taller, stronger and/or more talented should definitely consider crossing the gender divide. As I argued in Fit the Whole Skier, the best option for a given female skier may not be a women’s ski.
There are only two categories where a retailer is going to heavily represent women’s models, Frontside and All-Mountain East. The Frontside category is the Land of Many Price Points, for it serves all abilities, from the basement to the penthouse. Its popularity is primarily due to its depth; it serves more strata of abilities/interests than any other genre.
For competent female skiers who aren’t professionals, the All-Mountain East (85mm – 94mm at the waist) category is the place to be. Every ski in this genre is from an off-trail-oriented family, an acknowledgement that when American women want a ski that either helps them improve and/or explore more terrain options, their ambitions incline them more towards the versatility of an AME model versus the specificity of a Frontside ski.
For the recreational female skier, the All-Mountain East genre is an almost foolproof place to shop. Regardless of how many details were tweaked to make it “made-for-women,” all of its constituents are meant to be high-functioning for an appropriately sized human. None of this is mere posturing; all are genuinely built to excel in variable, off-trail conditions, and none are too high-strung to be managed by a motivated, if marginally skilled, individual.
The Bottom Line
All brands face financial restraints, now more than ever. Everyone needs to be represented in the women’s market, but no one can spend profligately to gain share in a segment that remains smaller than the unisex market. Even the most popular women’s model of recent times, Blizzard’s Black Pearl 88, borrows its shape – and at one time, its construction, as well – from the unisex Brahma 88. The off-the-wall success of the Black Pearl 88 and its various spin-offs underscores both the upside and the limitations of even the most profitable women’s ski ever.
To validate a process that doesn’t usually begin as gender-biased, every major brand engages the services of an all-woman test team to evaluate prototypes as they issue from the R&D pipeline. While a jaded cynic might suggest that, given the constraints of manufacturing and the pressure of limited budgets, the range of possible options is limited; in fact, many nuances are evaluated during this field-test phase, from core composition to the placement of dampening elements. In the final analysis, the lone iteration that goes into production will have survived a grueling gauntlet of re-appraisals.
Since every R&D team puts its candidates through a similar trial-by-testing, and everyone knows how everyone else makes their skis – and how they perform – why don’t more made-for-women skis ski alike?
The answer may sound too simple, but it lies at the foundation of what makes one ski different from another. Manufacturers have to make the skis they know how to build. The identity of the brand is intertwined with the technical capacities of its machinery, its methodology and its access to, and willingness to spend on, the best materials. In the final analysis, every ski has to deliver a minimum return on investment to justify its existence. One of the main reasons the women’s market is so well served in the key categories is that its constituents have proven their mettle. The runaway success of the Black Pearl franchise has amply demonstrated to all brands that investing in the women’s market makes good business sense.
The 2021/22 Season
Considering all the travails imposed on the new product development process last season, it’s remarkable how many new women’s models make their debut this fall. Naturally, almost all that is new falls into either the Frontside or All-Mountain East genre, with one notable exception, Völkl’s Secret 96. Here are the highlights.
It was just last season that Nordica cleaned up its Santa Ana collection by optimizing the amount of Titanal it uses in each model: less for the wider models, and progressively more as the models get skinnier. This year, Nordica extends the off-trail Santa Ana collection one more step in the opposite direction, into Frontside territory, with the Santa Ana 84. Competing with it for a slot on the ski wall will be the new Wild Belle DC 84, a made-from-scratch, women-specific model that focuses on flex and stance as its principal elements of feminization.
The “DC” in the Wild Belle DC 84 stands for Double Core, its tip-to-tail damping technique that inserts a rubber mat between the upper and lower cores. Unlike the Santa Ana 84, the Wild Belle DC 84 is every centimeter a Frontside model. It’s wide tip itches to tip into a fresh turn, and its narrow tail releases pressure gently.
The Wild Belle’s other signature technology uses a dual-plate interface with its integrated binding to level the stance of a woman still cultivating her carving skills. The toe and heel plates are spaced closer together to allow the ski to flex more easily, and the adapted stance will put the less skilled woman in position to succeed.
Sister brand Blizzard also refreshed its Frontside portfolio, upgrading the Black Pearl 82 to a TrueBlend core in its Woman Specific Design. Because of its off-trail baseline and lower price, it’s possible to dismiss the Black Pearl 82 as a wimp. Don’t. It can hold its own on hardpack as well as any ski in the genre, with the exception of its stablemate, the new Phoenix R13 Ti.
Blizzard applied its well-honed knack for morphing a unisex template into a genuine women’s model to its new Thunderbird/Phoenix series of mostly Frontside rides. The flagship Phoenix R13 Ti cuts a women’s specific (W.S.D.) TrueBlend core into a unique sidecut that shifts the entire shape forward 1cm, then moves the mount point to match it.
The Phoenix R13 Ti isn’t a watered-down design, but a brilliant, high-energy carver meant for women who know how to arc it and spark it. The international team of women who fined tuned its design are technical masters who log hundreds of test runs in pursuit of a better ski.
The Phoenix R13 Ti exemplifies a stratum of women’s Technical skis that are by and large absent from the U.S. market but are alive and well in Europe. An interesting aspect of these all-too-rare skis is that they tend to undergo the most modifications meant to improve performance for women. In addition to lighter cores and shifted mounting points, these women’s system skis also may tinker with standheight, ramp angle and tail dimensions, applying more taper so the rear of the ski releases more easily.
Perhaps no brand has a greater legion of female fans than Völkl. For many years the German ski maker produced a highly differentiated line of women’s carving skis and an utterly undifferentiated series of women’s off-trail skis. A trio of these all-terrain models, the Kenja, Aura and Kiku, became wildly popular with the best female skiers on any mountain precisely because they were the undiluted, real deal.
When Volkl introduced the M5 Mantra a few seasons ago, its women’s incarnation, the Secret 92, was trimmed down so it wouldn’t be too burly. The new M6 Mantra uses a more pliable frame, so in Völkl’s estimation its new counterpart, the Secret 96, can be cut from the same cloth. While the All-Mountain West genre doesn’t enjoy the high sell-through of its narrower, All-Mountain East sisters, the Secret 96 will probably be embraced by experts as soon as they can get them on their feet.
Völkl’s other new arrival for women, the Blaze 86W, seeks to capitalize on the backcountry craze with a narrower option in its off-trail Blaze series, introduced only last season into a market that couldn’t get enough of them. Because the Blaze series models have already been lightened up to serve skiers who head OB to ski, no further adaptations are required to make them well suited for women. At only $499, flat, it’s a great option for the resort skier who intends to acquire the training, equipment and skills required to responsibly venture into the backcountry.
Rossignol has completely re-positioned its Experience series, which retains its role of providing Frontside models at every price point. The flagship of the new women’s Experience series, the Experience 82 Ti W, sets the tone for the new EXP family, which Rossi positions as “All-Resort,” made for a new generation of skiers for whom the other side of the resort experience isn’t the backcountry, but all the ancillary resort amenities. For this vacationer, the resort app is the new trail map, suggesting alternate activities and encouraging recording and sharing them.
The in-bounds gal who will gravitate to the new Experience 82 Ti W or its All-Mountain East sidekick, the Experience 86 Basalt W, just wants to have fun. The EXP W family uses a forgiving baseline that’s easy to swivel, so mastering the intricacies of pure carving isn’t a prerequisite. If the goal is recreation without perspiration, the new generation of EXP’s makes ease of use its top priority.
While none of its collection this year is new, Fischer found new fans among our test crew for its RC One 82 GT, an unapologetic carver that aims for the top of the ability ladder. Our elite posse of technical skiers instantly identified with its gripping power, a tip-to-tail connection that couldn’t be more unlike the relaxed snow feel of the Rossi EXP’s.
If there’s one brand that currently embodies both the opportunities and the limitations of the made-for-women ski market, it’s Head. The Austrian company had a largely inglorious history in the field until it acquired a license to use Graphene, the lightest and strongest material man has yet to extract from nature. Since the strength of the material was its light weight, it was natural to begin tinkering with the stuff on a women’s ski line.
Since there was no role model to imitate, Head decided to make an entirely original line of women’s skis, without reference to a single unisex archetype. To this day, no one else has made as complete a women’s carving collection without a unisex twin to share its molds. The Joy series demonstrates just how different a women’s model can be if liberated from mimicking a unisex template.
Yet Head adopted an entirely different approach when it considered what to do for women’s models in its off-trail Kore series. Head’s new women’s models for 2021/22 are all Kores: the updated 85 W and 91 W, and the brand-new Kore 103 W. None deviate from the unisex Kores that are 2mm wider at the waist.
This schism between how women’s skis are treated in narrow, on-trail widths versus wider, off-trail dimensions exists nearly across the board for two overriding reasons: one, the design goals for a women’s ski – lighter weight, in particular – and an off-piste ski overlap; and two, women’s ski sales plummet past the 100mm-waist mark, making it economically inadvisable to make a unique women’s model past this threshold.
Realskiers 2021/22 Women’s Market Coverage
For the second season in a row, God and Nature have conspired to undermine my efforts at collecting women’s ski data. I realize that sounds slightly grandiose, as there were apparently other casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic, but I was thwarted at every turn. I won’t drag you through every twist in the descending death spiral of my testing ambitions, as a brief summary of my final effort will suffice to capture the spirit of the enterprise.
Mount Rose, where I mounted a valiant two-week effort to garner both men’s and women’s data alike, had been closed for a week when I met with Meghan Ochs and Lara Allen Hughes in the parking lot of Alpine Meadows, which was itself due to shutter operations that day. The wind was strong enough to bend a 40-foot pine in half, making every evergreen in sight point violently downhill. The temperature was just awful enough to have frozen any groomed terrain, so every flat snow surface had the atomic weight of tungsten. The off-piste would be heinous beyond understanding, not to mention light flatter than a crepe pan.
These enormously talented ladies were still willing to give it the old college try if I was game. I was not. I’m not any better at accepting the undesirable obvious than the next guy, but I couldn’t see any point in heroic efforts. Whatever numbers issued from the exercise would be both suspect and insufficiently numerous to matter.
What I ended up with was very few completed test cards on a very large number of women’s skis. Statistically as useless as Confederate currency, the long list at least helped define the boundaries of the women’s field and yielded enough comments to provide a taste of a given ski’s capabilities.
But results as uneven as a self-administered Covid-19 haircut don’t merit comparison or publication, so you won’t find them anywhere here. While this is certainly not the outcome I set out to achieve, anecdotal, on-snow test reports aren’t the only available source of product information. I’m on familiar terms with many of the key players in the small world of product designers and developers. I know every product’s current story and recent history. At a minimum, I’ve skied the closest unisex version of virtually every women’s ski.
But, however lamentably, I’m not a woman, nor do I identify as one. I do not presume to speak for womankind. But I do understand ski equipment, and how it has been modified for women since made-for-women models first appeared.
In short, I may not pass muster as a female, but I could very well be the next best thing, at least in this instance.
When I orchestrated all equipment testing for Snow Country Magazine, I put an equal number of men and women on the hill every day, in every genre, even though women’s skis were a relatively unimportant corner of the market. When I wrote Salomon’s Certification Manual, I allowed for a woman’s bindings to be mounted forward without losing certification, giving Jeanie Thoren a boost when she needed it, in the early 1980’s.
Point being, I haven’t exactly been on the sidelines in the fight for women’s rights in equipment selection. I’m an advocate for any movement that brings more women to the mountains.
It is in this spirit that I offer the thumbnail comments that accompany each women’s ski referenced here. I’ll cite any (female) tester comments I can cull from my database, but otherwise the characterizations of each model mentioned are of my own creation.
You’ll find a list of the key women’s models in each of the four major ski categories – Frontside, All-Mountain East, All-Mountain West and Big Mountain – in the Realskiers Gear Guide. Women’s models are also sorted by brand in the Brand Profiles section of our members’ site. Both listings will include links to participating U.S. specialty dealers who carry the model being reviewed.