By: Jackson Hogen
Published: October 4, 2016
When considering which ski is right for you, don’t just compare thumbnail model descriptions, helpful though they might be. Don’t put all your faith in numbers either, even though statistics exude the aroma of science. Take stock in the advice of family and friends, if you must, but I wouldn’t invest too heavily in the opinion of those whose experience has been largely limited to one ski.
Before you take the final plunge, learn what you can about the brands behind the models that intrigue you. While in general it’s true every major ski manufacturer attempts to cover all bases, how they do so is heavily influenced by its global design philosophy and/or the machinery to which it’s married.
Every brand that owns its own means of production lives in an inextricable relationship with its manufacturing machinery and methods. Its engineers aren’t going to design something they can’t make or have no history of making well. Because design philosophy is linked to huge capital investments, wholesale changes in how skis are made don’t happen overnight.
Even when brands have an opportunity to start with a clean slate, the tendency is to keep the product and messaging a constant. Consider the case of K2 when it moved ski production to China; K2 kept making skis the same way, only with better QC. Moving production to another country didn’t inspire K2 to target a new skier or create a new brand identity.
Due to the explosive rise of garage brands – so named because of their humble origins – today there are dozens of small batch producers, often focused on a niche market like super-wide models or Pipe & Park twin-tips. With limited capital resources, their designs are decidedly constrained by whatever molding methods they adopt to make their dream skis.
The most successful small batch producers arrive at a junction where they make their own molds but do all assembly and finishing at the large, well-equipped factories of one or more of the major manufacturers. Armada went this route when this athlete-driven brand blew up, moving its production to Atomic. Armada continues to build most of its models there, and has added Blizzard as a manufacturing partner, another shrewd commercial partnership.
Moving production to Atomic and Blizzard didn’t affect Armada’s brand identity or tight connection with its consumer community; it just made better skis. The same holds true for another pair of founded-by-athletes brands, Black Crows from Chamonix and Faction from Verbier. Both were born as rebellious responses to the status quo and have maintained their counter-culture attitude even as they’ve grown large enough to move their production out of town and into the big leagues.
Kästle provides a stellar example of the promise and perils of a successful small batch brand dependent on a major brand to make its skis. Kästle wisely chose Head to manufacture the core models in its line, thereby assuring a level of quality control that’s very hard to maintain in small production runs. As a result, Kästle garnered a reputation for exceptional quality that in turn supported its above-market pricing.
But because Kästle doesn’t own the Head factory, it can’t just waltz in and tinker with prototype molds or interrupt a 2,000 pair production run in order to knock out 12 pairs of test skis. So this past winter it started to make prototypes and small batches in the old Hohenems plant where the brand was born in 1924.
While the arc of this story suggests consistency to Kästle’s identity over nearly a century, such is not the case, either for Kästle or any other brand with a long history. All brands evolve gradually over time and sometimes more suddenly, usually due to a change in ownership. In the case of Kästle, it was a major player until it fell into the clutches of Benetton, the cotton sweater maker who proceeded to mismanage it and every other component of its sports empire into irrelevance or extinction.
The Kästle you know and love today isn’t related to the Kästle of old except by name. While the particulars of Kästle’s case are atypical, brand metamorphosis over the span of several seasons is not. In the early 80’s, K2 was supplier to the Mahre twins, a racing-oriented brand that sold a boatload of VO Slaloms. The K2 of today hasn’t spent a nickel on racing since a young Bode Miller was in their stable of budding stars; now every K2 athlete is a current or former freeride or freestyle competitor.
More recently, Völkl has spent the last decade euthanizing Old School cambered baselines, thick wood cores and heavy metal laminates, classic construction elements that earned Völkls a reputation for fantastic skis – for experts. During this period of transformation many of the model names remained the same, disguising a line overhaul intent on re-positioning Völkl as a ski brand all Americans can love, regardless of skill.
Point being, if your image of Völkl is based on the P9 or the first-generation Mantra, you have some catching up to do. The same can be said for every brand more than 20 years old. If you’re looking at a New School brand like Black Crows or Faction, you’ll discover they have an underlying philosophy that governs everything they do, including how their skis are made, regardless of where that may be. In either case, if you really want to capture the essence of what ski you’re buying, you must first understand the brand.
All ski reviews on Realskiers.com include Brand Profiles and 2017 updates for all covered brands.