It seems like only yesterday, but it was, in fact, seven years ago that the tiny corner of the national sporting press devoted to alpine ski coverage revealed a tantalizing tidbit: Lindsey Vonn, the star of the U.S. team and reigning World Cup Overall champion, was switching to men’s skis!
That a woman as big, strong and fearless as Lindsey would opt to compete on men’s skis seemed both brazenly audacious and entirely plausible. It was a great story that helped burnish Vonn’s reputation as skiing’s Wonder Woman. It would have been even more interesting if it were true.
For then as now, Head’s race department doesn’t factor gender into the highly specialized skis the Austrian brand makes for its estimable stable of stars. Each model made for a World Cup event is available across a small size range and in a variety of flexes. In testing, Vonn preferred the same flexes often selected by men, but there was nothing in the skis’ construction that was gender-specific.
Lindsey Vonn (top) doesn’t use men’s skis any more than Anna Fenninger (bottom) uses a women’s ski.
Anyone who has seen Vonn standing next to, say, fellow Head World Cup champion Anna Fenninger, would expect the much larger lass to ski on a stiffer ski. But that doesn’t mean Vonn is skiing a men’s model nor should it suggest that Fenninger competes on a “women’s” version of the same ski.
For the first 75 years or so of modern ski making, the entire women’s market was essentially in the same position as Fenninger: women got to choose a shorter, and sometimes softer-flexing, version of the only game in town. The first skis positioned as “made for women” were as condescending a collection as possible, intermediate rubbish wrapped in pastel hues. As a market segment, women’s models, to the degree they existed at all, were uninspiring and unprofitable.
Then along came shaped skis, with fat skis gaining acceptance shortly thereafter. In the wake of these new paradigms came a wild profusion of advanced (read, profitable) skis not made for racing. Innovation was the order of the day and model proliferation represented the best way to capture more market share. As unisex models multiplied, creating near duplicates for women became the new frontier, a way to add models that used the same specs, and often the same molds, as mainstream production, thereby keeping costs from killing this pilot segment.
“Lighter is Better” Alters the Landscape
Jump ahead 10 years and women’s models are well represented in every recreational genre but Non-FIS Race and Powder. (If you lump Big Mountain and Powder models together, women have an abundance of options across all market segments.) Against this backdrop, two new influences emerged that demanded the attention of ski R&D departments, one from within the sport and one a more global trend in all consumer products.
The engine of change within the sport was the surge of interest in backcountry skiing. No one wanted to miss out on a growth segment in an otherwise stagnant market, so everyone jumped into the carbon pool, trying to shed grams wherever and however they could.
The global consumer trend was also towards making all things weigh less, a cultural shift condensed in the headline, “Lighter is Better,” or LIB. LIB found fertile ground in every category where skis had gained weight as they grew in girth, in other words, virtually market-wide.
The genre where all these trends converge is Big Mountain (waist widths from 101mm to 113mm). If your main intention is to ski powder, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, climbing or not, in-bounds or out; a lighter ski reduces fatigue without reducing flotation. All that’s needed to differentiate a women’s model is to make it in smaller sizes.
Every women’s ski in the Big Mountain genre is built on a unisex template. As recently as last season there was one women’s Big Mountain ski with molds all its own; its fate sheds light on another reason why women’s models and men’s models aren’t differentiated in a category made up of skis that will almost always serve as a second pair.
The ski was the Head Big Joy, a universally admired ski made in a women’s-only construction that was a far remove from Head’s unisex Big Mountain model of the day. The Big Joy might still be on the market if it had been launched with an identical men’s model to share its costs, and/or other countries beyond than the North American market to rely on for sales.
But the lightweight technology behind the Big Joy did not end with this model’s demise. The materials that made the Joy series possible – Graphene, carbon and Koroyd – have found new purpose in the unisex 2018 Kore collection. It bears noting that the narrowest of the new Kores, the Kore 93, is sized down to a 153cm, a length clearly targeted for women even if not specifically adapted for them.
When Head set out to capitalize on its investment in Graphene, its decision to first exploit the lightest material known to mankind with a women’s-only series was inspired marketing. Interestingly, since then Head hasn’t always used Graphene to make a model series substantially lighter; witness its deployment in the current Monster and Supershape collections. With Kore, Head signals its intention to continue to combine lightweight materials to achieve the elusive, ideal blend of ethereal lightness and rock-solid stability.
While the women’s Big Mountain category reveals the incestuous relationship among backcountry, women-specific and in-resort powder skis, the genre is hardly the backbone of the women’s market. According to some market stats, women’s skis now account for 39% of all skis sold in the U.S., numbers that are driven by two other genres, Frontside and All-Mountain East. We’ll spin our examination of the current women’s market in this direction when I pick up the threads of this rumination next week.