Colorado Head-to-Toe: Smartwool snowboard socks, layers

In my mission to piece together head-to-toe snowboarding gear sourced from Colorado companies showing their wares at the SIA Snow Show, one stop was a no-brainer: Steamboat Springs-based Smartwool is my pick for socks, base layers, and mid-layers. The Merino wool in these products comes from New Zealand, mostly, so we're not exactly talking locavorism here, but a Colorado company is a Colorado company.

I left the Smartwool booth at SIA with one pair of swag socks from the PhD Snowboard Sock "Park Artist" line, featuring a graffiti-inspired design by Denver artist Debbie Clapper. The socks will run you $26.95 in the real world, but I think it's a justifiable expense: 71 percent Merino wool with extra wool in the high impact zones and a 4-point compression system means socks that actually fit and will keep my toes warm without my feet getting sweaty or stinky.

Staying warm on the slopes is half the battle for my kids and my partner Sarah, newbie snowboarders all, and Smartwool has plenty of midweight base layer gear and apparel to suit the purpose. I actually have a different but related problem: I overheat when I'm riding, and if I'm not careful about my layers I'll freeze my sweaty ass off riding up on the windy high elevation lifts I always seem to end up on. Smartwool has a solution for that too: Lightweight and Microweight base layers that are 100 percent Merino wool, wick moisture like crazy, and keep me dry without sweatboxing me.

I caught up with Smartwool marketing director Gardner Flanigan at SIA to learn more about the company and its 2010/2011 offerings:

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the Smartwool brand?

We started in 1994. The founders of the company were very involved in active mountain life as ski instructors, and so we got our start in the snow sports industry. We've grown from being primarily a sock brand to a full apparel brand representing the lifestyle of active mountain life. We've got several base layer options that we call "Next To Skin," we've got insulating layers we call "Thermal Mid-Layer" or "TML," and we've got a full line of performance tops and bottoms, casual wear, accessories, hats, scarves, gloves, all rooted in the outdoor activities the brand was built on. It's been an amazing ride.

Walking around SIA, I've been bombarded by companies pushing the latest in high tech fabrics and designs. The Smartwool push is sort of the counter to that, basically: The oldest technology in the world for making warm clothes is still the best?

That's just it. Ultimately wool is still pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to staying dry and staying warm while you're doing snow sports. There's been lots of science and lots of technology around ways to make different kinds of fibers and fabris work well, and there's been a lot of marketing dollars behind pushing some of those, and yet mostly they're all trying to duplicate what wool does intrinsically. I think the consumers and the retailers are realizing and in some ways rediscovering the incredible performance benefits of Merino wool.

What's the real advantage over the synthetic fabrics and higher tech stuff?

In snow sports, the first priority is staying dry. You've got to fight moisture from the outside, in the form of snow and water, and maybe more importantly you've also got to manage your own sweat. In that sense, the most important layer is what's closest to your skin. With Merino wool, we're able to make very warm pieces that are also very thin and extremely high performing. To anyone trying Smartwool for the first time, I'd say start with a good pair of socks and one of our base layers. You'll notice the difference over any of our competitor's products immediately when you get out in the snow.

Where does the wool itself actually come from?

That's a great question, and now that you can go and buy a Merino sweater for $19 at Old Navy, it's one that's important to us. Unlike a lot of different industries who go and try to buy this raw material as cheap as you can get it, we realized that because we do have a very exact standard for the end product that we needed to go into this as a partnership with the farmers who tend the sheep and grow the wool. Since 2002 we've been buying directly from growers in New Zealand who are actually growing the fleece to our standards. That might sound funny, since we're talking about sheep, but you need to breed the sheep to make a certain type of fiber. Our partnerships gives us some control over the raw material, and we're also able to work with an accreditation team so we're able to keep tabs on things like animal husbandry, environmental protection of the lands where the sheep graze, and economic conditions for the farmers we work with. It's a true partnership. I look at things like what else does a company stand for, and where is the transparency? We're trying to be a pretty transparent company.

Can you talk about the price point? Everything in the Smartwool line is a bit more expensive than I'm used to paying.

There is definitely a value proposition there, and it's not about finding the cheapest product. Getting the raw material for Smartwool products is expensive, 4 to 7 times more per pound than the synthetic yarns used in different products. If your brand promise, like Smartwool's, is that it's going to be non-itch and non-shrink and high performance, using the very best raw materials, than you have to be working with very exacting standards. As a company we're completely married to the idea that this is a better performing fiber, and we're invested in it throughout our product offering. As a consumer you'll pay a little bit more for it up front, but you're getting a product that will perform and will last, and it's going to make the difference when it matters most out in the elements.  

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