The Chamonix-based French ski brand Black Crows was launched in western American resorts in winter 2015, and is continuing to flourish in the United States. Buoyed by the freeride skiing trend, these French skis are now available in 65 American outlets from Park City (Utah) to New York.
Whether “freeride” in English or hors-piste and ski extrême in French, the objective remains the same: venturing away from the comfort of groomed pistes to take on empty, untouched slopes dotted with trees and rocks. And clambering up the mountain with your skis on your back is just part of the fun! Due to significant differences in elevation and different types of snow — powdery on the peaks, icy halfway down the slope and slushy in the valley — freeriding requires versatile skis. But up until the 2000s, freeride skis were still narrow, straight and largely inspired by downhill skis.
After identifying this niche in the market, professional skiers Camille Jaccoux — Pierce Brosnan’s stunt double in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough — and Bruno Compagnet designed the first Black Crows prototype. The wide skis (100 millimeters at the waist) “float” over powdery snow. Their curved profile enables skiers to glide over and lift out of the snow, while making it easier to pivot on steep slopes. This design is now a standard in the freeride world. The very first pairs were made in Tunisia in 2006, and were tested by those in the know in Chamonix Valley, including ski instructors, mountain guides and the designer’s friends.
©Elina Siparanta/Black Crows
The brand has since progressed considerably. Black Crows successfully raised five million euros over the last two years, and appointed the former Lacoste Executive Vice President, Eric Bascle, as its CEO. “We went from a startup to an SMB,” says Eric Bascle. The company now has its skis cast in Austria and Slovenia, employs 15 people and works with just as many independent vendors. “Black Crows has gone from being a constant happening to an established business capable of selling its products both in France and abroad.” The brand is now distributed in 18 countries, and generates 20% of its revenue in the United States — a figure it hopes to see rise to 30% next year.
Adapting to American culture
Now available in 65 outlets in the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest and the East Coast, the brand is looking to “more than double” its in-store presence by the 2017-2018 ski season. “Our name probably helped,” says Eric Bascle. “Black Crows has a very Native American ring to it, and the public likes that.” The brand has also cultivated an image of being close to nature by working with American skiers who campaign to protect the environment.
Adapting to American culture was a challenge for Black Crows. A brand looking to establish itself abroad has to take local differences in perception into account, as Eric Bascle knows full well thanks to his experience at Lacoste. “Polo shirts are seen as very bourgeois in France, and very functional in North America.” And the same thing goes for skis. It would be unthinkable for Black Crows to organize an electro music festival at the foot of the American slopes, as the brand does every year in Chamonix. “In the United States, a country, folk or bluegrass music festival would be more in keeping with our aesthetic,” says the CEO.
The French brand’s approach seems to be paying off. The company has posted 70% growth figures, and hopes to increase annual production from 15,000 to 25,000 pairs of skis by next winter, with a price tag ranging from $500 to $850. Meanwhile, Black Crows is pushing forward with its conquest of the U.S. market, but this time at sea level. In an attempt to “develop the brand beyond the world of skiing,” which represents “a very small segment,” the company is set to release a collection of “technical clothing for the city” for the 2017-2018 season. “The United States is our biggest market,” says Eric Bascle. “The popularity of freeriding and its culture offers a large number of opportunities for Black Crows.”