If you happen to ride a lift in Aspen with a ruggedly handsome man who, in a German accent, quizzes you about your ski clothes — “Are zay warm?” “Do zay fit well?” “Are zay functional?” — it may be winter-clothing tycoon Klaus Obermeyer keeping in touch with consumers of the industry in which he has been a leader for more than six decades.
The president of Sport Obermeyer skis every day in Aspen, his home since 1947 when he immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria looking for a job as an aeronautical engineer. Instead, he found an opening as a ski instructor, falling back on a sport he knew and loved since first skiing on homemade skis crafted from runners of a wooden crate at age 3.
When he arrived at the then-tiny ski hamlet, it was almost deserted. “There was snow on the ground like I had never seen except maybe at 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) in the Alps,” he said over breakfast at The Wienerstube in Aspen. “When I put my ski down, flakes flew like feathers, it was so dry. It snowed almost every night, with the sun shining in the day — a paradise for skiers, but there were no people here.”
Undaunted, he joined his friend, Austrian racer Friedel Pfeifer, Pete Seibert (who later would discover Vail) and four others who made up the first ski school in Aspen. He lived at the Jerome Hotel, skating on skis through the streets to the mountain. He remembers being followed by packs of barking dogs that were left behind by miners. “There were more dogs than people in those days,” he said.
The single-chair number one lift from the base to midway had just been completed. The second lift was a rebuilt mining tramway that dripped grease on riders so frequently that the ski company obligingly picked up dry-cleaning tabs. To ward off the cold, Obermeyer wore a “long city coat” for the 15-minute ride to midway, and then sent it back down while he skied 2 1/2 minutes to the bottom and rode up again sans coat. “I had one warm ride and one cold one,” he laughed.
Eager to earn his $10-a-day pay, he scoured the slopes for students. People were reluctant to commit to lessons, he said, because “they froze like hell.”
Ski clothing then consisted of long underwear, a sweater and unlined shell and pants, hardly enough to keep warm in the best of conditions. To keep his classes filled and students happy, he began making down parkas for them after fashioning the first one from his goose-down comforter he brought from Europe. Later, he built machines and made the first quilted parka out of shavings from the floor of a textile factory in Munich.
Severe sunburn was another problem in the high-altitude of Aspen.
“People came here in February and March for a 14-day vacation and left after two days because they sunburned so badly,” he said. So he and Pfiefer concocted Sportana, “the first suntan lotion that really worked.” To foil the sun even further, he helped develop mirrored sunglasses with a French manufacturer using vaporized metal to block the sun’s UV rays.
No idea escaped Klaus Obermeyer. His turtlenecks were the world’s first with elasticized collars and shoulders. He was the innovator of a dual layer ski boot with a soft, warm liner inside a strong rigid shell. The list goes on and on.
“There was a lot of opportunity then,” he said modestly. “There was no supply because there was really no market. So it was easy to become a supplier with very little money.” Soon dealers heard about his products at the same time the sport exploded, and demand was created. It was a classic moment of being in the right place at the right time.
Today, after scores of awards honoring the clothing pioneer and his company, the innovation continues with fabrics made from bamboo and recycled materials. “We try to step lightly on the planet,” he
Sport Obermeyer makes clothing for preschoolers to adults and is based in Aspen. www.obermeyer.com.
Colorado native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning ski and travel journalist and the author of the book “Women Ski.” She writes for local, national and international publications.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.