This week, the first clothing range produced by Salomon appeared in ski and snowboard stores. Sold under the name Advanced Skin, the garments – or at least some of them – are also to be sold in a handful of surfing shops. Which suggests, quite correctly, that many of the Salomon designs are unlike anything that the average skier or boarder would wear.
Take, for example, the Voice sweatshirt, which is constructed from a polyester/spandex material called 3-D Air Mesh; costing £130, it looks like a wetsuit worn by a character from the old Space 1999 television show. (Even Salomon's brochure admits that the garment is "out of this world".) It is available in a yellow colour so lurid that even the name "acid" does not do justice to its visually corrosive power. Another Voice item is a £100 pair of baggy trousers, made of felted wool with a dash of polyester and rayon, which Salomon describes as being "ideal for any activity on or off the hill". That struck a chord with me, since in the mud-brown (sorry, "adobe") shade they look very like the sort of trousers worn by the 80-year-old who works the allotment next door to my wife's on a hillside in Dulwich.
True, the Voice garments are the wackiest in the Salomon range. It is split into four sub-ranges; and at the other end of the spectrum from Voice, the Shell System offers relatively familiar-looking jackets and trousers (priced at £120-300 and £100-200 respectively) whose innovations are directed at matters of practicality and comfort. These wide variations in style led a snowsports-clothing buyer at one big retailer to describe the range as "lacking coherence: it doesn't tell a consistent story". But for me, virtually all the garments have one thing in common, from the Shell System jackets, with their user-friendly details such as the nylon "comfort collar" and the Velcro 'buttons', to the luxuriously comfortable Voice pullovers: they are all wonderful.
This might bring more joy to Salomon's marketing department were I not a 51-year-old man normally so unmoved by skiwear fashion as to have worn the same C&A padded ski jacket for a dozen years. But I am not alone in my enthusiasm for the new range. When a box of samples arrived at the office of the fashion-oriented publishing company where I spend most of the working week, two garments were purloined within minutes by a 28-year-old art editor: she sent them off immediately to be photographed.
If Salomon's first clothing range has caused a stir, that is not only because of the unusual designs. The company's reputation for innovation in skiing "hardware" is unequalled, thanks in large part to its X-Scream skis, Snowblades and integrated bindings. Although not a new company – it started making hacksaw blades in the 1950s, soon moving to the manufacture of ski edges – it has become pre-eminent since the beginning of the 1990s. Late in that decade, I asked a group of reps from rival ski manufacturing companies how they felt about Salomon; the response was an outpouring of more genuine emotion – mainly grief and envy – than one would expect from salesmen, even in a bar.
Recently, the company has started selling gloves and footwear, the latter providing a market (for its "technical" sports shoes) among surfers and a material which has found its way into Voice garments: the 3-D Air Mesh of the sweatshirt was originally developed for shoe linings. These "soft" products are designed not at Salomon's headquarters in Annecy but in a studio in Boulder, Colorado. And it is there, almost two years ago, that work started on the clothing range.
The company's design director for apparel, Markus Rindle, is a 39-year-old German whose roots lie in the fashion world: he worked with the designer Paul Costelloe before moving on to various German motorbike-clothing and outdoor-wear manufacturers – and from there to Salomon's Boulder studio. Rindle talks with unusual lucidity about the design philosophy of the Advanced Skin range. "The outdoor clothing industry developed a very distinctive code for technical wear," he explains, "with patched shoulders and knees, heavy stitching, and performance features such as 'pit zips' under the arms. But fashionwear adopted this code; and the end result was that, from a distance, you couldn't tell an H&M jacket from one made by Patagonia. So the design language of outdoor performance clothing no longer had any value.
"Salomon's philosophy is all about breaking the rules, so we decided to create our own design language. We chose a very clean look, with clothing that on its outside would provide no information about the inside." The surprising inspiration for this was a very different high-performance product: the US Air Force's "Stealth" bomber, designed to avoid detection by enemy radar. Such is the stealth of the Advanced Skin garments that, Rindle admits, "they don't say 'skier' or 'snowboarder': we use fabrics that are also used for street wear". Partly this was achieved by adjusting the always problematic compromise in outdoor wear – between impermeability and comfort – in favour of the latter. Some of the garments are merely water-resistant, because without a waterproof membrane they can stretch and breathe more easily.
Mostly, those are Voice garments aimed at younger consumers; but Rindle doesn't accept the argument that the different sub-ranges mean Advanced Skin lacks coherence. "All the garments express the same philosophy," he says. "They are just talking to different groups of customers."
Since they speak an unfamiliar language, this season's launch of the range is "fairly tight, relatively small", according to Salomon UK's marketing manager, Laurence Joslin. "But we've already hit our target." Maybe the skiwear buyers fear their customers will need an interpreter; Snow+Rock has not bought the range, for a variety of reasons, and Ellis Brigham is only selling it through the London, Manchester and Milton Keynes stores. However Ellis Brigham's marketing director, Dave Whitlow, is cautiously optimistic. "It's not as a commercial a range as we expected. Still, that's the way Salomon works: they come in with something that's left-field but they make it commercially successful in the end."
Salomon (0800 389 4350; its website is www.salomonsports.co.uk, but does not include details of clothing). Ellis Brigham (0161-834 5555)