They take your breath away

Ever since the appearance of breathable fabrics, choosing ski-wear has been a trade-off between ease of use and weather-proofing. Stephen Wood tries the latest contender for the comfort crown

Only recently have I become aware of this phenomenon: as a man grows older, the ability to manage his own pockets declines. Being one of those processes which creeps up insidiously rather than suddenly announcing itself, it is most noticeable in others; and I first observed it in the case of A, with whom I travelled on a skiing trip to Vermont. Slightly older than myself, he tended towards forgetfulness. On this trip, what A forgot was that he had remembered his jacket: the result was that he travelled with two, wearing one and carrying the other.

Only recently have I become aware of this phenomenon: as a man grows older, the ability to manage his own pockets declines. Being one of those processes which creeps up insidiously rather than suddenly announcing itself, it is most noticeable in others; and I first observed it in the case of A, with whom I travelled on a skiing trip to Vermont. Slightly older than myself, he tended towards forgetfulness. On this trip, what A forgot was that he had remembered his jacket: the result was that he travelled with two, wearing one and carrying the other.

At several points on the journey, A was obliged to find his ticket or passport, pounds or dollars; and on each occasion a queue formed behind him as he searched up to 11 pockets for the required item. With two jackets, the number of pockets available far exceeded A's capability to manage them.

My own ski jacket has six pockets; and from comparing my behaviour with observations of A, I came to realise that was one too many. It would be untrue to say that my affection for the Salomon ski outfit I wore on a recent trip to Chile was caused solely by the fact that the jacket had only five pockets; but it helped. (And my overall carrying capacity wasn't even reduced, since there was an extra pocket on the left leg of the matching trousers.)

The Salomon Covalent jacket and trousers are part of the "soft shell revolution", which one North American analyst has enthusiastically described to the trade as "the biggest apparel-market opportunity since Gore-Tex in the 1970s". In recent years the dominant trend for skiwear has been towards layering: most skiers and boarders wear a "moisture-wicking" base layer, a mid-layer fleece for insulation, and an outer "hard shell" which is wind-proof and water-repellent. Now the orthodoxy of layering is under attack, largely on the fairly specious ground that changing conditions demand the tiresome and time-consuming removal or replacement of layers. (Personally I have always found it both pleasant and logical to add a layer when I'm cold, and take one off when I'm hot.)

The real drawback of layering lies in the performance of the hard shell. In an ideal world, fabrics would let sweat out (so-called "breathability") without letting wind and rain in (impermeability); in reality there has to be a trade-off between the two characteristics - and technical fabrics used for hard shells, such as Gore-Tex, favour impermeability over breathability. That's fine if protection from the elements in an extreme environment is the wearer's prime concern. But for those involved in active sports or, say, going no higher than the top end of the King's Road, more breathability is desirable. So, propelled partly by the cross-over between snowboarder gear and street fashion (and that between technical ski-wear and year-round outdoor clothing), manufacturers have started to use softer outer-layer fabrics such as the Schoeller WB-400 from which Salomon's Covalent garments are made.

Made by a Swiss company, Schoeller WB-400 is actually three fabrics bonded together. The surface layer is an elastic/synthetic mix which is hard-wearing, unconstricting and dirt-repellent; beneath it is an acrylate layer which repels water but does not inhibit the passage of perspiration; inside that is a fleecy fabric to retain warmth. Although the outer surface is treated to make moisture form "beads" and roll off, the Schoeller fabric is by no means waterproof. By common consent among the marketing people, it is suitable for 80-90 per cent of weather conditions - excluding persistent heavy rain or wet snow. On the other hand, the fabric's breathability is 25-30 per cent better than hard shells, according to a Schoeller spokesperson.

Thanks to the innermost layer of the soft shell, the mid-layer becomes something of a luxury. In extreme conditions it may be necessary to add either a fleece to protect against cold or a thin, hard shell garment to keep moisture out. The snowsport clothing buyer at Snow+Rock, Jon Stevens, says that a light, packable hard shell should be the only extra protection needed for extreme weather, because the soft shell will keep the skier warm.

Mr Stevens admits that his enthusiasm for soft shells lies partly in the tailoring quality of the fabrics. "They're light and durable; they stretch and hang really well; and they're quiet - you don't get the rustle of a hard shell," he says. All this is true; and the Salomon Covalent outfit I borrowed comes in an unusually stealthy matt black. Unfortunately, I have black boots, too: when I modelled the whole ensemble - including my matt-black crash helmet - for my wife at home, she judged that I looked "like a man who delivers Milk Tray cautiously".

Ever since Salomon launched its futuristic-looking skiwear two years ago I have been an admirer - but only from afar: apart from a single base-layer garment, I have never worn Salomon. The detailing of the garments has always been seductive. Take one tiny but brilliant feature on the Covalent jacket: a "tongue" on the inner section of cuffs protrudes slightly to allow the middle fingers to hold it in place while the other hand is tightening the Velcro fastening. Jon Stevens made an acute observation about such features. He pointed out that companies which are innovators in snowsport hardware, such as Salomon and Burton, maintain test teams of serious skiers and boarders, with the result that their clothing ranges also benefit from rigorous, expert input.

The Covalent outfit - worn with just base-layer garments - was not rigorously tested at Chile's Valle Nevado resort, where the weather was warm. But it was comfortable, and extremely light: I have never felt so at ease in skiwear. The day-long blizzard at Portillo was a greater challenge; but the fleece layer I put on was more to comfort me than keep out the cold. And the pockets? Some were obviously useful (such as the "goggle net" inside), some not (what do you store above your left knee?); but I had all of them under control at all times.

The Salomon Covalent jacket is available for men and women from Ellis Brigham (0870 444 5555; www.ellis-brigham.com) at £225, the trousers at £149.95. Stockist information: Salomon (0800 389 4350; www.salomonsports.com)

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