Camille Jaccoux and Bruno Compagnet never planned on starting a ski company. Though the two pro skiers from Chamonix, France, long envisioned a more versatile ski, one that would better handle variable terrain and appeal to a wider range of skiers, they didn’t think the prospect of building one was economically feasible.
Then, while out skiing one day in 2005, the two met Christophe Villemin, an industrialist who’d made most of his money in the aluminum business. Over dinner one night, the three talked about what it might take to launch a company. “Basically, he had the money to do it,” said Jaccoux. “And it started to seem possible to create an independent ski brand in the freeride market.” By the end of the evening, Black Crows was conceived.
When the company released its first ski in 2006, the Corvus, it changed the perception of how skis should be built. “Everything back then was either a twin tip or a variation on a race ski,” said Tristan Droppert, Black Crows’ North American marketing manager. “The Corvus had a different shape that allowed for all different turn shapes.” In short, the ski didn’t lock skiers into a certain radius turn, which allowed them to easily pivot. “That makes them accessible to all abilities,” said Droppert. “Intermediates can slow down with ease and experts find them playful.”
Added Jaccoux: “Since the beginning, the idea was to create a ski brand for everybody. For my mother. For everybody. We really wanted to create a ski that didn’t close us into one category. Not racing. Not big mountain. You can do anything on these skis.”
Credit Julien Regnier for fine-tuning that design. The pro skier, along with the late JP Auclair, had created the popular Armada JJ. When he left Armada, he was quickly recruited by Jaccoux and Compagnet. “He shapes ski with the mind of a surfboard shaper,” said Droppert. “He thinks about shape first as opposed to how the materials work with the shape.”
Though the skis performed well, Jaccoux and Compagnet knew they’d need to do something special to move product. To that end, the duo hired award-winning designer Yorgo Tloupas to create the ski’s graphic. Playing on the Black Crows name, which Jaccoux came up with (among skiers and mountaineers, the high-flying bird is thought to provide a reassuring presence in the mountains), Tloupas designed a chevron pattern, reminiscent of six black crows flying in unison. The simple aesthetic created mystery around the brand.
“They did an incredible job of that,” said Marc Peruzzi, ski test director for Outside and Mountain magazines. “There’s this underground ‘What are those?’ vibe associated with the brand. And then, when curious consumers go online to find out, all they see is core messaging like pro-athlete generated video. A lot of it’s compelling stuff too. I saw one with Seth Morrison skiing powder with some Crows athletes in the trees at Chamonix that has stayed with me. That marketing works.”
It sure does. Black Crows is now one of the most profitable independent ski brands in North America. Next year, sales are expected to top $11 million.
“The brand certainly has momentum and buzz,” said Nathan Grothe, category merchandise manager for REI. “I think there are several reasons for the brand’s success: Well-designed skis that are made in some of the top ski factories, the shapes and flex patterns are contemporary and accessible but still provide top-end performance, and the brand’s aesthetics are clean and distinctive.” Grothe said REI is more than tripling the store count for Black Crows for next winter. They were sold at seven stores last season and will sell at 30 locations next winter.
That’s reason to party. And partying is also something that has raised the company’s brand recognition. Starting on April 2, Black Crows will host the seventh-annual Unlimited Festival, a five-day music festival in Chamonix that draws up to 4,000 people a day. Featuring prominent electronic dance music acts, it’s a spring break in the mountains, complete with a pool party, noted European DJs and packed dance parties atop the Aiguille du Midi tram.
“When we launched the brand we did a big party and it was great,” said Jaccoux. “I said, maybe we should do a two-day festival with ski demos. Now it’s one of Chamonix’s main events. We use the mountain for music, but there’s always skiing in the background.”