- Stephen Cleary
Among snow sliders, long underwear tops and bottoms were once as crucial as CB jackets, teal-green Rossignol 4-S skis and rear-entry Nordicas. Sure, our matching cotton sets had grayed at the armpits, frayed at the cuffs, and piled up more pills than US Weekly's latest cover girl, but we pulled them on religiously. Eventually we upgraded to silk, and finally to Capilene.
But a new Vermont clothing company is banking on the notion that even high-tech Capilene has lost its cool among snowboarders. Stephen Cleary, co-founder, president, and brand and product director of eesa performance clothing, explains that many athletes would rather wear soggy T-shirts and hoodies than clothes that look like underwear when they strip off their jacket and pants.
Cleary, who's now 39, experienced this epiphany in 2003, after five years of working for Burton. "Riders didn't care if they were cold and wet," he says. "They wanted to look good on and off the hill." It was during that winter, which he spent hiking in Stowe "and getting back in touch with my inner-stoke on snowboarding," that Cleary "realized that snowboarders didn't wear first layer; it wasn't cool or fashionable," he recalls.
Cleary founded eesa with fellow snow-sports guru Fran Frost the following fall, after calling a bunch of pro snowboarders and sketching a design on a napkin at Mount Hood, Oregon. The idea: layering pieces that wouldn't look like underwear, and that a skier or rider could feel proud to display after peeling off a coat. Cleary and Frost called their concept "lift-to-lounge," and they decided to base their base-layer company in Waterbury.
Yep, as snow-sports businesses such as Dynastar and Rossignol have fled Vermont for cheaper - and deeper - places like Utah, some companies are still seeing green in the Green Mountains, no matter how much white stuff may fly. "I can be out my front door and on the quad at Stowe in 30 minutes," Cleary says.
Eesa officially launched in late 2004, but this winter is the first time the clothes are appearing in stores and on the backs and feet of skiers and riders on the slopes. The line features button-down and rugby shirts and socks with moisture-wicking, antimicrobial and quick-dry technology.
The clothes are the brainchild of two seasoned winter-sports experts. Before coming to eesa, Frost founded Whitecollar clothing and directed New England sales and marketing for Stowe specialty shop Misty Mountain. Cleary worked in advanced product development for Burton and was involved in creating its Learn to Ride program. That work, together with his experience launching the company Anon Optics, gave him the confidence to try something new.
Cleary explains that starting Anon, a brand of goggles and related gear for snowboarders, "really let me get my feet wet from a start-up point of view. We were responsible for developing the product, marketing, sales and budgets as they pertained to the brand."
Eesa's marketing campaign may be trying too hard to capture attention. The company has its own MySpace page, where it lists "shredding and everything that's shredtastic" among its interests. According to the page, the brand's hometown is "floor, couch, anywhere there are friends," and it promises its readers "free fucking shit." Another scheme: fake red "steeze citations," designed to look like parking tickets, that snowboarders are supposed to give to others. "Just because you received this citation does not mean your [sic] all that, keep the ego in check and move forward with quiet confidence," one reads. "Nice schralping - most riders can't link two turns, let alone shred the gnar with as much style and grace as you."
A bit obnoxious, yes, but its clothes live up to the promises. A button-down in two brown shades called "Lines" is satiny-soft, yet it stays warm and dry in the frigid February temperatures. And Cleary is right about the lift-to-lounge concept: The shirt clicks as well with jeans as it does with Gore-Tex pants. Argyle, plaid or striped socks keep toes toasty without bulking up in the boot.
The "Front," "Ridgeline," "Shooter," "Patchwork" and "Rucker" shirts, in mauves, baby blues, yellows, pinks and limes, all easily beat the pants off traditional long-underwear layering. Next year, Cleary plans to release a full line of undies, including T-shirts, tank tops, bras, panties, boxer briefs, capris and yoga pants.
Eesa has already partnered with plenty of top snowboarders, including Vermont's Lukas Huffman, Jake Blauvelt, Lucas Magoon, Travis Limoge and Emily Woolf. Last month, the company won "most innovative submission" in the first-ever Boardsports Awards given out by ISPO, the international trade show for sports equipment and fashion. "The products of eesa prevent the formation of annoying body odors and help to maintain the right body temperature according to the current weather condition," the ISPO press release reads. "Eesa's garments are also super trendy and let their wearers look their best even for après-ski activities."
"People are excited to have a nontraditional layering piece that doesn't look like underwear," says Cleary. "We get calls and emails all the time from people who wear the product on the hill and to work and are always getting compliments on it."
During this winter of 2006-2007, eesa might be celebrating its recent accomplishments with fellow winter-sports successes Rossignol and Dynastar - had those companies not moved last year to Park City, Utah. When they retreated from Vermont, Rossi and Dynastar joined a long list of snow-based companies, including Nordica, Elan, Kastle and Tubbs, that have been romanced away from the Green Mountains.
Cleary says the loss of major winter-sports players doesn't affect eesa's future, but he adds that it does signal the need for a better business environment. "It's a wake-up call for the state of Vermont to create incentives for Vermont companies to stay in Vermont," Cleary explains. "The state should be asking those brands, 'Why did you leave? What could we have done differently?'"
The West is an appealing place to base a business, Cleary acknowledges. "California, Colorado and particularly Utah have some amazing opportunites for snowsports brands, including massive incentives to move, with tax breaks, etc.," he says.
So how does an outdoor clothing company warm to Vermont? In the end, it was a lifelong love of the Green Mountains that convinced him, Cleary says. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, he worked for an architectural firm in New York City but found himself coming up to Vermont nearly every weekend.
At last month's SnowSports Industries America (SIA) trade show in Las Vegas, eesa joined dozens of Vermont companies in showcasing their products to retailers, among them Burton, Rome Snowboard Design Syndicate, Exel poles, Hotronic boot warmers, Mammut clothing and ropes, and Turtle Fur headwear.
It's no coincidence that a few of those companies are in the business of keeping customers warm. In an email written on his return from the SIA and ISPO trade shows, Cleary notes that eesa's line is perfectly suited to Vermont, now that winter weather has returned to normal. "I'm gearing up right now to head up to Stowe where it's -40 at the top of the quad," he writes. "Product testing doesn't get any better than that."