Neon lets skiers stand out

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      Skiing has a bright future. And not just because the world's most popular winter sport has regained its long-standing edge over its upstart rival, snowboarding. A word of caution, though: break out the Vuarnet sunglasses. Why? Because neon is officially back in fashion. Those who cringe at photos taken of themselves in brighter-than-bright 1980s shades can take heart.

      How many of us actually hung on to any of that electrically charged gear? In fairness, back in the day, skiers and snowboarders didn't know any better. Neon, like shredding on a board, was the newest rage. You'd think that time would have taught an important lesson: if it glows, out it goes. Except this year that should read: glow big or go home.

      What sparked the neon renaissance? Charles Bedard, designer with Whistler-based SMS Clothing, attributes the trend to the popularity of videos in which marquee skiers and snowboarders soar skyward to such exalted heights that they become increasingly hard to see. Brightly bedecked aerialists are more likely to stand out when framed against the magic-hour sunsets favoured by action-sport videographers. For example, check Matchstick Productions' latest effort, Claim, to see for yourself. SMS's T. J. Schiller, garbed in blinding blue and yellow, steals the show in more ways than one.

      SMS Clothing is the offshoot of two-time Olympian and Canadian Ski Hall of Famer John Smart's freestyle-ski-camp business. Since 1992, the Lions Bay native has run a summer program on Blackcomb's Horstmann Glacier, largely focused on young mogul and freeride skiers. Drawn by Smart's dream to see freestyle, or freeride, skiing evolve to higher ground, coaches like Vernon-based Schiller and Olympic gold medallist Jean-Luc Brassard were attracted to Momentum Ski Camp. They've helped spawn the careers of future podium toppers such as Alberta's Jennifer Heil, who won top honours in moguls competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Games. Just as importantly, Momentum camps were the crucible for what has become known as the new-school style. Pioneered by coach Mike Douglas aboard a pair of revolutionary twin-tip skis, over the past decade new-school has swept skiing out from snowboarding's shadow and back into the realm of global cool.

      Every revolution calls for a new wardrobe, whether it's freeriding or skiing's newest rising star, alpine touring. Smart and Bedard recognized the need to draw attention to freestyle's new technical skills with eye-catching outfits. "You want to impress and be loud," explained Bedard when reached by phone on his way to Vancouver. From his Whistler office, Smart agreed. "We're far more cool fashion than, say, Arc'teryx," he said in reference to the North Shore–based adventure-gear company, for which product performance trumps all other considerations. Whereas Bedard treats fabric as his canvas, Arc'teryx's director of new technologies development, Mike Blenkarn, is far more caught up in biomechanics-like minimizing the impact of water vapour on outerwear in extreme winter conditions.

      When reached at Arc'teryx's North Vancouver headquarters, Blenkarn told the Georgia Straight: "If we solve vapour-permeability fundamentals to get our jackets to dry out more quickly at the back end of a snow cave, we can then transfer those improvements into apparel that works better for everyone, right up to guests at heli-ski lodges. This makes the guides at CMH [Canadian Mountain Holidays] happy, the guides at Rogers Pass and North Shore Rescue happy, and the 56 guys who do avalanche control on the Duffey Lake Road happy too." The 49-year-old then pointed out that a decade of such research has made his company the dominant player in the jacket category today.

      Not that Bedard doesn't know a thing or two about product testing. The 28-year-old is just as crazy about getting out into the backcountry as Blenkarn. The difference is, like many of his youthful Sea to Sky cohorts, he not only carves on skis, he also does R & D atop a snowmobile. "Because you're in the elements all day without the benefit of ducking into a lodge like a lot of our customers," he said, "the backcountry influences design by testing our garments." Both designers' textile of choice is three-ply Gore-Tex. "We're advancing towards perfection in fabric to operate like skin: waterproof and breathable," Bedard said.

      Over at Arc'teryx, Blenkarn, a self-admitted "fun hog", said that when it comes to field-testing, he far prefers to stretch climbing skins over the bottom of his skis and self-propel his way up a 2,000-metre slope in the Cayoosh Range between Pemberton and Lillooet. If he has concern about the rise in popularity of alpine touring, it's that parking is now at a premium along the Duffey Lake Road, where he estimates there are as many as 15 backcountry communal cabins. "My playground is getting congested," he joked, "and now I need to wait my turn on the swing."

      In the early 1990s, on one such backcountry "sweat fest" in the Diamond Head region of Garibaldi Provincial Park, Blenkarn came up with an idea that eventually led to one of Arc'teryx's patented breakthroughs: urethane-coated waterproof zippers. "I did a lot of work to put chemicals on zippers to keep moisture from getting in between layers and destroying the fabric. I want my buddies to be happy. Longer life span of clothing is what drives me."

      Whether that ambition extends to neon-hued garb is a moot point, at least for Arc'teryx, whose products, unlike SMS Clothing's, feature less exuberant colour choices. Certainly, neon's upside is that it makes finding your companions in whiteout conditions much easier. When it comes to survival, as in the global marketplace, bright and shiny concepts help both companies stand out in the crowd.