There are more than 100 alpine ski manufacturers located all over the world at last count. They mass produce skis used by first time skiers, super-fat powder skis for heli skiing in British Columbia to high performance rockets used on the World Cup circuit. At the same time, there are only a dozen or so blossoming boutique ski companies that build their skis by special order.
The top 10 mainstream ski manufacturers like K2, Atomic, Rossignol, Volkl, and Head produce over 92 percent of the market's high quality commercial skis and have been in the business long enough to understand the most attractive features for all levels of skiers. The bulk of their sales come from recreational skiers who are looking for a quality pair of skis that will perform well under a variety of conditions, are less expensive and - most importantly - they can take them home the same day they buy them.
So, "Why," you might ask, "would I invest in the time, money, and hassle of buying a pair of custom made boutique skis when I can grab a pair right off of the rack and ski on them the next morning?" The answer is quality and design.
The term "boutique" ski isn't anything new. French ski team member Leo Lacroix made the bold move in the 1960s to quit skiing on Rossignols and made his own skis. Pete Wagner out of Telluride, Colo., came up with the idea in 2006 to make his own skis after spending all day creating custom golf clubs for affluent guests. That got him thinking. "Why can't the same process that works for customized golf clubs be used for designing skis?" Today, there are over a dozen small boutique ski makers that offer design services to discriminating skiers. Some of the most popular include:
"The customer who comes to Wagner Custom Skis fits into a unique mold," says Wagner. "These are not your casual skiers. They are extremely passionate about their skiing and rarely get in fewer than 50 days a year on the mountain." Although you'd think the big 10 ski manufacturers would offer every conceivable design and feature one could imagine, people always want something different - even if it's just a picture of their girlfriend emblazoned onto the top of their skis.
Most skiers that buy boutique skis have a number of specifics in mind - things like polished wood topsheets, lightweight bamboo cores, extra-wide steel edges, custom sidecut dimensions, reverse camber, specific turning radius, waist and shovel widths, flare angles and flex profiles that fit your specific build, strength, and skiing style.
The process begins at Wagner Custom Skis with customers completing a detailed, online questionnaire about their skiing ability, where they like to ski, favorite snow conditions, and even what ski they skied on last. The questionnaire is followed up a few days later by a telephone interview by a skilled design expert. The result is the client's "Skier's DNA." Of course, all of this doesn't come cheaply. Wagner skis can run from $1,600 to $2,700, not including binding, but all skis are guaranteed to be the ski you imagined or they'll work with you until they get it right.
If you're really looking to make a statement in the lift line, try a pair of Zai Skis. Made exclusively in Switzerland, Zai applies a polished wood topsheet to all of their handmade skis. Their new model, the Spada, is made with a gneiss core - a form of vibration dampening rock. They sell for $5,000. If the Spada is a bit out of your budget, you might want to try a pair of Sterling skis. They come with your choice of three different wood topsheets, bindings, poles, and their own velvet-lined carrying case for $3,299. Not to be outdone, Chanel began offering its own line of boutique skis with quilted leather tops to compete with Ferrari who sells a line of carving and racing skis for around $4,000, with their familiar logo.