Pure Instinct: Cole Sport Park City

Cole Sport Park City:

Gary Cole uses intuition to build a chic Park City boutique

When Gary Cole opened Cole Sport in Park City, Utah in 1982, he did so on pure instinct. He and his wife, Jana, had resided in the resort town for 10 years, and as a ski instructor and realtor, this former opera singer — yes, opera singer — built a clientele of wealthy, well-dressed clients. “It occurred to me that nobody in town was doing any high-end, European-type fashion,” he says. Cole had always enjoyed shopping, liked clothes, and sensed opportunity. “It was a total seat-of-the-pants effort,” he admits. “We brought in unique quality design and built a reputation around that.”

pURE-INSTINCT-2Opening a luxury ski wear shop in the early 1980s was a gamble, not to mention an unusual choice for a classically trained opera singer. But Cole admits he always sang to a different tune. “I was the oddball in the music department, teaching skiing at Mount Baker in rain and wet snow, while everyone else was walking around with towels around their necks hoping not to catch a cold.” Realizing that the opera lifestyle would not be conducive to married life, he and Jana had moved from Seattle, where he’d studied opera performance, to Park City in 1972.

They intended to spend one winter. Not only are they still there, they now operate four stores in Park City and Deer Valley with their sons Jason, 35, and Adam, 32, and a staff that seems more like family than employees. Jason joined the family company right out of college. Adam, a former Junior World Champion for downhill, two-time NCAA champion, and U.S. Ski Team coach who worked with Bode Miller, recently came aboard full time. “They’re our succession plan,” Jana quips.

Walk down Park Avenue in Old Town, and it’s nearly impossible to resist the lure of the red Triumph TR3 in the window of Cole Sport flagship store. A nattily dressed mannequin occupies the driver’s seat and arresting eye candy fills the open trunk. “It’s a draw like you wouldn’t believe,” Cole says. It’s just one example of the store’s slogan: “Expect the Unexpected.”

PURE-INSTINCT-3Step inside, and the unexpected becomes the norm. “Every customer is greeted within 10 feet or 10 seconds,” Jana Cole says. Most employees have been with the company for at least 15 years, some for as many as 25. “Our employees know our customers; they’ve developed relationships with them over the years,” she says. “We also spend a lot of time in the fall training our employees so that they can give their customers great information about the products.”

The store is treated as a stage, with mannequins used to display clothes rather than hangers, and theatrical lighting spotlighting displays and highlighting décor. Gary says that to replicate the warmth and innate heritage of classic European ski shops, he scrounged antiques stores from Seattle to Salt Lake City. Whenever he found an interesting piece crafted in old pine, he purchased it and put it in the store without gussying it up. Those pieces blend well with the store’s fixtures, which were built from scratch by a creative neighbor with a woodworking shop.

Juxtaposed against classic appeal is cutting-edge merchandise that includes brands such as Frauenschuh, Jet Set, and KRU. “What sets us apart is that we’re not focused on old European styles. We’re looking at fashion-forward companies that use more technically advanced materials,” Jason Cole says. To achieve the right mix, Jana Cole says: “We depend strongly on our buyers, they have a very good feel; they know what works and what doesn’t, and we rely on their expertise.”

PURE-INSTICT-4Buyer Kathy Burke has been honing that expertise since joining the company in 1990. Cole Sport’s clients, she says, are first and foremost true skiers; they’re not here “to just walk the streets and look beautiful. They want products that are chic and sexy, but also are performance driven.”

Burke not only shops the big European shows every year, but also pounds the pavement, visiting numerous private showrooms to distill global trends for local clients and to select the right mix for each store; Jet Set for Deer Valley, for example. “When I buy a line, I really commit,” she says. “You don’t just see a few jackets here and there, you’re seeing a majority of the collection.”

Within the flagship store, small boutiques showcase one brand paired with complementary ones. “We put a lot of thought into the process of what brands to buy and how they’re positioned within store,” Burke says. Bogner has its own intimate space, but it’s shown with Fire & Ice. Cashmere sweaters share the huge antique farm table in the Bogner room with luxury leather handbags and beautiful candles.

pURE-INSTINCT-5Another room showcases European brands, such as Frauenschuh, an understated Austrian luxury brand that Burke envisions pairing with KRU, a very sporty, fitted, hip and young luxury brand from St. Moritz. Bridging the Bogner and European rooms is a private room displaying Toni Sailer, a sport luxury collection from Europe. This year, Burke is excited about a new addition: the women’s line of SOS from Scandinavia. “It’s sexy, but made for skiing, and I think our customers will respond to it.” In the end, it all comes down to customer service. That’s what distinguishes Cole Sport. “We’ll do whatever it takes to make the customer happy,” Burke says. “It’s not necessarily about making the sale.” Now that’s unexpected.

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