Step inside Valbruna, the cozy Vail Village boutique, and be transported to Italy — Valbruna, Italy, to be precise. Former Italian World Cup and American pro skier Marco Tonazzi — together with his wife, former ski filmstar Amy Wheeler Tonazzi— have created a vest-pocket tribute to Marco’s hometown, the Julian Alps village snugged against northeastern Italy’s Austria-Slovenia border. “My parents bought a cabin in Valbruna in 1963 that changed the course of our lives,” Marco says. “We traveled from Udine to the mountains every winter and I started to ski.”
Marco and Amy — whom fans will recall skiing in classic Warren Miller films — opened their Vail Village store in 1998. “I struggled with the store’s name, because I was thinking about Native Americans who believe that taking their picture steals a bit of their soul,” Marco says. He worried that naming the store for his home ski town would do the same, but Amy’s mother convinced him doing so was actually a tribute to a place he loved and often returned. Once he accepted that, he endeavored to make the village part of the store.
Remembering old photographs depicting annual gatherings of village residents, Marco recreated one, convincing roughly 100 Valbruna villagers to gather for a photo one Sunday morning in October 1998. The village’s oldest living man told Marco that when he was six months old, his father had emigrated to Montana to be a logger and had never returned. “He wore his father’s wedding hat in the photo,” Marco explains, “so it would go to America and be a connection to the father he never knew.” That story is indicative of many woven into the store’s fabric. “Even though shelf and wall space is important, the thing that will never change in this store is the picture of Valbruna,” he says. “It’s part of the store.” In return for posing for the photo, Marco gave each participating family a copy of the picture, along with two Vail 1999 World Championships coffee mugs, so there’s a little bit of Vail in Italy, too.
The massive black and white photograph is the boutique’s beating heart, accompanied by a comfy leather couch, a patchwork of antique wood furnishings, and — sì, certo! — a Lavazza espresso machine. The inviting, low-key décor oozes this all-star couple’s emphasis on hospitality, which, as Marco insists, is different than customer service. “Customer service is a one-way street,” he explains. “Hospitality is understanding the customer. It’s what you do when an old friend comes to visit — you drop everything and enjoy. When you come into Valbruna, we’d like you to stay awhile and we’ll all share stories. It’s not only about shopping; come back anytime for another coffee.”
That said, eye-catching mannequins garbed in chic ski and fashion outfits layering textures and fabrics by brand make it clear the boutique offers more than coffee and conversation. Valbruna specializes in Italian brands with exclusive distribution, including Parajumpers and Colmar, as well as labels such as Luis Trenker, rh+, and Montura. As Marco says, there’s a story behind each brand. “I believe in people and relationships. It’s not only about the product; products are only things, and we all have too many things,” he says. “If there’s no story, if there’s not a relationship attached, I’m not interested.” Marco delights in sharing details of his relationship with the owner of Parajumpers, with whom he shares a passion for Prosecco; his ski racing history with Colmar, a 93-year-old brand still owned by the same family; and Montura, which he deems Italy’s hottest mountaineering label.
“The key is hospitality, relationships, and people.” — Marco Tonazzi
The Tonazzis strive to develop relationships that connect their Valbruna boutique to the brands and to its namesake village. They bring employees from Italy as trainees; they take American employees to Valbruna for visits, so they understand the connection and can share the stories; and they operate a travel service offering trips to Valbruna, Italy. What people take home from the store, he says, are the stories. “The key,” Marco says, “is hospitality, relationships, and people.”
In 2015, the Tonazzis remodeled the store, working with a Swiss friend — a skier and designer who imports antique wood. “Old wood has no age,” Marco declares. “It has history and character, it’s natural, and it’s warm.” One beam, about 24 feet in length, sourced from Salzburg, Austria, now runs behind the counter from one side of the store to the other. More old European barn beams frame the front door. Slats of wood, reminiscent of those used in Slovenia to dry hay, form a backdrop to the windows, allowing natural light to filter through. The boutique’s riveting photo has been framed with old European wood. What’s more, the store’s sales counter is topped with timber that’s hand carved with a scene depicting life in the Valbruna village.
The boutique’s look, as a result, is updated yet traditional, with many a story starter. “Our boutique features lots of little things that mean a great deal to us,” Marco says. “We’re sharing what we love.” Settle in with an espresso and join in the conversation. valbrunastore.com