At 4 p.m., Lech’s main drag—to be truthful, Lech’s only drag and barely a block long at that—is hopping. Skiers and snowboarders descending from the mountains hugging this high, Austrian alpine valley, click out of their gear just steps from the street. The music blaring from jam-packed terrace bars blends with a choral gurgle from the river, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, and the general cacophony of families and friends to-ing and fro-ing in the small downtown. At the hub of all the hubbub, yet a respite from the usual après-ski hoopla, is Strolz ski shop, a Lech institution for nearly a century.

From humble beginnings as custom boot makers, family-owned Strolz has evolved into one of the world’s foremost and toniest alpine lifestyle and fashion emporiums. Eager to learn how Strolz the boot maker evolved into Strolz the luxury department store, I arranged to meet Ambros Strolz, a grandson of the cobbler who started it all, at Treff, Strolz’s in-house bar and lounge. When I arrive, customers in chic skiwear and fur-trimmed boots fill nearly every black leather banquette seat and stool inside. It’s hard to discern whether their glowing faces are the result of skiing, schnapps, or the shopping.STOLZ_2

While waiting, I peruse Strolz’s 150-page magazine-style catalog, drooling over artsy images of size 2 models dressed in Bogner, Fendi, Duohtavuohta, Moschino, Bottega, Burberry, Versace, Habsburg, Wallmann…yes, the labels speak for themselves. One gets a sense of Strolz simply by skimming the sections. Fashion pages are headlined: Love Fashion, A Man’s World, Not Another Fashion Story, and Alpine Style. Sport pages include: Cuts Exclusive and Colored Furs. Teen-oriented items are grouped smartly under Cool Vibrations. There’s even an Qinsert on Ski Trends, noting must-haves for the current season.

Arriving in jeans topped with a white dress shirt and black jacket, Ambros exudes hip-but-not-hipster style. Over wine and prosciutto, and between replying to texts and calls, exchanging pleasantries with long-time customers, and answering questions from employees, who clearly not only respect but also like him, he shares the Strolz story, starting with Treff.

“Treff means ‘meet-up,’” he explains. “A lot of people meet here with friends, take a cappuccino in the morning, have a sweet in the afternoon, or a bite of the famous prosciutto right after skiing.” Glancing around, I can see that it’s also a refuge for men to relax while their wives or girlfriends peruse the merchandise, occasionally trotting over to share a find or drop a bag or two.

Martin Strolz

The Strolz brand originated in 1921, when Ambros Strolz’s namesake and grandfather began handcrafting leather boots for skiers. But it wasn’t until Ambros’ uncle, Martin Strolz, began competing on the Austrian Ski Team that the Strolz family earned recognition. While racing in his own custom boots, Martin placed second in downhill in the 1954 World Championships in Åre, Sweden. Martin, no fool, also fitted teammates with Strolz boots, and Othmar Schneider and Egon Zimmermann won Olympic medals in them. The victories generated worldwide buzz for the boots. Soon, alpine racers from other countries, eager to compete in the best, began beating a path to Lech to fit their feet into custom pairs of Strolz leather boots, too.

For more than a quarter century, Strolz played an active role in outfitting not only the world’s most elite competitors, but also recreational skiers who coveted the bespoke boots handcrafted from the finest leather available and who reveled in individual attention. When plastic boots were introduced in the late 1960s, Martin realized that to survive, Strolz would have to adapt, while retaining its reputation for personalized service and custom production. “Martin drove the change from leather to plasticmolded outershells with foam-injection systems,” Ambros says. In 1969, Strolz launched its first plastic boot, the Competition. Thanks to Martin’s ingenuity, Strolz, unlike many leather boot makers, not only survived, but also thrived.

“My father, UlrichŠW, and my mother, Hertha, developed the retail business,” Ambros explains. “My mother was always looking for new, interesting products and the latest fashion.” His father, on the other hand, looked at how the store was merchandized. “He looked at other shops to incorporate new ideas for the store in Lech.”

Ambros began accompanying his mother on buying trips at the age of 8. He worked his way up in the family business, beginning at the cash counter and in ski service. Later, he managed the Strolz store in Zurs. “After my studies in hotel management, a six-month internship at Bogner in Munich, and an eight-month stage in a five-star hotel in New York City, I returned home to share the buying with my mother,” he says. From there, he slowly took over more and more of Strolz duties

The flagship Lech store, which dates from the mid 1930s, initially comprised just two small retail areas and the ski boot workshop and a guesthouse on the two upper floors. Over the years, the shop expanded, but the biggest change came in 1986, when the need to create an appropriate space to showcase the latest ski fashions resulted in a major renovation.

The flagship Strolz boutique in Lech.

“The design was teamwork between my brother Daniel, me, our architect, and our staff. We traveled around the world to get ideas and then melted them into a kind of Strolz Style,” Ambros explains. That style is distinguished by traditional Tyrolean woodwork burnished to a lustrous glow, white walls, signature-green carpeting, clean lines, soft lighting, and distinctive accents, such as a wood-burning fireplace, contemporary leather seating, and crystal chandeliers. It’s posh without being swanky, classic but not trite, and sophisticated yet cozy. Shopping here evokes thoughts of Fifth Avenue, Bond Street, and the Champs Elysées.

The resulting alpine department store provides one-stop shopping for everyone from traditionalists garbed in Tostmann dirndls to fashionistas wrapped in Bogner furs. Beyond clothing and skiwear, there are the ancillary must-haves to support the alpine lifestyle. “We have everything one needs for a ski holiday under one roof, from postcards to technical gear,” Ambros says. Customers can purchase toys for their children, accessorize their pets in proper style, and even buy the perfect snow shovel, not to mention handmade skis and boots.

In a brilliant move, the store is laid out on seven half-floors, each with at least two or three themed shops. At center stage is a glass elevator that glides from the basement to the top floor. Equally attention-grabbing are the ornate, handcrafted brass railings lining the half stairways. The design leads customers not only into the store, but also gently guides them upwards into the shops, each spacious with easy-to-absorb displays that invite further investigation. Plentiful comfortable seating makes it easy to sink into a chair while pondering a sweater, or cozy up by the massive stone fireplace and browse tabletop books on subjects ranging from architecture to skiing while a loved one models Moncler or Mountain Force ski pants.

Like concierges in a five-star hotel, sales associates greet familiar clients by name, adeptly steering them to the newest lines that suit their style and preferences. They’re unobtrusive, yet always on the floor and anticipate a potential customer’s needs, even before the first signal for assistance. But it’s the way that the merchandise is displayed that does the selling. “First comes the product, and after that is the story a brand is able to tell,” Ambros says. “There has to be something special and unique about each product. That story maybe rooted in the stability of tradition or the excitement of something refreshingly new.” Sharing that story is where Strolz excels.

Leather chairs invite leisurely shopping.

“You only have 10 seconds to catch a customer’s attention,” Ambros states. Strolz maximizes that by merchandizing in what he calls bilder, which roughly translates as “a visual picture.” Similar colors are grouped together not only makes it simple to mix and match an outfit and draw customers to their favorite hues, but effectively turns each shop into a work of art. Display cases and shelves make impressions within the bigger visual picture. Shoes, handbags, jewelry, and similar items appear as if arranged by a curator whose sole goal is to turn each piece into a work of art.  Despite the 10-second rule, Strolz invites leisurely shopping, even lingering. It’s easy to understand how customers can while away a couple of hours here.

“We give the same kind of service and have the same ambiance as the big five-star hotel we have in Lech and at the same time, we stay democratic,” Ambros says. “You can stroll around without the pressure to buy something.  You can spend 50¢ for a postcard or $7,000 on a custom-made pair of skis.” Or, you might just indulge your feet in a pair of custom-made Strolz boots.

We tour through the boot fitting department, and I pine for a pair, but it’s late. Employees are leaving and lights are dimming. Ambros escorts me to the door, and invites me to return for a cappuccino in the morning. His phone rings and we part ways with a wave. The après-ski crowd has long since dispersed; the street is deserted and peaceful. Still thinking about those boots, I pad back to my hotel in the soft alpenglow of an Arlberg evening.