KLAUS OBERMEYER – SKI WEAR LEGEND

Keeping up with Klaus Obermeyer ski wear brand Obermeyer’s indefatigable 100-year-old founder.

Klaus Obermeyer laughs when he realizes he has a snow-white mustache, the result of simultaneously talking and sipping coffee topped with three inches of thick sweet cream. In the pantheon of potential misbehaviors in a town like Aspen, drinking kaffee mit schlag as they call it in Obermeyer’s Bavarian hometown of Oberstaufen, is about the unhealthiest thing he does.

It’s 1 p.m. on a mid-winter day and Obermeyer has already swum a mile in Aspen Meadows Resort’s outdoor pool… in a snowstorm. He’s done his daily aikido practice, a martial art that has guided him physically and mentally for years. If it hadn’t been snowing so hard, he would have skied his daily high-speed laps of Tiehack on Buttermilk, situated only five minutes from Obermeyer headquarters. Now he is in the midst of his usual five hours of meetings and paperwork, which happen to be focused on Obermeyer’s 2018 collection of ski wear.

You might think this is just a normal working day for an Aspenite – Klaus Obermeyer certainly does – until you realize that the staggeringly energetic human being talking, gesticulating, and laughing at rapid speed is 97 years old. Somewhere inside this vigorous, multi-tasking man, they call Klaus Obermeyer there’s a lively 30-year-old.

Here’s the short version of Klaus Obermeyer’s remarkable life: He is the father of ski wear and ski gear in the United States. He’s credited with creating the first down ski parka, high-altitude suntan lotion, double-paned goggles, nylon windshirts, ski turtlenecks, zippered turtlenecks, mirrored sunglasses, dual-layer ski boots, and the first plastic ski boots. On his desk sits the prototype for the first ski brake, which he also invented.

Klaus Obermeyer Skiing
Klaus Obermeyer rips it up at 100 years of age. Courtesy photo

Obermeyer, started in Aspen when the ski town was filled with stray dogs and abandoned silver mines, is still family-owned and coming off one of the three most profitable years in its 70-year history. At a time when most outerwear businesses are owned by corporations solely focused on the bottom line, Obermeyer occupies an uncrowded niche. Patagonia is comparable, but founder Yvon Chouinard’s roots are in climbing. Obermeyer is all about skiing, pure and simple. Its history is sourced in Obermeyer’s own glory years of the sport in the German and Austrian Alps of the 1930s, and in the Aspen of the late 1940s.

“He started the company because people were getting cold on chairlifts,” says Biege Jones, Obermeyer’s Director of Advertising, who has been with the company for three decades. “He wanted them to be warm, to get some exercise, and then to get back on the chairlift. He has a history of providing clothing for people to enjoy skiing and his passion was born from his love of skiing. It’s really the purest ski wear company in the world.”

The stories that come out of Obermeyer’s mouth are legion, legendary, and no doubt lightly embellished from repeated telling. Born in rural Bavaria in 1919, into a world shocked by the Great War and in economic tatters, he remembers a childhood of warmth and outdoor pursuits. He delights in recalling how he saw his first skiers when he was three years old and subsequently fashioned his own skis from a pair of chestnut boards taken from an orange crate, nailing his best shoes to them.

“I used string to pull the tips up and tied them around my knees,” he recalls with the infectious enthusiasm that colors most of his responses. “It was sensational. I could slide down on the snow around the house.”

He became a ski racer, a mountaineer, and a rock climber. Walk around the halls of Obermeyer and there are enormous black-and-white photos of Klaus and his friends in the Alps — hiking, climbing, and skiing. It’s a veritable museum of pre-war alpine pursuits.

“In August we still had about 3,200 vertical feet of skiing on the Wildspitz,” he recalls. “So I made the first very short skis for glacier skiing so we could put them in the rucksack.”

While his friends drank beer, smoked, and partied, Obermeyer abstained. Instead, he figured out how to attach steel edges to his skis, modifying them to win races and sleeping with them beside his bed. Mountain movies of that time starring Leni Riefenstahl and Hannes Schneider — including The White Ecstasy (Der Weisse Rausch) — served to fuel his imagination.

“When you won a race,” he says, “the ski club members came to the train station when you came back and carried you on their backs to the Wursthaus, where the club met.”

When he left Germany and came to Aspen in 1947, hired as an instructor by Friedl Pfeifer, he witnessed skiers arrive for a vacation and leave after a couple of days because the 15-minute chair ride up Aspen mountain left them too cold. The clothes designed for skiing were unknown. It inspired him to take a pair of scissors to the down comforter his mother had given him when he left Germany in order to fashion the world’s first down jacket.

“I did not invent the down parka,” he states, refuting the legend that has followed him for years. “The Chinese did, hundreds of years ago. What I did was cut up a down comforter to deal with the cold. My idea always was that so many things could be better.”

Of course, fashion was not always a slave to practicality. Having grown up with skiers wearing ties and knickerbockers, one of Obermeyer’s initial contributions to ski fashion was the Koogie Tie — two small yarn balls held together with a yarn string. It was cornball but he got Gary Cooper to wear one and “we sold a hell of a lot of them at $1.75 each — about 32,000!” These were his ski bum years when he and his friend, filmmaker Warren Miller, would drive to ski shops across the U.S. sleeping in Miller’s car trunk and bribing motel maids 50 cents to let them take showers.

“I fell in love with the dry snow here in Aspen,” he says, gesturing outside at the falling flakes. His mind tends to move faster than his mouth, which is already clocking great speed, and he waves his arms for extra emphasis. Klaus is a teacher at heart and he wants to be sure that you understand what he is telling you. “It is a gift to live here. So many nice people attracted by nature and the fun of skiing.”

Klaus Obermeyer Skiing
Klaus Obermeyer Skiing

These may sound like platitudes and indeed, Obermeyer perceives the world with a sunny and relentlessly optimistic view that verges on the extreme. But the sincerity is genuine, near religious, and he manifests a zen-like appreciation of small things and a joy in being alive. The source of that optimism is the dark days of the early 1940s, when he had trained as an aeronautical engineer in Germany and chose to work designing bombers and Messerschmitt fighter planes rather than kill men on the battlefield.

“The intensity of the pain and horror of the war and its effect on friends and family is one that is so intense and so atrocious and beyond imagination that it has contributed to his appreciation of the simple things in life,” says Klaus Obermeyer Jr., a noted filmmaker and the youngest of Obermeyer’s three sons. “His brother was a political dissident and placed in a Nazi work camp. My father describes incredible horrors in his own village, like a little girl coming to him with her father’s severed head, asking him to put her father back together.”

Toward the war’s end, Obermeyer attempted to ski from Austria into Switzerland to escape the Nazis but “was shot by soldiers, wounded, and left to die on a mountain,” Klaus Jr. says. “His femur was broken but he managed to lie down on his ski and essentially swim down the mountain by kicking his good leg. He found someone to help him get to a hospital on a sled. The war ended while he was recuperating.”

The horrors might have broken a lesser man. For Klaus Obermeyer, it seemed to propel him headlong in a positive direction.

“It’s why my dad appreciates things like hot water coming from a tap or freedom of speech,” explains Klaus Jr. “It translates to ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. He’s a man who refuses to let negativity enter his world.”

At Obermeyer offices, across the street from the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, negativity is absent. The single-story building has enormous windows that provide a view of the freshly fallen snow on the mountains. If it seems a tad Bauhaus in look, that’s by design.

Obermeyer’s headquarters is a calm and peaceful space inhabited by a group of singularly calm and focused creative people, many of whom count their employment in decades. Some have taken advantage of the “Powder Rule” that morning, meaning that if six inches of snow or more have fallen, it’s okay to ski before arriving at work. There’s a reason his staff sports Be Like Klaus stickers on their ski jackets.

The historic skiing photos in Obermeyer’s hallways are paired with posters of Obermeyer ski wear ads from the 1960s, some of them featuring Obermeyer‘s wife Nome, who designed many of the pieces. When she joins us later, her striking cheekbones are an instant reminder of her aunt, Katharine Hepburn.

“I marvel at what has happened to our beloved sport,” says Obermeyer, pointing to 50-year-old photos of Nome posing on the slopes with Klaus Jr. “It has grown and has made a lot of people happy and taught them how beautiful the mountains are.”

The company has been in the forefront of the sport, with a mandate to keep skiers drier, warmer, more comfortable, and safer on the slopes. Ryan Meyer, the company’s director of merchandising, says that “Nome lives so much in the creative world, she’s always pushing us to the most design-driven product. And then you have Klaus on the flip side, who pushes us to be technically relevant.”

“I’m the technical policeman,” Klaus adds. “They make some beautiful things here and I want to be sure that they work right, vent well, are lightweight, and have stretch where they need stretch, so that you want to live in it.”

Naturally, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. COO Greg Bannister has no fashion background but, like Klaus, was trained as an engineer in the aerospace defense industry. He recalls that when he joined the company five years ago, “I had to face five kitchen tables stacked with paper. Those were the files.” He brought Obermeyer into the 21st century with an engineer’s cool head.

There are other engineering marvels here as well. The building treads softly on its site by design and has a solar wall, built back in 1984, which heats half the building as well as an outdoor saltwater pool. Yet the need to be green causes Klaus lingering regret.

Klaus Obermeyer
Klaus Obermeyer

“With textiles, it is very hard to be green,” he confesses. “Doing things like converting bamboo to textiles is not very friendly to the environment. We need to step on this planet more lightly.”

Klaus Obermeyer lives on a 100-acre Aspen ranch, where he mountain bikes, walks, and chops firewood. Yet he doesn’t appear to be preoccupied with material possessions.

“He is very humble,” says Biege Jones. “The key to his underlying wisdom is that he looks long term. He looks out five years on a daily basis. You have to have that vision because everything moves too quickly.”

The other key, suggests Jones, is Obermeyer’s study of aikido, a martial art renowned not just for its moves but for its mindset, which is a paradox in itself.

“Aikido teaches you your own strength,” says Obermeyer. “It’s a martial art of love. You love your opponent, you do not hate them. Your opponent is also your teacher. This is good for business because it creates a win-win situation.”

To demonstrate aikido’s power, Klaus stands across from me, puts his arm on my shoulder, and asks me to grab his arm and pull down on it. It’s strong, but it bends, albeit with resistance.

“Okay, I will send energy through it. Do it now,” he says. I try, and I can’t budge it, even with both my arms pulling down hard on his forearm.

“Harder,” he says, with a laugh. His arm won’t bend. It’s an incredible party trick but the fact is that this man is nearly a century old and I can’t move his arm…

As I take my leave, a Be Like Klaus sticker in hand, Obermeyer reminds me of another guiding principle from his aikido training: “You never have it made, you’re always making it.”

It’s a great mantra for a 70-year-old company. And a 100-year-old man.

www.obermeyer.com

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