Thirty-two pairs of skis hand-built in a day – all with wood cores and the latest graphics. It’s a matter of haute couture, just like clothing and footwear, all carefully and patiently customised, totally unlike industrial, mechanised and automated production with its very different levels of output.
Blossom Skis, based in Chiavenna, in the mountains of Lombardy, is one of the first Italian brands to have introduced the concepts of niche boutiques, craftsmanship and the atelier to Italian skiing. Each pair of skis passes through the skilled hands of 15 experts over the course of production; at least three hours are needed to create the final product, starting with the laminated wood core. What’s more, the end result is not machine tested, but inspected and tested by masters, expert skiers and local ski instructors.
There is a long tradition of ski manufacture in the Valchiavenna region. Mario Moro, former athlete and now a ski instructor, trainer and general manager of the company, says Blossom Skis – a carefully chosen name – is the result of the determination of certain sportsmen and local entrepreneurs to keep this proud tradition alive in the area.
The story started in 1908, when artisan Raimondo Persenico opened a factory producing alpine skis, poles and snowshoes made from chestnut and bamboo. His skis were used by the first Italian athletes in the 1930s and then became standard issue for Italy’s Alpine troops during the Second World War. But it was on 7 January 1974, when the company – by then known as Persenico- Spalding – really found fame. That was the day when Italian skiers took the top five places in the giant slalom of the Alpine Ski World Cup in Berchtesgaden, Germany – and became legends. Piero Gros came first, Gustavo Thoeni second, Erwin Stricker third, Helmuth Schmalzl fourth and Tino Pietrogiovanna fifth. The Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport called this remarkable achievement the Valanga Azzurra – or Italian Avalanche.
The photo immortalising the joy of the five athletes after the race has Thoeni and Stricker holding two pairs of Spalding Formula Uno skis – now a vintage design. While one of the company’s classic adverts shows a pair of skis pictured full length in the foreground and the words: “He was called Gustavo, a man of few words. He asked for a pair of skis... and went on to win four World Cups. This happens at Spalding.”
When this historic company was forced to cease production in the valley at the end of the 1990s, Luciano Panatti, then head of the racing department (and trainer of the Valanga Azzurra), decided he had to do something to keep the tradition alive, and found an ally in the Moro family. Working with a team of former Spalding employees, he set up Blossom Skis in 1999, rising from the ashes of the old company. The key idea was to reintroduce the painstaking care of craftsmen from their valley and the added value of craftsmanship. “To construct our skis is a very manual procedure,” explains Moro. “Where possible, we use state-of-the-art machinery, but human input is still central and very important. This is our recipe for success.”
For Moro what makes a hand-crafted ski so special is the choice of materials and attention to detail. “We choose each material specifically to suit the model in question, for racing or free-ride,” he adds. “Big companies only make racing skis by hand: we do this for each pair of skis we produce on a daily basis.” Then all are individually checked at every step by a total of 15 different people.
This is true for the 6,000 skis produced by the company each year, 80 per cent of which are sold overseas in Switzerland, Austria, Japan, Scandinavia, the Czech Republic. This is because the Made in Italy label, says Moro, is far more appreciated abroad: “We sell more skis in St Moritz than in Madesimo”.
However, as Moro explains, times are changing and a growing number of specialised traders – Blossom Skis does not sell to large retail chains or shopping malls – are now showing interest in the brand. “They still want to explain how a ski is constructed to the customer, and with passion,” he says.
The company should have made its entry in the World Cup this year; Blossom Skis was due to make its debut in Sölden, Austria, in October, with the Argentinian Cristian Birkner (2002, 2004 and 2010 Winter Olympics), but Birkner failed to start the season after suffering an injury that made it impossible for him to compete. For Moro – who dreams of being able to see his skis racing down the slopes at Kitzbühel, temple of the downhill race, perhaps on the feet of a major athlete such as the Austrian Marcel Hirscher – the opportunity to feature in a World Cup is still an important goal, and one he hopes to achieve in the future.
Racing apart, this niche brand is popular; hand-crafted skis are coming back into fashion. It demonstrates a desire for quality that can also be seen in sports such as cycling, as well as in the worlds of food and clothing. Celebrities often lead the way here; Kerry Kennedy and Leonardo Ferragamo, for whom a love of skiing runs in the family, have both been seen with a pair of Blossom Skis and the decision by former prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, to favour the Made in Italy label has not escaped the press.
As Moro points out, skis have been produced in Valchiavenna for nigh on 110 years; a strong and valuable tradition for the region. “The guys currently working for us to produce our skis are all young and all from the local area; a sign of continuity,” he adds. “The ability to produce skis is a craft that is handed down from one generation to the next; like cabinet makers and mechanics. These are young people with manual skills who can enjoy good career prospects here.”