One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.
Freestyle skier Kari Traa is renowned for her over-decade-long kingship in moguls. Now retired from professional skiing, the Norwegian won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, earned 37 World Cup victories and seven World Championship medals. Outside of her spotlighted athleticism, Traa has been a recreational skydiver since 2001, appeared on Dancing with the Stars in 2011, and launched her own sports clothing line in 2002.
The Kari Traa brand has grown continuously since then and is set for a U.S. premiere in Fall 2015. The business began with headbands and hats, but quickly expanded into t-shirts, hoodies and baselayers. Traa equates the off-the-ground success with the brand’s creative, vibrant designs. Plus, at the time there weren’t many Norwegian brands that focused on women specific designs, she said. The brand’s mission was to fill that need while leveling the gender field in the sport apparel industry.
“We wanted to be a brand for girls in sports, and we wanted to be different with lots of colors and playfulness — that’s still our idea today,” Traa told SNEWS over a Skype conversation, taking a break from her skydive training in Voss, Norway. “My brand was helping to make the sport industry much more feminine in Norway. Fifteen years ago there weren’t many women who went into sports stores for buying. Now, it’s kind of 50/50 with products for women and men.
Raised with a family farm, Traa is devoted to animal cruelty-free practices, so the brand resources mulesing-free wool for its baselayers. Traa’s parents still own the mountain home where they lived in the summertime with pigs, sheep and horses throughout her childhood.
Today, Kari Traa includes training apparel, outerwear, skiwear, mid-layers, socks, and bags in addition to sports underwear and beanies. For the U.S. launch, the brand will introduce its baselayer line including its bestseller Rose, a 100-percent superfine merino wool long-sleeve top and pant bottom. The colorful pattern —which was inspired by a hanging rug at Traa’s family mountain home — comes in ebony, plum, rose, or sea with bright accent stitches.
One central goal of Kari Traa is to not focus on designing black bottoms, explained Traa. While she studied an Oslo training group of 40 girls, Traa noticed that everyone wore black tights, whereas the sweater tops celebrated variety.
“We are learning that black makes [people] look ‘thinner,’” Traa said. “We want to make cool tights with lots of colors that say, ‘Be happy with the body you have and have fun training.’”
The idea for the brand surfaced as Traa contemplated her path post professional skiing. She was 28 years old, her friends were starting to raise their own kids and others were finishing graduate school. She also wanted to commit four final years to freestyle training.
“Before, in 2002, you could only jump up and do twists and spreads, but after that you could do somersaults and 720s off axis. The training was so much more fun then and also, a little bit scary,” Traa said.
Traa brainstormed her future plans with two friends who worked at BULA —professional freestyle skier Hans Engelsen Eide and professional cyclist Oyvind Lauritzen — and they suggested that Traa turn her passion for hat-making into a business. (Sponsored by BULA, Traa would knit, sew and croquet hats then add the BULA brand tag.) She loved the idea. The three founded the company and Traa joined as a full time employee in 2006. Now, she mainly guides the brand’s marketing.
“I’ve always been handy and done carving and painting. Building houses was my goal when I was younger,” Traa said. “I love to work with my hands … sitting and drawing on a computer doesn’t work so well for me because I want to see the product right away. So, now I mostly work on marketing and that’s fun, too.”
For the North American launch, Kari Traa is opening a Colorado based office in the Denver area. The SIA Snow Show was an auspicious starting point, according to Traa and Marketing Manager Sissel Himle.
“We attended the SIA trade show in Denver last month with a fantastic response. [Now,] we will develop our rep force to cover the country and use our team’s contacts to establish the brand in the specialty channel,” Himle said.
For Traa, the inspiration behind the brand’s U.S. branch is historic and romantic: “It’s to live out the American dream. In the 18th century a lot of Scandinavians moved to the U.S. to start a better life. For me personally, it will be fun to see if the U.S. market is ready for Kari Traa and if the American women will like my brand. The fairytale could get even better with the U.S. on board.”
Does Kari Traa have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.