It´s the summer of 1984 and Barry Levinson, a young college business graduate from Colorado, is driving a rental car in Lapland towards Kemijärvi, a small provincial town in eastern Lapland, less than an hour´s drive from the Soviet border. Van Halen´s Jump is playing on the radio. As the seemingly endless forests lining the empty road on both sides occasionally give way for a vast bog with round fells on the distant horizon, Levinson ponders the descriptions of Finnish negotiation methods which, according to his Swedish friends, include vodka and sauna in heavy rotation. He has travelled to Lapland determined to sign an import deal for the U.S. market with Torstai Ltd, and so far the communication has been handled through telex.
Once in Kemijärvi, Levinson is impressed by the midnight sun and the small town´s situation on a peninsula surrounded by three lakes and forest-covered fells. The pulp factory by one of the lakes gives the town a distinctive smell, which the locals refer to as “the smell of money”. For a young American the proximity of the Soviet border is a cold-war era experience that will not be forgotten. Nearby Lapland air force MIG´s regularly train in the area, adding to the sonic landscape and leaving trails of smoke in the sky. Levinson visits the border where he sees a big fence and a wide clearing in the forest with a Forbidden Zone sign. The soldiers in the towers on the other side are guarding the Iron Curtain – the westernmost border of the Soviet Union.
In spite of the somewhat obscure location, the company has a state-of-the-art factory employing 150 locals and it produces ski wear under the Club A brand, which Levinson thinks has a “unique and colorful high-fashion look”. It´s a family affair: the clothes are designed by Ritva Kellokumpu, her husband Jaakko is the CEO, while their son Martti puts the clothes on test on the mogul skiing world cup tour. Despite the language barrier with the parents Levinson gets along famously with the Kellokumpu family and the distribution deal is signed – with only a moderate amount of the feared Finnish negotiation methods involved.
The Club A´s US market launch at the 1985 SIA Ski Show in Las Vegas is a modest one, the brand is represented with a not-so-conveniently-located 10×10 stand. The big break comes the following year when Levinson attends a party in the Vail ski resort that is hosted by Rod Walker, one of the leading ski photographers in the country. Levinson strikes a conversation with Bruce Benedict about the kind of music he would like to hear in ski movies.
Both Walker and cameraman Benedict are working with Greg Stump – an up-and-coming ski film director, and Levinson passes, along with a mix tape of underground European music, a word through Benedict to Stump about the Club A clothes. After getting a green light from Stump, who digs the “cool, Euro and bright” clothes and thinks they would be great for ski shooting, Levinson soon manages to arrange a Torstai sponsorship for Stump´s next movie.
The Blizzard Blockbuster
The Blizzard Of Aaahh´s turns out to be a blockbuster hit and after it´s release in 1988 the film´s stars Glen Plake and Scott Schmidt are invited to the Today Show to talk about the film´s “extreme skiing”, which will become the dominating trend in skiing during the next decade. Scenes showing Plake and Mike Hattrup jumping off cliffs and ripping moguls wearing the bright distinguishable Club A ski suits are shown on national television a day before the Las Vegas Ski Show. With Martti Kellokumpu having won the overall mogul skiing world cup title the previous year in a signature day-glo Club A suit, the brand is sizzling hot.
The ClubA clothes grazed ski magazine covers and even competing Warren Miller ski movies, making it one of the most visible skiwear brands in the U.S. media. The brand sponsored several national teams, including the U.S. freestyle ski team and was sold on over 200 locations in the country.
Kemijärvi, we have a problem
There was but one problem: the visibility was not turning into cash. Despite all the media attention the U.S. market represented only 15% of the company´s export sales. The high U.S. customs duties resulted in expensive end products and according to the then-export-director Andy Tapaninen, Torstai lacked a strategy for the U.S. market: “We just had huge expectations, we thought it was a damn big market with an awful lot of skiers.”
He also now admits that perhaps the company failed to grasp the level of success The Blizzard Of Aaahh´s reached over the big pond. CEO Jaakko Kellokumpu´s first reaction of the movie was resentment over the fact that Scott Schmidt had not worn Club A, but skied instead in a suit by The North Face – his personal sponsor.
In hindsight, maybe Torstai themselves should have sponsored Glen Plake, who seemed like a perfect match with Club A: he was colorful, flamboyant and an ex-freestyle mogul skier. And he loved the clothes: “when I saw Martti skiing moguls (in the world cup) wearing the bright Club A clothes, I thought wow – they had great style, and the quality was good too, the fabrics, the stitching.”
At the time however, ski movies were not main stream in Europe and in a world before the internet it took time before Plake´s rising media influence was noticed. “Maybe we could have used it (the success of Blizzard) more in marketing, but it did not belong to the strategy that my father had chosen for the company”, Martti Kellokumpu adds.
Levinson thinks that the main problem was that once Club A became popular via Greg Stump films and their existing retailers (Torstai also sponsored the follow up, License To Thrill), the retailers wanted what they saw in the films, and by then Torstai had already come up with new designs, often radically different from the previous seasons. Export director Tapaninen admits that this could be partly true: “Back then a new lineup was made for two seasonal fashion trade fairs in Helsinki that took place in January and August”. Making things more confusing, Torstai produced also street wear under the Club A moniker and a lot of the premium ski clothes used by Plake and Hattrup in Blizzard represented in fact another brand – Super A, the latter contributing only a fraction of the former´s sales.
According to Martti Kellokumpu, who also contributed to many of the designs used in Blizzard, more than half of Torstai´s revenues still came from the company´s home market, and most of the export sales from Scandinavia and Central Europe where Club A was often sold in high-end department stores like Galerie Lafayette in Paris and De Bijenkorf in Amsterdam. Tapaninen even offered the brand to London´s luxury department store Harrods in 1980, to no avail. This was miles away from the athletic-driven, technical image that Levinson was trying to build the brand in the U.S, touring ski resorts and hosting ski parties.
The Gore Tex revolution
The approaching nineties also marked the arrival of Gore Tex. Levinson remembers that during their existing sponsorship deal with the U.S. ski team Torstai was told that the all the clothes had to be Gore Tex the following year due to a big sponsorship deal with the new technical fabric supplier, it was an order Torstai was unable to meet. Adding to the difficulties were the company´s high production costs, everything was made in Finland in an era when others were already moving production to cheaper countries, and the lack of a professional distribution network in Europe. The company even tried to break in Russia, a market, which the Finnish fashion industry was used to selling a lot to in junction with the bilateral trade deal between the countries.
Torstai´s story ended abruptly in 1990, only two years after The Blizzard Of Aaahh´s came out when the Finnish government suddenly devaluated the Finnish Mark by 16%. Like many other companies, Torstai had taken cheap loans that were tied to foreign currencies. The devaluation resulted in bankruptcies, falling of national banks and an economic depression in Finland that would last until 1993.
Could sponsoring Glen Plake, one of the most recognizable skiers in the world even today, have been the decisive move that would have saved the company? No one can tell,but had someone asked him he probably would have signed in: “I thought of that (Club A sponsorship) myself at some point, but then somebody told me that Club A is no more”.
Where are they now:
- The Club A brand was resurrected after the bankruptcy when Luhta Oy bought it´s rights. Today Luhta Sportswear Company still produces clothes under the Torstai brand – it is now marketed as budget-friendly “feminine sporty brand”.
- Martti Kellokumpu is an award-winning clothing designer who established his own design company in 2014 after a decade-long stint at Halti Oy. The circle has now closed: he has recently designed the outfits for both the Finnish and the Chinese freestyle ski teams.
- Andy Tapaninen lost all his savings in the Finnish bank crisis. He became an entrepreneur and now owns a wool thread store in Helsinki and sells Norwegian wool jumpers, which are also exported to Sweden and Russia.
- Barry Levinson continued his import and marketing business. He is now the head of marketing in the U.S. for the Italian clothing brand Parajumpers. In 2014 he finally founded his own ski clothing company, SYNC Performance.
- Greg Stump went on to become one of the most recognized ski film makers of his time. After retiring from making ski movies, he had a decade-long career as a commercial film director in L.A. and directed music videos for the likes of Seal and Willie Nelson. He is currently living with his girlfriend in Oregon, where he is remodeling an old doll factory into his home and studio.
- Glen Plake is ski industry icon who in recent years has received recognition for his contribution to the product development of skis and ski boots. Although he has had long and successful relationships with ski gear brands, he has not been as lucky with clothing sponsors, which have included the likes of No Fear, Rip Curl and Oakley.
This story was first published by Fall Line Skiing Magazine in the U.K. in the Fall of 2018.
You can check out more photos by Rod Walker here.
A special 30th anniversary edition of the Blizzard of Aaaahh´ss is on a U.S. tour during the 2018/19 ski season in the U.S. in select towns. You can check the venues and sign up to host a screening here.
You can buy the original movie either on DVD or as a digital download in the Blizzard Snow Store.
The classic Chamonix segment from Blizzard Of Aaaahhh´s with the Club A colors flying high on Plake and Hattrup.