In 2001, a snowboard shaper in France was working on a ski design, which was year´s ahead of it´s time. The ski evolved into an influential brand, which is now, 20 years later, trying to follow the successful path laid by one if it´s disciples from Chamonix.
Words and photos: Jaakko Järvensivu
During the turn of the millennium, the ski industry experienced a big boost by the emergence of shaped skis. Adding to this was the freeskiing revolution, which made skiing cool again for the younger clientele. Suddenly, even snowboard companies became interested in the market.
This was also the case for Nidecker, a prominent snowboard brand of the era. The problem was that they didn´t have anyone in their payroll, who had experience from designing skis: “Mr. Nidecker came to me and said that they didn´t know, who could develop skis for them. I told him about my ski racing and instructor background, and that I would be interested in the job”, Stéphane Radiquet now recalls.
Radiquets´s life in his hometown of Bourg St Maurice, smacked in the middle of the Tarantaise Valley in the French Alps revolved around sliding down the snow-filled slopes from an early age. He raced slalom and later became a ski instructor for the French travel company UCPA, where he received his nickname Zag for being a strong skier, who made a lot of turns. When snowboarding took off, he switched over and started racing slalom on a single plank.
That is when his career as a board shaper got started: “It was the beginning of the computer design, and I helped them develop new racing boards, which I continued to do for 30 years”, Radiquet explains.
With no competition for the ski designer job, Radiquet was hired and produced two prototype models for Nidecker in the autumn of 2001 under his own company. The feedback from a group of 50 test skiers was positive to say the least. However, after an internal meeting at Nidecker, the company decided to shelve the project and stick with what they knew instead – snowboarding.
The birth of ZAG Skis
After meeting his friends over a beer and telling them that the skis would not see the light of day, Radiquet realized he had to do something: “they were skis that did not exist, they came from snowboarding and were a revolution for the ski industry.” Determined, Radiquet called Nidecker and told them, if the company was not interested, he would launch the skis himself.
When Radiquet found ZAG Skis in 2002, he had two molds, 100 pairs of skis from the Nidecker factory – and very little money. With sub-15-meter turn radiuses, huge shovels and early rise rockers, both the Freeride 75 and the Big 84 not only stood apart from the competition – they were ground-breaking.
Despite receiving rave reviews from the test group, selling the new revolutionary ski concept wasn´t an easy task during an era, when all mountain skis were stiff and heavy, with a long turn radius, such as the Bandit series by Rossignol, Vertigo by Völkl, or Big Daddy by Atomic. The only exception in the offering by the big companies might have been the Pocket Rocket by Salomon, which still lacked the rocker and big shovel, and received a skeptical reception on it´s own right.
“When you walked into a ski shop with a ZAG ski in 2002, the skis drew a lot of attention, but not necessarily in the right way – people were laughing and saying that it was impossible that the design would work”, Radiquet now recalls.
After having tested the skis and experiencing themselves first-hand that the unusual shape did work after all, some of the shops finally placed orders. Radiquet and the newly born company also entered the skis in the ISPO new brand award, becoming the overall winner of the award in 2003, which helped establishing the brand also internationally.
As a result, Radiquet found a good partner company in Norway, who took over the Scandinavian distribution and established the first ZAG pro team in the country, while also sponsoring a local freeride contest in Rohldal. Slowly, the company started to grow: “During the 2003-2004 season, we had 3-4 people working for us, after that, we hired one person each year”, Radiquet now recalls.
Radiquet sells the company after a rocky start
During the same year when ZAG was found, Radiquet brought in an investor, who according to him, was the business side of the company for several years. Despite the investor, establishing the company proved difficult, as the management had to grow the team, while the sales figures were not developing accordingly: “until around 2007 we were pretty much alone with these skis (early rise rocker with wide shovel and short turn radius), people were convinced that the shape would only work in powder”, Radiquet explains.
After a few years of struggling, the Scottish investor residing in Switzerland decided to sell his share and leave the company. Radiquet followed suit and sold the company to Frank Bernès Heuga, a professional freeride skier, who had already been a sales rep in France for the company.
According to Antoine Malatray, ZAG´s sponsorship and community manager, the company was able to use Bernès Heuga´s connections to find new investors and kick-start the company: “the following year we were already selling skis in multiple markets”. However, there were still problems: “we did not have a clear strategy, so the first couple of years under the new management were still more or less survival”, Malatray now recalls.
Radiquet says he continued working in the company under the new management until 2012, when he decided to leave: “I wasn´t earning any money and there was too much stress involved – I was always a shaper and carried out testing, while also doing all the marketing texts”, he now recalls.
New headquarters in Chamonix and the arrival of Black Crows
In 2010 the new ZAG management decided to move the company headquarters from Bourg St Maurice to Chamonix: “besides the office, we now have our concept store and test center here, as well as the test lab, where all the prototypes are made”, Malatray says. On top of that, the logo on the skis now reads ZAG Chamonix, which according to Malatray gives a little bit of extra leverage to the export sales efforts, given the alpine town´s strong brand in the freeride market.
Meanwhile, big companies like Rossignol were now promoting skis with similar shapes to ZAG´s, and another ski brand out of Chamonix was starting to get worldwide attention for their skis, which seemed to utilize similar design concept to what Radiquet first envisioned back in 2001: intuitive, easy to turn skis, that work well both on and off-piste.
Founded in 2006 by freeskiers Camille Jaccoux and Bruno Compagnet, Black Crows might have taken cues from ZAG´s ski design philosophy, but they excelled on their own in marketing and branding. The company hired a Parisian designer Yorgo Tloupas outside of the ski industry, who created a brand logo and top sheet graphics, which at the time, were a breath of fresh air and became instantly recognizable. This was boosted by clever use of offbeat brand ambassadors and their stories.
The brand also received a lot of exposure in the international ski media, which also helped in boosting the ski sales. It all had a price tag usually reserved for the big brands: “They invested a lot of money in the beginning for the graphics and the logo”, Radiquet says. According to Malatray, Black Crows also picked up the right pro riders and invested heavily in marketing: “I wish we´d have as big a marketing budget as they do, but we´ve got to manage with what we´ve got.”
The two companies have influenced each other also the other way around: in 2013 ZAG Chamonix hired BE-PÔLES studio in Paris to design their new logo and the top sheets of their ski lineup. As a result, the brand and ski lineup received an updated, more contemporary look.
According to Malatray, another important factor was to create a unified look for the ski lineup:
“With BE-PÔLES, we started with the SLAP line, which was first blue and orange, and from this point onwards there has been a consistent look for each ski line.”
The similarities between the two brands are easy to see, but what sets them apart?
According to Malatray, Black Crows has drifted away from being a pure freeride brand, producing more skis for slope-skiing masses, while ZAG Chamonix aims to keep their focus on the backcountry. Another differentiating factor is the ski lab: “we can develop and create skis exactly the way we want, while companies without their own lab have to send a file to the factory, who then sends them 3-4 prototypes to choose from”, Malatray points out.
ZAG ski lineup
With the help of the test lab and working closely with both local ski guides and patrollers, ZAG Chamonix has built an impressive lineup of backcountry skis: “Adret is our light-weight touring line, UBAC is for touring and then we have the Harfang, which is more all-mountain-oriented”, Malatray explains. When professional freeskier Wadeck Gorak won the final stage of the FWT in Verbier in 2019, he was on the company´s SLAP 112 ski, which gave the skis a lot of credibility.
According to Malatray, the SLAP line is well-suited for free touring, due to it´s creative use of different materials: “the core has Paulownia for lightness and poplar for stiffness, which can be mounted with a hybrid binding and charged down the mountain, while still being easy to ski”.
Malatray says that the introduction of the UBAC 95 helped in further establishing the company in the ski touring segment. Built originally for mountain guides, who wanted a ski, which they could use everywhere, the ski became increasingly popular during the Covid-19 ski resort lock down. “It´s really playful due to the five shape points, it has a short turn radius, and we reduced the rocker for added stiffness, so it´s a real do-it-all ski”, Malatray says. ‘
Target set on the North American market
Behind the scenes, ZAG Skis sarl, the legal entity for ZAG Chamonix, has recently seen some significant development as well: in 2017 Caroline de Wailly, a marketing professional with international experience, became the company´s CEO. A year later the company´s capital was around half a million euros, which surged up to around 2 million euros this summer. During the same time, Franck Bernes-Heuga stepped down from the management. The chairman of ZAG Skis Sarl is now Charles-Henri Dumon, who has also been an investor for the company since 2014.
While ZAG Chamonix might still have some distance to cover before reaching their self-made target of becoming the brand reference for the freeride market, the company has steadily increased it´s brand awareness and distribution network. Currently, the company´s biggest markets after France are Germany and Austria, with Chile and Argentina showing good sales numbers for touring skis during the Covid-19 years. However, the target is now set on North America, where ZAG Chamonix has recently signed a distribution deal with Coast Mountain Collective in Canada and Global Sales Guys in the U.S.
According to Malatray, the company plans on making the U.S. their second biggest market after France in the next couple of years, after finding the right PR combination: “we´re still building our U.S. strategy and looking for the right ambassadors, and we also want to invest in the press as well.”
Can the company make it big in North America? Radiquet, who found the company more than 20 years ago thinks it´s possible, but it won´t be easy: “now ZAG has become a brand like all the other brands, who want to make it big in the states – it´s easy to spend a million dollars there and have no return on investment.” Radiquet thinks that you will need at least five years in the market to have results – if you can rely on the help of a good distributor and sales reps to promote the skis to the shops.
That is what what Global Sales Guys in the U.S. and Coast Mountain Collective in Canada are now doing. Allene Kennedy from CMC believes the long heritage and authenticity of the brand are what makes ZAG Chamonix stand out. She also sees adjustability and sustainability as advantages sets the company apart from the large corporations: “ZAG really takes into account the feedback they get, and they work hard to ensure they are environmentally conscious and right for the planet.”
The first ZAG ski in 2002 might have been launched too early for it´s own good, by a young company with not enough money to promote it. Today, ZAG Chamonix has an extensive lineup of versatile backcountry skis utilizing the original design philosophy of a capable, easy to turn all round ski, together with the necessary resources and investments in the brand. According to Radiquet, at the end of the day, it still boils down to whether you like the way the ski performs: “You can like the brand image, but you also need to have fun skiing with the skis.”
Radiquet himself has come full circle, as he has recently launched a new ski brand, called Shuss Skis. As with ZAG, he started the brand with very little money and two molds – one for touring, the other for freeride. According to Radiquet, the skis are made to fit his own skiing style: “I want to have a lighter directional ski with a short tale and a long tip, that carves on icy slopes, but still floats well in powder.” Even though Radiquet is still the sole worker in the new brand, he seems to be in happy place: “ski industry is a passion business, not a business to make money in”, he concludes.
In memory of Antoine Malatray.