By Michael Sudmeier
Nine years ago, a group of friends spent their days on the slopes of Aspen and their evenings tuning and selling equipment. Frustrated by skis and boards that fell apart as the season unfolded, they hatched a plan to create products that could withstand spending every day on the mountain. Since then, they've built a brand that's won numerous awards and developed a reputation for a streamlined collection of premium equipment and apparel.
"In 2003, Reggie Charles, Jeremy Rungi, and I were working for a local shop," explains High Society cofounder Jason Flynn. "We were shredding pow and park every chance we got and spending all of our money on gear." As the season progressed, however, much of this gear fell apart. "Almost nothing in the industry was tough enough for the local Aspen crews," explains Charles. "We saw a need for better boards and skis that guys like us could get behind." After the three pooled their meager savings to make a few boards, High Society was born and it hit the ground running.
Although Aspen locals quickly embraced the brand, retailers were initially confused. "Not many ski shops sold snowboards," offers Charles, "and basically zero snowboard shops wanted anything to do with skis." At the time, there were few boutique brands in the industry and the freeride movement was just gaining momentum. Luckily, notes Charles, "Just enough people got exactly what we were going for."
The Freeride Foundation
High Society made its debut in winter, but the brand didn't hibernate when the snow melted. "We started High Society because we wanted to make better products that we could use in our daily lives," explains Charles. "In the winter that meant skis and snowboards and in the spring and summer that meant streetwear, skate decks, and mountain bike apparel." Recently, the brand unveiled an outerwear collection. According to Flynn, outerwear was a natural progression in the brand's commitment to crafting "premium necessities." For High Society, this focus on premium products helps ensure that the brand is constantly evolving. Next year, for example, much of High Society's outerwear will rely on Cocona fabrics to provide even greater waterproofing and breathability.
Here’s a l0ok at High Society’s upcoming apparel and hardgoods lines:
"We like to look at High Society not as a ski company, not as a snowboard company, not as a clothing company, but as the first true freeride lifestyle brand," offers Charles.
The brand, however, resists being defined by the products it creates. "We like to look at High Society not as a ski company, not as a snowboard company, not as a clothing company, but as the first true freeride lifestyle brand," offers Charles. For Flynn, the freeride lifestyle is defined not by the terrain one rides, but by "a passion for living life to the fullest—be it in the peaks or the streets, beaches or clubs." This passion serves as the unifying force for a team that includes snowboarders, skiers, skaters, surfers, and downhill bikers. Throughout the year, the brand also sponsors events that are just as likely to take place on the beach as in the mountains. According to Marty Carrigan, who handles sales and distribution for High Society, the passion that defines the brand transcends tax brackets. He explains, "It does not matter if you own the jet, fly the jet, or wash the jet, High Society is a lifestyle everyone in action sports lives."
Tight Lines Simplify Sales
When Flynn, Charles, and Rungi worked the sales floor in Aspen, they felt something was wrong with the brands they carried. Charles explains, "Companies had huge lines—six different park boards, six big mountain boards, and ten all mountain skis. As a buyer and worker in a shop, it was really hard to know what to buy and even harder to sell the right product to the customer."
Consequently, Flynn, Charles, and Rungi aim to simplify things with High Society. "Right now," offers Charles, "our board line includes a big mountain board, a freeride board, a park board, and a women's specific model. It's an easy line for buyers to bring in, training employees on the models takes less time and makes it easier for customers to understand and make their decision. Same thing with the ski line: one big, wide ski, a freeride ski, and a park model." Jason Brown, General Manger of Humphrey's Summit in Flagstaff, emphasizes that "The line is small, but quality." When talking about the brand's streamlined collection, Carrigan frequently proclaims, "We only make four boards and they're insanely good, and we only make three skis and they're unsurpassed."
The company also applies this streamlined approach to its outerwear and streetwear collections. "Our goal is not to have a big line," offers Charles, "but to make pieces that you will want to reach for every morning when you start your day, whether you are going riding, going to work, or relaxing. With our clothing, we also offer retailers a high margin and unique, functional pieces that customers appreciate. They love that the clothing offers a lot of value and that they won’t be wearing the same thing as everyone else on the mountain or around town.”
Building Boards, Skis, and a Partnership with Never Summer
In 2008, High Society began partnering with Never Summer to manufacture its skis and boards, both of which feature Never Summer's patented Rocker Camber technology. According to Never Summer Cofounder Tracey Canaday, "We had a lot in common, so we thought it would be a good fit." Both Never Summer and High Society, he notes, "focus on a premium product with exclusive distribution."
With both companies based out of Colorado, "Seeking out the Never Summer guys to do our pressing was a no-brainer that just came organically," states Flynn. These Colorado roots have enabled High Society to develop a strong foundation of retailers in its home state. Erik Johnson, Snow Merchandise Manager for SSV, has noticed that customers in his company's Colorado Ski and Golf and Boulder Ski Deals stores have embraced the brand, in part, because "People love the Colorado connection." Yet in addition to premium accounts in Colorado like SSV and D & E Ski and Snowboard Shops, the brand has also partnered with premier retailers far from the Rockies like East Coast Alpine in Massachusetts and 47 Degrees in the United Kingdom.
While many companies work to conceal where their boards are pressed, High Society takes great pride in tracing their products back to the source. This summer, High Society invited shop employees to a tour of the Never Summer factory. "The objective," explains Charles, "was to show them the amount of time, effort, and quality that goes into each and every High Society board." He feels that the tour will also translate into sales, as shop employees "can tell customers the story firsthand—that High Society is a Colorado company whose products are built in one of the best, if not the best, factories in the world, which just so happens to be in Denver . . . It gave them a new understanding of the core values of High Society."
Gaining Customers One Ride at a Time
Customers don't learn about High Society from glossy ads or team videos. In fact, many first learn of the brand by stepping inside their local shop. Fortunately for High Society, the employees inside these shops believe in its products and know the value of putting customers on the snow with them. As Brown explains, "Our demo program with High Society has worked really well. I can't tell how many times people have ridden something and come back and bought it."
Charles also works to point potential customers toward stores that demo the brand's products. "Reggie is frequently calling my cell during the season, telling me he has someone interested in buying some product. Then, they come in our shops and demo the product first," explains Dan McMahon, whose Incline Ski and Board Shops in Aspen and Snowmass specialize in rentals. "We get the rental revenue and it typically leads to a sale for High Society, so it's a win-win."
Building a Community by Supporting It
High Society has also gained a reputation for its accessibility. Whether it's a conversation on the chairlift or phone, riders and shop employees are always in contact with the brand's founders. Brown notes that "Whenever I have a question, I can give those guys a call."
This accessibility has helped the founders of High Society refine its products and build a loyal community. "We ski and ride with them on our local mountains and they are always looking for input on their gear and making the necessary tweaks," offers McMahon. "I think most members of the community are proud to have a ski and snowboard company that is based out of Aspen." Yet he emphasizes that "the residents of Aspen ski and board on High Society gear because it is quality gear, not just because it is local." Brown attributes this quality to the brand's focus on continually refining its products. "They have yet to disappoint me," he explains. "They're constantly evolving. They're not just making the same board over and over and over again. They're always doing little tweaks here and there, which emphasizes that they are rider-driven."
Although the community surrounding the brand continues to grow, Flynn works to ensure that it remains tight-knit and personable. After all, High Society's supporters not only help the brand refine its products, but also provide some of its greatest marketing efforts. "We have always relied on word of mouth and face to face marketing. We have found a following of like-minded individuals who want to be a part of something reachable and fun," he explains. "And now with the abundance of online and social media outlets, the word of mouth approach just perpetuates itself, while allowing us to maintain that personal relationship with our customers and supporters."
For High Society, specialty retailers have always played an essential role in developing this community. Consequently, the brand aims to do everything possible to support the stores that carry it. "The support from all levels of High Society has been top notch and professional," emphasizes Johnson. "We have seen support through the whole process of adding High Society into our mix—from previewing the product at SIA, factory tours during production, being kept in the loop during shipping, in-store clinics for sales people, to support during our promotional sales."
Disciplined Growth and Distribution
Although approaching its nine-year anniversary, High Society won't be dropping any banners proclaiming the brand's dominance. Instead, it focuses on exclusive distribution and long-term partnerships. "We make an effort to work with retailers that we know will do well with the brand for the long-term," offers Charles, "One year deals are not of much interest to us." After sharpening their teeth as rental techs, salesmen, and buyers, the founders of High Society "know what it's like to be on the other end of the equation. So we look at each retail partner from their point of view to make sure we put together the best distribution plan possible every time."
This focus on long-term, consistent growth was part of what made Canaday feel the brand would fit well with Never Summer. He explains that this approach yields "smart growth" and ensures that "High Society sells everything that we build for them." In addition to helping secure a relationship with Never Summer, the brand's strategic growth attracted Carrigan's attention. Last year, Carrigan and his company, Sales Guys, began working with the brand to further its retail base.
After meeting with the brand's founders, Carrigan was impressed by "their vision and unique approach to the market as a global lifestyle brand." Although the brand has opened over twenty-five new accounts this past year, he takes greater pride in the long-term support and sell-thru High Society offers its retail partners. After all, notes Carrigan, "Sales is about a process—not instant gratification. Many brands build great products and have a marketing vision for their brands. Introducing new products to the market and sales, however, is about the network, connections, and strategic and disciplined growth." Carrigan explains that this approach is paying off, as "Preseason sales exceeded expectations for our retailers. Within the first forty-five days of the season, some had sold as much as forty-percent of their High Society offerings."
"We expect growth of between forty and sixty percent, this season from last," reveals Charles. "We have to thank our Never Summer family and our retailers for helping make this happen." As the brand continues to evolve, it remains committed to forming strategic partnerships with specialty retailers—be they in Aspen or the Alps. "I hope that if you walk into the best retailer anywhere in the world, it offers High Society and that the person working there is excited to tell you about the brand," states Charles. "We do not want to be sold in every account, just the ones that are proud to offer our products to their customers."
An Ongoing Evolution
According to Canaday, High Society's commitment to its original vision separates the brand from many others. "I've had people over the years say they want to go this route, and then all of a sudden they change and try to go another path," he explains. "These guys are very consistent with what they want to do."
"I think they've done everything right so far," Canaday states. And apparently, he's not the only one who believes this. Recently, the company's FR Rocker Ski earned an Editor's Pick award from Freeskier magazine after attaining the highest score in its test of men's microbrew skis. The ski's cambered cousin, the FR, earned a Tester's Choice award from Skiing magazine. Meanwhile, its boards continue to generate a following among shop kids. Following in the footsteps of the brand's founders, they devote their days to terrorizing the mountain and spend all of their wages on gear. Fortunately for them, this gear now lasts.