An afternoon with Klaus Obermeyer
The 97-year-old pioneer of high-tech and high-performance ski-wear is still zipping down mountains
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I arrive a few minutes early for my 1 o’clock appointment with 97-year-old Klaus Obermeyer—the legendary founder of ski-wear company Sport Obermeyer—at his office in Aspen, Colorado, only to be told, rather sheepishly, that he is missing. He has gone skiing, driving off in his car—in ski boots, at that—to the nearby slopes of Tiehack. A poster on the wall has one of his famous quotes: “The days you don’t ski… they don’t come back”, and now I know how seriously he takes that.
He is back soon, a bundle of energy, his face glowing from the workout. “It was so sunny today that I totally forgot about our engagement,” he tells me apologetically. “The slopes were beautiful, as nice as they can get. I did only three runs, three non-stops.” It’s his first time this season, and he adds, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “I did not trip over.” We dissolve into helpless laughter.
I don’t know what to think. To say he is an inspiration is an understatement. I know I am in the presence of an amazing man, whose enormous love for skiing and tremendous innovative streak have transformed and shaped the skiwear industry for decades. But it is equally about his spirit—boisterous, generous, humble; just being with him is like a bracing tonic.
Born in Germany in 1919, he started skiing at the age of 3—“When I’m 103, I will have been skiing for a hundred years” is another of his famous quotes—on makeshift skis made from the wooden planks of an orange crate, on which he nailed his good home shoes, much to his mother’s annoyance. He trained as an aeronautical engineer, but after the war, moved to the US and started working as a ski-school instructor in Aspen.
We take colourful, stylish, high-tech, high-performance ski clothing for granted today, but I am curious to know how ski fashions evolved over the years. Back in the 1920s in Europe, believe it or not, people skied in neckties and knickerbocker suits—it was that formal. Obermeyer himself had his first ski pants made from a tailor in St Anton, Austria, from wool fabric—it had no stretch, but it “looked sharp”—and he paired that with a nice sweater. Along the way, nylon jackets—wind and water repellent—started being made.
In Aspen, people wore long city coats to ride up the chairlift—Aspen Mountain had the world’s longest ski chairlift in 1947, a very cold 15-minute ride up. It was so cold that guests who had booked for two weeks left in two days. That’s what prompted Obermeyer to famously cut up his mother’s goose down comforter and stitch it up as a jacket, thereby inventing the world’s first down parka in 1948.
“It looked like hell,” he says. “Huge, like the Michelin man. But it was short, you could ski in it and stay warm. That was pretty terrific, but I had feathers in my cereal for weeks after that, flying all over the place!”
Gary Cooper—whom Obermeyer had taught skiing—tried the parka and found it so good, he bought it off him for $350 (around Rs23,860 now). “That was a lot of money back then,” Obermeyer says. “You could buy a new Buick for $1,250, with radio.” He finally set up a factory in Aspen in 1961, employing 17 women who hand-stitched the parkas. Of course, before that Obermeyer made the parkas himself.
All his product innovations—and the list is long and impressive—have been driven by a desire to make skiing better, easier, more fun. He made the first double ski boot in 1947—with a soft leather inner boot and a very tough leather outer boot. The sun in the high mountains is very harsh, and guests would get badly sunburnt, so he, along with his friend Friedl Pfeifer, invented the first suntan lotion. People there got night-blind from ultraviolet rays, so he developed mirrored sunglasses that reflected ultraviolet rays up to 99%. He made the ski turtleneck, and the zippered turtleneck. He even placed the first ski fashion advertisement in SKI magazine.
But here’s the thing—except for one invention (the “Flow” boot, where he put a bladder filled with a viscous liquid in the inner boot, so it automatically fit your foot), he has not patented any of his inventions. Why? “I love skiing, and I think if you have a good idea, then people should be able to make it—it should be free so it makes life better.”
It is this same spirit that guides his pricing. “We are technically among the best in the world—except we don’t charge as much as some of the others. We want to be where people can afford us.”
We switch tracks, and I ask him the one question that I have been itching to: What’s his secret to staying so fit at 97? “What is really important in everybody’s life is to work out,” he says. “Keep using your muscles and put your bones under pressure. If you don’t put your bones under pressure, nature thinks you don’t need them any more, and slowly they become brittle.”
He believes the best health pill is to work out in many different ways. Beside skiing, he swims half a mile every day. He works out on exercise machines. He practises Aikido, a Japanese martial art. “If you stop working out, you say I am 97, I shouldn’t be doing that, then you predict your slow death.”
And then he does something that I am still trying to figure out—a 2-minute demonstration of how Aikido works. We stand facing each other. He extends his arm straight and places it on my shoulder, and asks me to pull it down so it bends at the elbow. I am afraid I will hurt him, and he says it’s okay, go ahead. I bend it easily. “Now I will send energy through it,” he says. I pull again, but this time I can’t budge it. I tug down with both my hands, using all my strength, but his arm remains ramrod straight.
“It’s just energy,” he laughs. Clearly, the force is with him.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.