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How a Cult Ski Brand Became a Leading Voice of Sustainable Fashion

Erin Snow is ready to step out of its niche and into the limelight.

The brainchild of Erin Isakov, a former merchandiser for Elie Tahari and Theory, Erin Snow began in 2003 as an alternative to the boxy, outmoded and somewhat outré skiwear that had commandeered the market since the ‘90s.

“It was not at all what I grew up with or remembered or glamorized in my mind from when my father was a ski patroller back in the ’70s in Mammoth Mountain,” said Isakov, a native Californian who could “ski from the moment [she] could stand.”

The New York–based firm had another value proposition that made it unique among its ilk, particularly in the early aughts. Isakov built sustainability into the brand before it was de rigueur, simply because she’s “that kind of person” and never thought of doing otherwise, she said.

Despite its luxury stature—a necessity because of the high-value materials it uses—Erin Snow has courted little, if any, publicity outside the specialty-store circuit. It’s a tack that has made the company more of a cult brand than a household name, even with its recent foray into gym- and yoga studio–friendly tanks and tights.

“We haven’t done any marketing at all for our brand,” said Isakov, who serves as the company’s president and designer. “It’s been all word of mouth.”

That will soon change. After beating out the likes of Prabal Gurung and Maria Cornejo to snag the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative’s top prize of $150,000 in 2017, Erin Snow will be debuting a capsule of performance apparel with Woolmark at Net-a-Porter and other retailers next month.

Featuring in-the-boot and over-the-boot ski pants, insulated outerwear, leggings and tops, the 12-piece lineup centers around Australian merino wool, which is finer and more supple (read: less scratchy) than traditional wool. The collection telegraphs a distinct mid-century vibe: Isakov was inspired by the 1969 film “Downhill Racer,” the photos of Aaron Slims and “what I remembered my parents wearing on the mountains.”

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“It’s very clean; it’s not overly designed,” she said of the line, before noting that her father continues to wear his 40-year-old ski patrol pants and “they still look amazing.”

Drawing from the same well, her pieces are “all about racing stripes, slim fits and very timeless style,” she added.

Applying wool to skiwear is far from a novel concept. Before it was supplanted by cheaper synthetics, wool was the “original fiber for sport,” Isakov said. “It used to be all wool-clad skiers in the heydays of sport.”

What Erin Snow has done, she said, is take that image and line it up with modern sensibilities by offering a “comfortable, odor-free and soft version of that vintage ski style.” Designed to flatter rather than flatten the body, these are looks that are meant to transition from slope to après-ski with neither fuss nor muss.

Wool is also regenerative fiber that “does all those things that we’re trying to achieve with chemicals” naturally, including moisture wicking, temperature regulation and odor elimination, Isakov said. “We try to copy that in synthetics but it just doesn’t work.”

Not that Erin Snow eschews synthetics entirely. It’s just that Isakov favors better-for-the-planet versions like recycled polyester from post-consumer PET bottles and Econyl, a recycled nylon derived from reclaimed fishing nets and carpeting. “We’ve been early adopters along with our mills,” she said. 

Erin Snow also works closely with Schoeller Textiles —”and always have, from the beginning”—and the Bluesign standard it helped establish. (Roughly 85 percent of the fabrics used by the brand is Bluesign approved.) It has eliminated perfluorinated chemicals from its waterproof finishes and membranes. And rather than coast on conventional spandex, the company is about to adopt Roica Eco Smart by Asahi Kasei, an elastane fiber composed of at least 60 percent pre-industrial waste.

All of which is to say that Isakov takes sustainability very seriously. She’s keenly aware of how quickly brands and retailers congratulate themselves for token gestures that don’t consider the supply chain in a holistic way. At Erin Snow, the prevailing attitude is go circular or go home.

“I try to design a garment in a way that will allow it to be as circular as possible,” Isakov said, referring to an approach to production where materials are continually reused or fed into other systems rather than disposed of. I think it’s wonderful to think about making garments that, at the end of life, they can not only be recycled but they can also degrade.”

Circularity is a particular challenge for technical sportswear like ski apparel because of the layers of complexity involved.

“There are a number of material items that go into one garment; you can have multiple fabrics, fabrications and trims,” Isakov said. “And in order to make performance garments, you need a lot of special performance fibers and things that have been predominantly synthetic for a long time.”

But technology is progressing at a quick enough clip that newer and better alternatives to virgin plastics are emerging every day. Isakov remembers how some of the early recycled materials had the consistency of dyed cardboard, and even the first batches of recycled PET were far from perfect.

“The first time we used recycled PET, we realized there were like small holes and things like that in the fabric,” she said. “That was a few years ago, and now we absolutely see no difference whatsoever in the fiber.”

As activewear and so-called “athleisure” peak in popularity, Isakov says she wants brands and retailers to think more critically about the products they’re promoting, both for the health of their customers and the environment they’re engaging with. 

“There’s been a giant flood to market with activewear in particular, and I hope and I wish that they would be really careful about the materials that they’re using, especially when people are putting them next to their skin and sweating in them,” she said.

Designers should see this trend toward healthier living as a boon, however. 

“I think it’s a really incredible opportunity for the sport world to make things that help people live a better life, experience the outdoors or do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise,” she said. “That’s what sport is all about.”