It will be a sweltering Saturday in ski season before Kim Stearns takes a one-size-fits-all approach to manufacturing cold weather gear. As she well knows, mainstream outerwear designed for skiers and snowboarders doesn’t cut it for snow patrol team members, ski instructors and lift attendants who sometimes endure as many as 180 days of biting cold each winter.
“These guys don’t have a chance to come in and get a coffee like a skier would,” said Stearns, who founded Mountain Uniforms in 1996. The custom cold weather apparel business, located in Lake Tahoe’s Incline Village, manufactures tailored gear that is built for the job and the climate at hand.
“We are becoming the cold weather gear experts,” Stearns said. “Our whole business revolves around making workers more comfortable on the job. We sell to police, search and rescue, fire departments, and fish and game. That grew out of our original sales to mountain operations and ski patrollers. A lot of those guys are volunteers and they really liked our gear.”
In fact, many of Mountain Uniforms’ loyal customers have been coming back for more than 20 years. People who started out as lift attendants or snowmakers have climbed the ranks to managerial roles and now order gear for their staff. Currently, the company’s products are worn all over the world, including Switzerland, Canada, Kazakhstan, and across the U.S. The company does little advertising and its sales have grown organically by word of mouth.
Some of its most popular products include customized jackets with built-in features such as microphone tabs, pen pockets, Velcro nametags, ID-card slots and waterproof zippers. Cargo pants with zip-off suspenders and bibbed utility pants feature handy pockets and side zippers with double-stitched and sealed seams. Black ops jackets, radio vests and rescue jackets with zip-off sleeves are also popular. Advance orders of 20 or more pieces can be color-customized with embroidery and seam sealed during manufacturing, in addition to other options.
“We have different fabric types, heavy and light, different waterproof and breathability ratings,” said Stearns. “For instance, a customer in the Pacific Northwest might need something different from someone in the northeast.”
She says there is a trend towards three-layer fabrics which are waterproof and breathable, although she points out that three layers are not necessarily more waterproof than a two-layer garment. Brighter colors are becoming more popular for snow operations, for safety and visibility, and reflective trim is an additional option.
Mountain Uniforms takes pride in offering 100 percent seam sealing and uses only top-notch fabrics. These include the Toyota Gelanots line – premium heavy-duty, durable and fade-resistant Japanese materials with waterproof, breathable laminated membranes, plus a durable water repellent coating. The Nevada-based company guarantees that customers can get the same styles and colors indefinitely; indeed, clients have re-ordered a decade or more after their initial shipments.
“Quite frankly, we’ve carried some of the same designs since inception, just making improvements along the way, like changing a clipboard pocket to an iPad pocket,” said Stearns. “I think their popularity stems from people wearing our stuff and never forgetting it. There was a fire department guy who retired and he said the best thing they ever did was let him keep his Mountain Uniforms jacket.”
Three-quarters of the company’s business comes from custom orders. The remaining 25 per cent is derived from an online store, which stocks over-runs on the most popular items with no minimum purchase requirement. Occasionally, local customers from the California Highway Patrol, the Nevada Highway Patrol or area ski personnel stop in for a pair of cargo pants, a radio vest or another piece of gear.
Regardless of where customers are located, Stearns and her staff take pride in listening to feedback from all of them. When it comes to price, Mountain Uniforms generally charges a bit less for what Stearns considers more value, such as premium fabrics. Of course, you can’t put a price on the company’s dedication to customization.
“It’s not like a consumer brand that is modified for a ski area. We wanted to make something more industrial and not about the name. We’ve never promoted the Mountain Uniforms name, and I think the challenge was overcoming the big-name brands and selling something customized for individual use and purpose. People recognize us for our quality and repeat service.”
Looking ahead, Stearns says Mountain Uniforms will be paying attention to developing industry trends that will inform future product design.
“We have our ear to the ground and we’ll go where we’re led by our customers. We don’t force the direction. As the ski industry changes, we’ll change with it. We’re just going to continue doing what we do best.”