High Country Magazine, Winter Holiday Issue, 2006
By Randy Johnson
This is a landmark year for skiing. Twenty years ago, snowboarding slid onto the scene with mass appeal. A new generation was about to reinvigorate the industry with a multiplicity of ways to “slide” and “ride” and not just “ski.”
No one in the High Country’s ever embodied the impact of that generation better than J.J. Collier.
Today Collier lives in Colorado, but a Banner Elk visit last month to his real estate broker dad John Collier shows that he still sees the High Country as home, especially when it comes to his career. Collier was “into it first” as a 15-year-old Banner Elk boarder. There were others—Jim Barker, John Blackham, and Lindsey Hodges were among the first guys in the High Country to surf the slopes. But JJ turned out to be one of the South’s true talents and went on to turn pro and compete at the top of the sport. It’s been upward ever since. Now as the Design Director for Polo Ralph Lauren’s RLX outerwear line, J.J. symbolizes the importance of snowboarding in how we see outdoor sports and the clothing that makes it possible.
Noting snowboarding’s anniversary, I was flipping back through some files and found a Charlotte Observer article that I wrote two decades ago about the sport’s sudden rise. It quoted the then precocious 16-year-old J.J. saying, “Even if you’re over 30, but you used to surf, go for it. I’ll never ski again.”
“I can’t believe it’s been twenty years,” J.J. says, “but November of 1986 is when my brother Dave and I got our first real snowboards. Snowboarding spoke to a younger demographic, just as skateboarding’s early 80's peak in popularity began to waiver. Boards and bindings had finally caught up with this collective desire to ride the slopes in a new way. My age group was just waiting for it, so ripe it wasn’t even funny.”
“The hurdle was the number of mountains that allowed it,” he continues. “We were lucky in the High Country to have Beech Mountain and Hawksnest, with a kind of open arms policy. I was eternally grateful for that. There it was. You could just drop in. Even Stratton Mountain in Vermont was requiring a proficiency test to make sure you weren’t a menace. But Beech and Hawksnest made the difference. Some North Carolina was slopes were ahead of the curve. They wanted the business and that’s what snowboarding has meant for resorts worldwide—a lot of new business.”
“The following season, after the first race at Hawksnest, Dave and I went to the US Open.”
And that’s where snowboarding in the High Country went national. As winter 1988 ended, the elder John Collier piled his snowboarding sons J.J. and Dave into the van for Stratton and the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships.
Incredibly—J.J. took first place in the Junior Moguls, defeating 67 riders from around the nation. “Jake” Burton Carpenter, owner of Burton Snowboards, was shocked. Collier won on a 1989 model board unavailable at the time. “Where did you get the board, J.J.?” the company owner asked. Collier said he’d won it in Banner Elk days before in the South’s first snowboard race.
Burton thought the North Carolina snowboard scene would be worthy of encouragement, so he’d shipped it South a week earlier. Now it was back. J.J. was offered a Burton sponsorship before leaving Stratton. Imagine it—a dream come true.
J.J. kept on riding. Through the 90's, he rose to the national ranks and rode for years at the US Open (12 consecutive), earning 3rd and 4th Place finishes in halfpipe in 1995 and 1996. He was 2nd overall halfpipe champion on the U.S. Pro Snowboard Tour in 1997 and 1998.
Along the way, snowboarding changed, firmly establishing itself nationally and in the High Country. The sport evolved from following traditional freestyle skiing events like moguls and returned to its own surfing/skateboarding roots by focusing on the transitions found in a wave or on a ramp. The halfpipe and other skateboard influences ruled the freestyle snowboarding scene all through the 90's.
With the advent of more supportive bindings and increased side-cut and flex in the boards, riders were able to apply more power to the snow. Then came the arrival in '93 of the Pipe Dragon, a grooming device that created perfectly round halfpipe walls. The stage was set for the next level of freestyle snowboarding.
As the X-Games and Olympics got on board, snowboarding competition stayed strong all through the ‘90s. But the purity of all mountain riding was still favored by anyone who'd every experienced "the turn," that awesome carve boarders get when soar across a slope. Snowboarders who never tool to the halfpipe continued to seek out stashes of powder in the trees while the "new school" boarders were rail-sliding logs off the side of the trail much like skateboarders hang around a curb with their boards. Boarders went their own way and that was the draw: The freedom of the mountain.
Eventually, snowboard parks continued the skateboard park-inspired feel that the halfpipe offered. By using snowcats to build monster tabletop jumps, hips, and other features, snowboarders were now able launch huge airs often spanning 50 feet or more from the lip to the landing.
Superpipes—halfpipes over 15-feet tall—were being hand-cut since the early 90's at summer snowboard camps with glacial snow. These halfpipes gave visionary shapers like Frank Wells the key to the future of what freestyle snowboarding should look like. By 1999, grooming machines had been developed to eclipse the 10-12 foot standard set by the Pipe Dragon. “That gave riders a transition that allowed them to maintain tremendously high speed and momentum to soar 15-20 feet out of the pipe,” J.J. says. “The tricks had evolved too, from flat spins and grabs to multiple spins and scores of inverted moves at incredible height.” There was no way to stop the progression.
But things were changing for J.J. He was supplementing snowboard winnings as a tech rep for snowboard and outdoor brands in the Southeast and was seeing the sports clothing sales scene from the inside.
During pre-Olympic preparations in fall 1997 (the 1998 Nagano Games were snowboarding’s first appearance in the Olympics), Collier took action for his future. “I’d been giving feedback on my snowboard clothing for years, but never designed it. It was frustrating to have to wear this stuff and not be able to control what it looked like. I began to follow my inclination towards design and even bought a sewing machine to use during all the downtime at home between contests and training. Beyond my snowboard gear, it was streetwear and fashion that really inspired me. When I bought the sewing machine, Shannon (now his wife) thought I was crazy.”
“I’d always flipped through my mom’s fashion mags and read GQ for years. The fashion imagery triggered my imagination early. I’d enjoyed drawing my whole life, but fashion shaped my taste and I learned what kind of looks I liked. It took me years to believe that apparel design was something I could pursue professionally.”
Back in Charlotte, and engaged to Shannon, he was casting around for his next move and was considering finishing college. “Here I was this ex-pro snowboarder, without a college degree, and I really needed to get some things figured out. I hadn’t worked a retail job since my days at Edge of the World Outfitters in Banner Elk and here I was, many years later, old at 28, working retail.”
Then Collier took a class at UNC-Charlotte called “Garments as Art.” The final project required creating a complete outfit from offbeat materials and “I did,” he says, “a knit shirt and skirt finished off with a cape made out of this carpet-like material and it all worked.” But while taking another course, Collier realized, “I had to find another way of doing this. I already had the ideas.”
So Collier planned and designed his own collection of hand-made clothing and staged a Fall 1998 fashion show at a Charlotte club called Mythos. “The show went off without a hitch. It was a life-changing 15 minutes,” he says.
Collier started getting calls for bespoke garments from fashionable Charlotteans. Then Michelle Warner, Miss North Carolina 1997, engaged him for a special-event gown and the effort ended up in The Charlotte Observer. That sparked more business and an awareness of his own aesthetic. He hatched a plan to take his clothing line to New York.
Then Salomon called, the global ski gear company. Collier was “doing all this cool streety stuff,” he remembers, but Salomon was about to launch a line of winter wear. “Unbeknownst to me, industry friends had told them that an ex-pro snowboarder was designing fashion street wear and maybe the two worlds could collide—‘you ought to talk to him,’ they said. “I flew to Boulder with sketches of progressive skiwear that I designed specifically for the interview. The designs had a cleaner look than a lot of what was already on the mountain. My ideas fueled some concepts that they had already been discussing and I was offered the job. It was one of the first big steps to where I am now—aside from the crazy idea of inviting a bunch of people to watch a runway fashion show in Charlotte of clothes I made myself. Those original Salomon folks are all still close friends.”
In fall 1999, Collier moved to Boulder, Colorado to become a Salomon product designer and “work with the first creative director I’d ever had.” They devised the aesthetic and functional elements of what would make Salomon apparel “worthy of the name Salomon.” Along the way, Collier came up with several apparel features now patented by Salomon. He was promoted to senior product designer and moved to the Salomon Design Center in Annecy, France between July 2002 and February 2004.
It’s important to point out that Banner Elk’s most famous snowboarder wasn’t just drawing garments. This was an all-encompassing effort to successfully conceive and then launch an entire multi-season clothing brand in the marketplace. That task included fabric selection, color palette creation, design of apparel features, production of technical specifications, and daily collaboration with development and marketing teams. In 2003, Collier was the designer for the entire fall and winter men's and women's Salomon apparel line, not to mention consulting on the company’s surf line and collaborating with Arc'Teryx on some designs.
During that time, Collier got another call. “An HR person at Ralph Lauren called and said they were familiar with my work and they’d like to talk to me about working on RLX.” That’s Ralph Lauren’s range of outdoorsy options or "technical product" (as RLX includes ski, tennis, golf, nautical, outdoor and technical/lifestyle gear.)
“I was psyched. Over the years I’d always been a fan of Ralph Lauren, the military cues, the cars, the taste level. His classical menswear always appealed to me as well as the mixing-in of cool, textural stories like Western. When RLX launched in 1999, I could already see the potential for a top-tier technical-meets-lifestyle brand.”
Off went Collier to work for Polo in New York as Design Director for technical outerwear of the RLX line. Once again, the entire range of duties was involved, including “presentation of designs and concepts to senior directors, vice presidents of design, and Mr. Lauren.”
Just over a year later, Collier moved back to Boulder, but taking his pivotal New York position with him, and relocating to a “source inspiration location.” Relocating, in other words, to a place where the designs flow from the environment where the product is used. Not a bad gig if you can get it!
That location seems to be a perfect fit for J.J. “I needed to get back to the source of my inspiration, and as the head of outerwear for RLX I thought that made perfect sense, particularly with my background. It was an opportunity to get back in synch with the athletes and even wear-test the gear. Ideally, it broadens our scope as a brand to have a key person in Colorado in addition to a dedicated RLX team in New York City.” Other than the tendency to quibble with people who have the best of both worlds, how can you argue with that logic?
Reminded of his childlike newspaper opinion that even people over 30 can learn to snowboard, he says with a laugh, “Ah, to be sixteen again. I’m 35 now, way over the hill, but as sports go, snowboarding is still easily my favorite thing to do.”