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Outdoor Gear Companies Use Art To Set Themselves Apart...And Drive Sales

Colorado Business Committee For The Arts

Outdoor recreation is a $62 billion a year industry in Colorado.  The arts and culture sector generates $13 billion a year, more than mining or agriculture.

These two economic powerhouses came together at a forum in Golden last week, hosted by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.

A panel of leaders from Colorado-based companies like Smartwool, Topo Designs and Icelantic skis talked about how important art is to their products and their sales.  

Companies might follow a few different models to integrate art into their products. Smartwool, for example, collaborates with artists on products like socks that are are unique and fairly true to the artists' vision.

Icelantic, a small Denver-based ski company, uses one artist to design their topsheets. In this collaborative model, founder Ben Anderson meets with the artist every year for a back-and-forth process of design and modification.  

Colorado's Topo Designs was founded by Jedd Rose. Rose has a degree in fine art; he wants to bring an artistic sensibility to outdoor apparel.  

Sales are driving more outdoor companies to integrate art into their gear.  


"Without question, our artist collaboration products sell out the quickest," said Molly Cuff, Smartwool's director of global communication. 


These companies see art as a way to differentiate themselves in the crowded field of outdoor gear, even if it means risking alienating customers who might not like the aesthetic, according to Icelantic's Anderson.

It can get complicated when artistic vision meets commerce.

An artist's work will probably have to be altered to fit a product.  Sue Jesch, the design director of Smartwool, says that when a painting is adapted for a textile, like a sock or a shirt, whole colors or details have to be eliminated. 

Jesch says the company asks artists to sign detailed contracts that to avoid misunderstandings.  

Icelantic's Anderson says he definitely had conflicts with his resident artist.

"We had screaming fights. 'Do you want art or do you want graphics?'” he said.


Anderson believes, though, that ultimately, those heated discussions made their product better.  

While artists have a wide range of responses to the idea of putting their art on a consumer good, Topher Straus, an artist in attendance at the forum, says the stigma of “going corporate” doesn’t exist anymore. He said most artists he knew want to get their work out into the world, whether through a gallery show or a pair of socks.





Contributor Christin Kay is passionate about the rich variety of arts, cultural experiences and stories in the Roaring Fork Valley. She has been a devotee of public radio her whole life. Christin is a veteran of Aspen Public Radio, serving as producer, reporter and interim news director.