In our opinion, skiing is the quintessential winter sport. Although we’ll readily leave the high speeds to the pros, there’s nothing like gliding down the face of a mountain, even at a more leisurely pace. It provides for the opportunity to be in the outdoors and in the company of nature – something we all long for from time-to-time.
As always in menswear, every garment is rooted in function, and classic slopestyle is no exception. Think woolen sweaters, knitted hats and down vests. All these were used to keep skiers warm during low temperatures, but somehow managed to transcend into everyday wear beyond the mountain.
What we consider classic ski culture and slopestyle today began to take off shortly after the mid-century. Perhaps the greatest, and most stylish, skier of this time was Jean-Claude Killy. Killy was a French born Alpine skier who is mostly remembered for dominating Alpine skiing during the mid-to-late 60’s. He was the King of the slopes and, when on them, no other competitor matched him in terms of style and skill. Killy approached every run with a sense of ease; always composed, always in control.
Similarly to a handful of great athletes, such as Wayne Gretzky or Mohammad Ali, Killy had the fortune of discovering his passion for his sport at a young age. By the time he was 15, Killy was spending more time on the slopes than he was in school – a result of living on the foothills of the French Alps – so his father allowed him to drop out in order to dedicate more time to his training. This may not have been the greatest idea for many, but for Killy it paid off and he made the French national junior team a year later in 1959.
By 1966, Killy began to emerge as a dominant international competitor. He won his first international downhill race at the 1966 World Championships in Portillo, Chile, and then the combined race shortly after. When the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup first launched the following year, Killy won 12 of the 17 races and easily claimed the overall title. Fueled by this accomplishment, Killy went on to out perform his competitors at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics. Dramatically winning gold medals for the men’s slalom, giant slalom, and downhill races, Killy became the second skier in Olympic history to sweep all three of the Alpine events.
Killy wasn’t just faster than the other skiers, he was smarter. Instead of crowding as close to the starting bar as possible and beginning each race from a standing position as his opponents, Killy developed his own method. By using his upper-body strength, Killy held himself up with his poles and then hurled himself forward to hit the starting bar while already moving forward as the starting official shouted “Go”. This sounds like a no-brainer today, but Killy was the first to do this. Omega electrical timing was accurate to one-hundredth of a second and this starting technique certainly helped Killy beat his teammate, Guy Perillat, by only a few hundredths during the downhill competition. Quickly after other skiers began to catch on, nearly all of his competitors began to start their races in the manner that Killy originated.
After a final successful season following the Grenoble Winter Olympics, Killy retired from competitive skiing to develop his second career – celebrity endorsements. Leveraging his fame with skiing’s growing popularity, Killy signed endorsement deals with Chevrolet, American Express, United Airlines and Schwinn bicycles to name a few.
Intrigued by Killy’s new pitchman status, novelist and essayist Hunter S. Thompson followed Killy around the United States as he performed his scheduled duties as spokesperson for Chevrolet. Feeling somewhat distraught by Killy’s new role in mainstream culture as a “corporate puppet”, Thompson’s resulting article, “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy” went on to compare the Olympic athlete to Jay Gatsby. Although Killy’s fortune was achieved legitimately, they both suffered from blurred lines between their true and false identities and the way others perceive them. Though Thomson’s conclusions of Killy may not have been too far from the truth at the time, one must remember that during this point in Killy’s life, he was still relatively young, achieved a considerable amount of fame, was wealthier than he had ever been in his life and was a Frenchman navigating through America’s heartland.
Following his endorsement career, Killy went on to fill numerous positions in higher-level sports administration. From 1977 to 1994, Killy was a member of the Executive board of the Alpine Skiing Committee of the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), served as co-President of the Organizing Committee for the 1992 Albertville Winter Games and is now currently serving as chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission.
There has been plenty of controversy surrounding this year’s Games and Killy is not with exemption. The Olympics have always represented a sense of international kinship, which continues to be embodied regardless of the politics of the hosting country. With zero tolerance for prejudice, win or lose, we should rally around all the athletes and watch history unfold as they push themselves to achieve unbelievable feats of athleticism. Who knows, maybe we’ll even witness a Killy-style sweep of the Alpine events this year.