Kiley McKinnon competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics wearing men's ski pants.
By the time the freestyle aerialist arrived in PyeongChang three Februarys ago, she had racked up just about every accomplishment under the sun and on the slopes. Aesthetically and technically, though, there was something missing from her competitive edge, and it had something to do with her gear.
"When I was on the U.S. Ski Team, I was wearing skiwear that was made for both men and women," McKinnon remembers. "We were wearing the exact same size, in the same styles, in the same fits. I'm 5'9" and I was wearing ski pants that were the same length as for a girl who was 5'1". How is it possible that I was representing Team USA and I couldn't even get the gear I needed that fit me properly?"
After the Olympics and amid a career transition into civilian life, McKinnon started thinking differently about her sport and the gear she wore to compete in it — and, she learned, professional athletes weren't the only ones expressing frustration with their ski and snowboarding apparel. Soon, regular, everyday recreationalists began sharing their concerns with her, too.
The issue was this: There were, quite simply, not enough options — not enough that hit a relatively moderate price point, not enough that looked good and of course, not enough that competently fit. It was during these conversations that McKinnon met retail-strategy consultant Ariana Ferwerda, who moved to Colorado in 2018 with plans to take full advantage of the mountainous backdrop.
"I was super-excited about doing the whole thing, getting a new ski set and new skis," says Ferwerda, who grew up skiing what she describes as the "hills" of Michigan. "But I had a terrible process in terms of purchasing skiwear. I ended up settling on something I wasn't really excited about. Why was there not a cool direct-to-consumer brand for women that was sustainable and also fashion-forward?"
Ferwerda and McKinnon became fast friends, bonding over their shared ambivalence for baggy, magenta ski pants and coordinating puffers. "Being a recreational skier, I thought I'd have a very different perspective than someone who's been sponsored by brands throughout her career," Ferwerda adds.
They began exploring a solution: a skiwear label built by and for the modern female consumer. The first stop was San Francisco, where an investor introduced Ferwerda and McKinnon to Karelle Golda, a growth-marketing expert who, rather serendipitously, was working on a skiwear line of her own. Ferwerda and McKinnon brought Golda on board to round out their founding team and launched Halfdays a year later, this past November.
Halfdays caters to that expansive middle market between plush luxury (like a Moncler or Canada Goose) and hardcore sport (an Arc'teryx or Burton). Both extremes have steep, inaccessible price points, and stylistically, the aesthetic itself isn't always what recreational consumers like Ferwerda or Golda have in mind when preparing to drop three digits on what is, essentially, a new winter coat.
"The everyday person isn't skiing the crazy, crazy backcountry" McKinnon says. "They're probably only making two or three ski trips a year. And they might just want to do it for a half day."
Today, the global ski-gear and equipment market is valued at roughly $1.2 billion and predicted to reach $1.7 billion by 2028. It is, quantitatively, a prosperous sector, but it's not exactly a contemporary one. The market still experiences a significant gender disparity from top to bottom, not unlike sportswear in general. As of July 2019, there had only been seven female CEOs in the entire sportswear industry, according to executive-outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas; that lack of representation has drastically impacted how women's athletic apparel functions.
"I think we probably all did a disservice to the female consumer over the past 10 or 15 years," Russ Kahn, senior vice president of Puma North America Retail, told Retail Dive in September 2019. "I think for a long time, athletic brands said, 'We can just shrink it and pink it and that will be good enough for the female consumer.' And 'good enough' is not good enough anymore."
Halfdays aims to flip "shrink it and pink it" — marketing jargon for the feminization of existing men's products — on its head. The founding trio has nothing against pink, exactly, but let's just say it isn't one of the earthy, tonal hues offered as part of its color range.
"I think we can all attest to the fact that a lot of women's skiwear is pink and purple and floral," McKinnon explains. "And I don't know about you, but those aren't my go-to colors."
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Halfdays trades up pinks and purples and florals for a more tonal arrangement evocative of an art director's tracksuit you might see worn south of 14th Street. Its hero products — the Lawrence Jacket, $345, and Alessandra Pant, $215 — come in five shades: "Cloud," an opaque bright-white; "Banana," a creamy, buttery yellow; "Canyon," a rich mustard-brown; "Olive," a putty green and of course, "Black."
McKinnon, who leads product development for the brand, says the garments themselves were more inspired by streetwear than the pieces that currently fill the women's section of REI. As the label's name suggests, the brand wants its consumers to be just as comfortable wearing its gear for a morning cruising ski lifts as they are for an après-ski afternoon camped out in the lodge.
McKinnon showcases the goods over a Zoom call from Denver, and even when slightly pixelated, the pieces are sleek and elegant. She assures me, though, all the technical elements — from YKK waterproof zippers to fully-sealed, tapered seams — are there. The products' shells, insulation, linings and powder skirts are all made from 100%-recycled materials. Its shell and insulation are also Bluesign-certified, an emerging standard for environmental health and safety in textile manufacturing.
"I thought competing in the Olympics was going to be the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life, but starting a company is definitely up there," McKinnon says with a laugh. "You don't realize how technical skiwear is until you try to create it yourself."
Halfdays' factory partners are based in Vietnam and Colombia, and though the original plan had always been to make everything from scratch here in the U.S., the escalating health crisis prompted the brand to reconsider its priorities.
"All the U.S. factories shut down, and in order for us to meet our timeline of launching this year, we had to completely change gears and find a manufacturer overseas that was going to be able to get the product to us in time," McKinnon says. Following a comprehensive search, Golda discovered a manufacturer in Vietnam that embodied the values they were hoping to reflect.
"We probably interviewed and vetted about 10 manufacturers in all, ranging from those in North America, to China to Vietnam," Golda recalls. "And really, our decision came down to sustainability and labor practices. How did they treat their employees? Did they have certificates around their labor practices? We felt strongly that sustainability and ethicality had to be at the forefront of our decision."
Halfdays' partners have been supportive of the brand's internal sustainability pledges, which Golda says are part of "every single conversation we have." Right now, Halfdays is "thinking about" carbon neutrality — but it's also thinking more tangibly about how best to challenge each rung of the supply-chain ladder.
"We're never going to use sustainability as a marketing ploy," Golda notes. "We feel that everyone in the outdoor industry should be doing this as a status quo. You should be thinking about sustainability at every single level of your business. And if you're not, you shouldn't be in the outdoor industry."
There's also the question of who, exactly, has been welcome in the outdoor industry in the first place. According to data from the National Ski Areas Association, 88.2% of visitors to ski areas during the 2019-2020 season were white, while just 1.8% were Black.
"Skiing's popularity in the U.S. rose during an era of racial segregation when BIPOC generally did not enjoy the post-WWII wealth and discovery of skiing that white Americans did," mogul skier Garrett Schlag wrote in an August 2020 Powder essay. "As Civil Rights leaders of the time fought for equal social footing for BIPOC, skiing's association with whiteness, luxury and exclusivity grew, and access to skiing for non-whites shrank."
Halfdays is in it for the long haul, and its lofty aspirations include working to rectify its sport's known accessibility problems. Can new-and-improved skiwear help with that?
"We have a dream of bringing more women, more people in general, into outdoor sports, people that may not have access to them or feel that they can't approach them easily," Ferwerda says. "Alongside creating sustainable, awesome skiwear, the bigger mission here is to make people feel like they can approach any of these sports with confidence."