Walking down a slushy side street in Chamonix Sud, one can easily mistake the large wooden chalet near the end of chemin des Tissourds as just another charming French dwelling. Look a little closer though, and you’ll spot a pattern carved in the wooden balcony railings: a triangular collection of chevrons, the fashionable logo of Black Crows skis.
Climb a few stairs onto the wooden balcony, open an unsigned door and it becomes unmistakable. The wall-sized poster of a skier fanning out over a cliff, flashing the pink bottoms of the Black Crows Corvus make it plainly obvious: you’ve arrived at the mothership.
Or I arrived, rather, on a warm winter day in January. I was greeted warmly by Julie Benker, a long time member of the marketing team. “I saw you lurking outside the windows,” she said and offered me an Americano. We sat on stools in the simple chalet kitchen and chatted about the burgeoning popularity of the brand.
“I don’t know what it is,” she said with a slight French accent, “there’s a fandom around the skis. People just go crazy for them.”
I’d heard about this spreading enthusiasm and it was part of why I wanted to visit. Friends and reviewers I know who ski Black Crows typically love them. Each touring oriented ski shop I’ve stepped into over the past year has at least a small collection on the wall. During my brief time in Chamonix, it seemed every third skier I spotted was sporting a pair. I myself have gazed at the highlighter colored Freebird line on the ski wall of my local shop and fancied myself on the red ones, the Camox. But it’s one thing to like a brand for the products it makes. It’s another for a brand to develop an allure that goes beyond the products themselves. In Chamonix, I wanted to find out what that was.
Julie gave a brief tour of the office, introducing me to the 15 or so employees seated in front of iMacs, working on marketing, design and accounting. I’d hoped to see ski production, but alas, the skis are not made in Chamonix so there was no fun production line to peek at. At the end of the tour, Julie led me to an upper loft where she introduced me to Flo Bastien and Nikolai Schirmer.
“The boys are going to take you skiing,” she informed me. “The plan is to ski fast and hard, right?” she asked Flo, one of Black Crows most recognizable ambassadors.
He glanced skeptically at my Scarpa F1’s on the floor. “Not so fast in those boots,” he replied.
Chamonix was in the midst of a dry spell and I was short on time so we headed to Brévent for a few laps on the piste. Temps hovered in the mid 30s when we boarded our first gondola. Thick cloud swirled around the high peaks of the Mount Blanc Massif that dwarf the village of Chamonix, shrinking ever smaller below. “On piste won’t be exciting,” Flo offered almost apologetically, “but it’s a good point of view on the top.”
As we stood crammed shoulder to shoulder with fellow skiers in the tram, I asked how many athletes skied for Black Crows. “It started just a with a core group of good skiers here in Chamonix,” he told me. “We tried to grow that way in other places, gathering groups in local places. Now there are maybe 200 ambassadors worldwide.”
I’ve heard criticism from folks in the industry that Black Crows is perhaps growing too quickly. One Swiss skier I spoke with even surmised that the brand is losing its soul, that is, the hard skiing roots from which it came. Starting with the official release of the first Corvus 196 in 2006, the company has grown and grown. Now with big mountain, resort, women’s, touring and kid’s specific lines, they’re expanding distribution in international markets across Europe and North America as well as opening offices in Denver and Paris. The skis are no longer made in Chamonix, but scattered amongst different factories shared with other big ski brands.
Flo walked out on a metal grate overlook at the top of the tram. He pointed to a series of steep, long open slopes ridged by rock ribs directly below us that run 1400 meters to the edges of town. “There are some good lines there,” he said. “When there’s more snow you can ski to the valley floor.”
A few turns into our first run, he paused atop a steep mogul field and then dropped in, effortlessly bounding between the hard-packed ice mounds. Halfway down the run a girl sat forlorn on a mogul, reaching for her skis and poles strewn about her. Flo held her ski while she stepped in and then skied down to me. “That’s what we have ski instructors for,” he said lightly, gesturing up to the girl still flailing down the bumps. Back on smooth piste, he flipped around and skied the rest of the run backward.
We paused for crepes at a small stone hut at a high point of the ski area. While Flo chatted in French with a few skiers he knew I gazed at the seemingly endless steep, demanding ski lines that beckoned from the ski area boundaries. As the story goes, founders and French pro freeskiers Camille Jaccoux and Bruno Companget were dissatisfied with narrow trending skis available for freeskiing in the late 2000s, so the developed the Corvus, a big, sturdy ski that could turn on a dime and handle the big mountain terrain of the French Alps. That origin story is no doubt a driver in the brand’s hype, as is the iconic underpinning of a ski being born of these mountains.
Nikolai joined to take a few more runs and Flo bid farewell, citing a meeting that afternoon. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t relieved to leave the boring piste.
Back at the office I chatted with Thomas Fabre, the then newly appointed VP of Sales and Marketing. He voiced disappointment I had used the Camox on piste rather than for a tour. Touring “is for this ski,” he said.
He pointed to the sidewall of a different ski sitting on the desk in front of him. Faut être majeur? was written on the side (a French saying Google clunkily translates to must you be of legal age?). “All of the skis have these sayings.”
“Maybe that’s why so many people like them,” I joked, thinking of another sidewall phrase I’d seen recently, written in English: I don’t remember it being this far.
“It’s just one of the many reasons,” he replied, straight faced. “From the beginning with Black Crows, no matter what the ascent, you will love the ski on the descent.”
Admittedly, it does seem there is a dare I say je ne sais quoi about the skis. During my brief date with the Camox, I skied mostly variable icy bumps and smooth piste, but my initial feeling was the ski just had a special something. It was easy to initiate, to butter out, to trust its edges and responsiveness. Immediately I felt a comfort, a confidence that I could take it down anything.
The skis are, of course, nice to look at too. The touring line features loud solid color blocks accented only by the black logo, in all lower case letters. The logo itself is notable, a triangular arrangement of chevrons that represent a flock of black alpine cough, birds common in Chamonix that can fly above 4000 meters. The all mountain, women’s and piste skis feature blocky, linear lines in assorted color pallets that are both pleasing and stimulating to the eye. Like many fashionable things, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what’s working but the design somehow undeniably is.
A week later, I wandered into the Black Crows booth at Outdoor Retailer. It was day two of the show, happy hour, and a party was on. The highlighter colored touring skis lined a black wall. At the far end of the room, a crowd of mannequins clad in Black Crows new white Gore-Tex shells stood like the chevrons on the logo. The space was abuzz with an outdoorsy looking crowd of industry folk sipping French wine from plastic cups and nibbling on cheese, jam and toast, dried figs.
I poured a cup of Bordeaux and glanced around at the clusters of people conversing enthusiastically, sipping, looking somehow very hip. Was it the wine? The cheese? The highlighter skis in the background? I felt like I had walked into a sophisticated gathering in a member’s-only club. That’s intentional too, of course, and a key element of Crow’s marketing scheme. They even host an annual music festival in Chamonix, a point of access that allows fans to be on the inside, part of the community of crows.
Perhaps that’s the driver of the fandom. It’s not, after all, just about skis (though they do seem great in their own right. I’ve yet to get my own pair to test thoroughly). Consider other kinds of fandoms: Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Taylor Swift. True fandoms are subcultures cultivated by shared interests, camaraderie, feelings of belonging. An infectious energy surrounds them, strikes a chord in a collective consciousness that grabs hold and, eventually, takes flight. Like a crow. Or, a skier. Take your pick.