It Turned Serious When They Hit the Seven-Figure Mark in Personal Debt

Post by blogger | August 21, 2007      

We’ve been fans of Cloudveil gear since around 1998 when we first heard the term “soft shell,” and the seminal Serendipity jacket came on the scene. More, the story of Cloudveil as a company is the penultimate tale of American chutzpah and small-business success — and it’s interesting as well.

Thus, I was delighted at this summer’s OR trade show when someone handed me a copy of “A Brand Story – Cloudveil Mountain Works – 1997-2007.” Normally, I’d not touch this sort of PR stuff for blogging as to do so would be a pandering boor, but this is the real deal and enjoyable to share about. So here goes.

Cloudveil history
Intrepid Cloudveil founders Brian Cousins and Stephen Sullivan shown in one of the publication’s many photos.

Part prospectus and part biography (and part fluff, but that’s to be expected), this interesting publication covers the birth and evolution of Cloudveil, the company responsible for softshell garments now being ubiquitous in the outdoor industry.

The story begins in 1996 when a friend brings Wyoming mountaineer Stephen Sullivan a pair of stretch-woven climbing pants obtained in Europe. Back in those days, dressing for mountaineering was still a puzzle of fleece or polypro base layers topped by stiff nylon we know as “waterproof breathable” — oxymoronic code for clammy discomfort and little temperature range. The Euro pants worked for Sullivan. He ended up leaving his shell pants at home and started thinking about jackets made from similar fabrics.

At the time, Sullivan was working retail in Jackson along with another mountaineer named Brian Cousins. The pair became friends. Realizing that a life of service jobs and shop clerking might not be their calling, the pair used their retail and outdoor experience to start a clothing company based on apparel ideas using the “stretch weave” concepts they’d been dreaming up.

That’s when the amusement park ride begins. Not realizing how popular their products would become among backcountry skiers and other mountain sports enthusiasts, Sullivan and Cousins take a journey that ultimately leads to selling the company — but at the same time moving it back to Jackson and starting a flagship retail store on Pearl Street in Jackson. Along the way they borrow enough money to start a third world country, take hubristic leaps of faith into things like glove manufacturing, and figure out from scratch how to build a company that’s world-class in vision but stays true to the “local” ethos that’s become part of today’s mountain culture.

In all, if you’re a fan of business and entrepreneurism (as I am), this is an amazing and compelling story. I find it hard to imagine how a couple of guys can start with sketching a few jackets on a kitchen table, and ten years later have that become a multi-million dollar company that defines a whole segment of an industry. And more, provides employment for a bunch of people in a mountain town. (My question: Can you do that with a blog?)

While “A Brand Story” is no doubt a bit sanitized as an in-house publication (and of course includes requisite but not excessive hyperbole), it is a worthy read. You can email for a copy:


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9 Responses to “It Turned Serious When They Hit the Seven-Figure Mark in Personal Debt”

  1. Clyde August 21st, 2007 1:57 pm

    Lou, as a fan of history, you might also point out that Cloudveil was far from the first to offer softshell tops. Jeff Lowe’s company, Latok, was selling the Diamond Pullover made of stretch Schoeller fabrics a decade earlier–it was a fantastic piece but a hard concept to sell at the time. A later Lowe company, Cloudwalker, was making softshell jackets the year before Cloudveil hit the market. Unfortunately, Jeff is one of the world’s worst businessmen so neither company survived (Latok eventually became Trango, sans softgoods). Not sure if there were earlier softshell tops than the Latok but the first softshell pants can be credited to Maria Bogner in the 50’s. Cloudveil deserves credit for popularizing the concept but not inventing it. And yeah, they do make nice stuff.

  2. Mark August 21st, 2007 4:40 pm

    My first pair of hand-me-down stretch pants were pretty dated even back in 1982, but they worked alright (I think they were Obermeyer). It’s cool to see how far the material has come and made into the realm of jackets, hats, gloves, etc. I remember a cool sweater sold by Cloudwalker back in 1999. Too bad that company didn’t pan out for Jeff Lowe.

  3. steve romeo August 22nd, 2007 8:06 am

    It’s been nice to see Steve and Brian succeed with the company. It’s also cool to work for the company that they used to work for here in JH…Skinny Skis. The owners, Phil Leeds and Jeff Crabtree are great people and have always been supportive in the things I do.

    BTW…wasn’t the Marmot Dri-Clime the original softshell?

  4. Lou August 22nd, 2007 8:08 am

    Clyde, thanks for the heads up about that. Yeah, as the article I linked to from the blog post covers, the soft shell concept is as old as the hills. Cloudveil didn’t invent it, but they certainly deserve credit as the folks who really did start the “softshell” segment of the outdoor clothing industry. From a business point of view, that’s huge. And all us consumers are benefiting from it.

    As for softshell pants, yep, the wool blends used in stretch pants since the 1960s most certainly were softshells and some worked quite well. For years I used stretch wool-blend ski pants for ice climbing, extreme skiing and stuff like that, and a similar type of pant designed for climbing was available in Europe for years.

    What changed things in my opinion was the softshell type fabrics became much more water resistant. Once that happened their “range of use” became so great it was only a matter of time before someone such as Cloudveil would base their whole company on the concept.

  5. Clyde August 22nd, 2007 8:38 am

    Steve, depends on how you define a softshell. For me, it’s something that is highly wind and water resistant, very breathable, fairly rugged, moderately insulating, and stretchy. So at least in tops, these didn’t exist until the mid-80s AFAIK. though pants go back much further. Marmot tried to re-brand the Dri-Clime as a softshell but it really isn’t; they first sold it as an inner layer. Lou, do you still have your Petzoldt Nehru wool shirt? You must have had one since you worked at NOLS in that era! A good PR firm could spin that as an early softshell 😉

  6. Jason August 22nd, 2007 12:29 pm

    Sorry, Lou, but as a loyal reader and self-badged member of the Grammar Goons, I have to ask: What is the last and final tale of American chutzpah and small business success?

  7. Lou September 10th, 2007 5:49 am

    Jason, what can I fix? I can always use help.

  8. Lou September 26th, 2007 7:11 am

    Clyde, I’ve still got some of my NOLS clothing from the early 1970s, but alas, none of the wool shirts survive. It’s really fun stuff to have around.

  9. BJ Sbarra October 10th, 2007 12:24 pm

    I think Jason is referring to the fact that penultimate means “next to last”, so if Cloudveil is the next to last “tale of American chutzpah and small business success”, he wants to know what is the last?

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