Small Brand Shoutout: Black Crows

Chamonix ski company is infiltrating North America

Marquee photo: Camille Jaccoux, the co-founder of Black Crows skis, has been calculating his entry into the U.S. market for years and is finally making a big push to bring Black Crows to North American skiers. PHOTO: Cedric Bernardini

Camille Jaccoux has patience. It’s been a few years that the co-founder of Chamonix-based Black Crows skis has been stealthily researching North America for potential expansion. Jaccoux, a former pro skier (and a stunt double for James Bond), particularly likes Jackson Hole, maybe because the steep, jagged peaks of the Tetons remind him of his home in the Alps.

“The skis have been a good excuse for us to travel and meet people,” says Jaccoux, a serious-seeming French hipster with an irreverent alter ego. “Year after year, we did a very local program to meet the right people in the right places—because we don’t have just super pro amazing skiers, we have a bunch of local people of different ages and abilities—to build some relationships with other people who have the same vision for skiing.”

Black Crows brought into its global family—or nest—of ambassadors the “Jackson Nine,” nine ordinary yet passionate locals whose role is to ski the product, give feedback, and help build the brand.

So, Black Crows brought into its global family—or nest—of ambassadors the “Jackson Nine,” nine ordinary yet passionate locals whose role is to ski the product, give feedback, and help build the brand. It’s part of the independent company’s grassroots marketing strategy, which has room for only a small, selective advertising budget. With one foot (or ski?) firmly planted in Jackson, Black Crows has brought a taste of Chamonix to America, using an innovative strategy that sets them apart.

Aside from its ambassador program, Black Crows does some things that are normal for a ski company, such as trade shows and using sales reps to pitch to ski shops. The company’s visibility is sure to rise with the signing this year of pro skiers Michelle Parker and Callum Pettit, with whom Black Crows is working to produce photo and video content.

But the main idea is to let the brand’s story unfold naturally, and so the main focus is on the grassroots: building a following through people who are most intimately involved with their product: typical skiers.

“Camille has created an organic brand that has grown in a natural way in Europe; it’s not like they sat around a table and built a massive marketing plan,” says Chris Booth, the first marketing manager Black Crows has had in its 10 years of existence. “They started by developing a product that didn’t exist on market. And it grew through adoption and validation, not being forced upon people in shops.”

The Black Crows vision was conceived in a Chamonix tavern during a conversation between Jaccoux and two friends, French freeski pioneer Bruno Compagnet and industrialist investor Christophe Villemin, in the winter of 2004-2005. Disappointed with what they saw on the market then (a few years before the explosion of rocker and various types of camber), they set out to create a technical, big mountain ski that works in all kinds of snow conditions, a ski that was simultaneously strong and playful.

“Any brand can make a ski that feels nice in perfect snow, but at the time, it was really hard to find a ski that performed well in bad snow,” Booth says.

In spring 2006, after a season spent testing skis and studying material and technology, the trio came out with a prototype, the Corvus 196. Long and wide (103 millimeters at the waist) for float and stability, it had a typical sandwich construction and wood core for performance and stability, plus a progressive tip and well-defined sidecut that distinguished it from other powder boards on the market.

Each model maintains an “alpine heritage,” says Jaccoux, meaning it starts with a tried-and-true wood core, sandwich construction.

The legendary slopes of Chamonix were the perfect testing ground for the challenge of a one-quiver ski. Classic ski routes off the Aiguille du Midi and other peaks can start at above 12,500 feet and descend some 9,000 feet through three climate zones and all types of snow. Skiers are as likely to encounter deep, powdery couloirs as they are icy, wind-whipped glaciers and gloppy, sun-baked exposures, sometimes all on the same day.

Black Crows gradually earned their reputation. Local freeriders and mountain guides adopted them, relationships were cultivated with select shops that stood behind them, and the Black Crows “nest” expanded across Europe, especially in Scandinavia, and then to North America. The company made 10,000 pairs of skis last year, a respectable number for an admittedly niche product.

Meanwhile, Black Crows’ line evolved from the original Corvus to 22 different models for the 2015-2016 season. They include single-beak (tip rocker) and double-beak (double rocker) models, men’s and women’s skis, and skis that are optimized for big mountain, all terrain, and, most recently with the Freebird line, touring.

Read skier reviews on Black Crows’ line of skis in the 2016 Buyer’s Guide

Each model maintains an “alpine heritage,” says Jaccoux, meaning it starts with a tried-and-true wood core, sandwich construction. Jaccoux believes in relying on experts in a given field, then finessing the details, so the skis are produced in the Elan and Atomic factories.

“A big part of the work is on snow after we develop the samples,” says Jaccoux. “We work on shape and flex. We take the time to test details, and sometimes it’s been annoying for the factories. But the same prototype with a different flex, you can have a totally different feeling. And that’s what we like.”

Jaccoux knows it’s a big deal for a European ski brand to take off in North America, but he believes in the founding idea that “skis that are good in Chamonix will work anywhere.”

Because of the constant tweaking, Black Crows skis, including the Corvus, have been evolving since their inception. Bringing on an expert in the field, the company a few years ago hired Armada co-founder Julian Regnier, who designed the first twin-tips for Rossignol, to be its master shaper.

And that brings the Black Crows story to North America, where the skis will be found this year in 20 shops, up from six last season. There will be a marketing and PR push, even as local markets in Aspen and elsewhere are being tested for further expansion.

Jaccoux knows it’s a big deal for a European ski brand to take off in North America, but he believes in the founding idea that “skis that are good in Chamonix will work anywhere.”

“When we decided to start, we researched the market, but it was a big part of feeling in it,” he added. “We were feeling something, and thought that maybe we were not alone. It’s been a lot of work, but we always kept the idea in mind that we were selling a tool of pleasure.”

What’s in a name?

Black Crows’ name and design is as much a part of the skis’ identity as its construction and performance. When trying to come up with a name for his fledgling ski company, Jaccoux thought of the yellow-beaked mountain blackbird, the chocard, that skiers and mountaineers see frequently playing in the air currents in the Alps. The little corvid with its metallic black plumage inspired the name Black Crows, which Jaccoux admitted he liked because “it’s a bit rock-n-roll.”

The Black Crows logo is a series of symmetrical “v” shapes, mimicking the basic symbol of birds in flight, or, upside-down, a mountain peak. The six chevrons together resemble a flock, representing the Black Crows community, and its simple geometry lends itself to an infinite number of design possibilities.