Colmar’s history, as told by its President,
Our company is the result of an idea that my paternal grandparents, Mario and Irma, had in 1923, when they decided to change the course of their destinies forever by leaving their jobs to enter the captivating world of self-employment.
They went on to found Manifattura Mario Colombo, a company that produced men’s hats and gaiters, which were all the rage in those days and a particular specialty of Monza’s clothing industry.
That is how more than 90 years ago the “propiaggia” of Chigneu – my grandfather’s surname, as well as the dialectal term for the wooden wedge used to cut less compact felt cones used for gaiter making – made its debut.
The name COLMAR came about when grandpa Mario was tossing some ideas around for the brand name with his friends, writing random words on a cigarette pack. In the end, the first three letters of his last and first name won out.
Between 1923 and 1936 our company went from strength to strength, employing hundreds of talented and skilled workers. When the 1929 global financial crisis hit, we fared fairly well and even picked up customers from far-away countries, such as Iran and Egypt.
The colonial ambitions of the Fascist regime forced Italy into war with Ethiopia, with subsequent sanctions levelled by the United Nations, which, in essence, restricted exports and, above all, impeded companies from collecting revenues made abroad.
Our company underwent a severe financial crisis until our cousin, Edoardo Sala, came to the rescue. He was a manager at the Cotonificio Fossati Bellani cotton mill and suggested that we move from hat making to work overall production, using the special Massaua 10 cotton that was successfully manufactured by the cotton mill.
This cotton, which was dried then treated with chemical agents to become wash resistant and shrink-proof, proved suitable for the first skiing pioneers and Colmar’s earliest dalliances with snow began almost by chance in the 1930’s, when, for instance, Colmar produced the “Thirring” (also called “bat”), a special cape that looked like the wing of a glider and inflated on the back. The piece was made for Leo Gasperl, the first winner of the speed skiing record (136.336 km/h, in 1936).
The outbreak of the Second World War and grandpa’s paresis in 1943.
In the February of the next year, following on from consequences brought about by surgery, Mario Colombo passed away, leaving his wife Irma at the helm of the factory, right in the midst of the war.
When the war came to a close, the company was still standing, yet the industries that we had dressed with our work overalls were no longer. This problem was solved when we won the tender for a contract to supply the Saharan uniforms for the French Foreign Legion: many sowing machines within houses in the Monza area stepped in to support this effort and help us meet the demand. Furthermore, due to a series of interrelated events, we also began producing work overalls for oil companies that were beginning to open petrol stations across Italy.
In the meantime, Giancarlo and Angelo joined the company and its fascination with everything mountain related continued to grow. In 1947, Gian Vittorio Fossati Bellani became the Technical Director of the Italian Ski Team. This gave us the opportunity to supply the technical equipment to team members. Thus – from 1948 – we began our professional partnership with the FISI (the Italian Winter Sports Federation), which was destined to continue without interruption until 1992.
It was in those years that the Olimpionica was created. This was the mother of all windbreakers, manufactured in waterproof poplin and featuring a large pocket, a front pouch, wide sleeves and a hood.
The two stars of those days were Zeno Colò and Celina Seghi, both natives of the Abetone Apennines.
Zeno Colò was instrumental in us taking our definitive first steps into the world of technical skiing. He needed an aerodynamic suit and this drove us to create the Colmar sheath jacket, which would go on to be our flagship product for over a decade.
My grandmother used to host Mr. Colò in her living room and, between cups of tea and copious amounts of pastries, she would ask him what could be done to make the ski jacket better suited to the needs of skiers going headlong down the slopes. The Abetone native confessed that the most uncomfortable thing was the way the jacket fabric flapped in the wind.
Like all women of the time, grandma had her own corset-maker who used stretch yarn (filanca) to make the bustier more comfortable and snug.
Eureka! We placed those side panels in the poplin jackets and, voilà, magic happened!
Lo and behold, at the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics, Zeno wore the very first piece of aerodynamic ski apparel: a snug nylon sheath jacket with bi-elastic tulle sides and elbows. Zeno dominated the downhill competition and the sheath jacket became a best seller for many years to come – remaining in production until 1972.
It was a success, however, that brought with it an unwanted outcome for the Tuscan skier’s career: in order to improve the marketing image of our product, we placed Colò’s picture on the product’s packaging.
Due to this, and a similar episode concerning his boots, Zeno was disqualified on the grounds of practising the sport for professional purposes, which meant that his career was essentially over. He was only 34.
The Italian national team had little success for the next 10/15 years. It was now the turn of foreign athletes, such as Stein Eriksen, Toni Sailer, Karl Schranz and Jean Claude Killy, to monopolise the ski slopes the world over.
In the meantime, our company also began to develop its commercial branch by importing sport items and distributing them on the Italian market. Our growth as importers and distributors, in conjunction with the exportation of our own products, took us to important trade fairs in the sector and brought us into contact with the most important operators on the market.
Colmar’s love affair with skiing never faltered and we continued to conduct research and development into high-performance fabrics. In fact, it was with a special Colmar ski suit that Luigi Di Marco beat the speed skiing record in Cervinia in 1964, going at speeds of over 174 km/h.
Years went by and two cousins from Val Venosta, Roland and Gustav Thoeni, finally awoke the spirit of Italian fans within the Italian skiing world once again with their spectacular victories at the World Cup.
Roland, the most extroverted of the two and a great lover of joie de vivre, exhausted his competitive potential within a short time period. The more reserved Gustav became the World Champion at the beginning of the 1970’s and had the career we all remember. To this day he remains a legend of Alpine skiing.
Trained by Oreste Peccedi under the leadership of Mario Cotelli, the team featured stars of the likes of Piero Gros, Erwin Stricker and Helmut Schmalz, as well as many others. Skiing became the sport of the moment and the company took to the podium with the Italian team when it scored legendary victories at the Sapporo and Innsbruck Winter Olympics, in 1972 and 1976 respectively, as well as at the Saint Moritz World Championships in 1974. The search for new products became increasingly pressing and our focus was on materials, shape and the littlest of details. Our products were tested in Fiat and Moto Guzzi wind tunnels so that champions could win on hundredths of a second, while the fibres were assessed with the technical support of the Milan Polytechnic Institute. The giant slalom sheath jacket was exquisite. Stricker, the most extroverted of all our Italian champions, nicknamed it the “la ceffa” – the costume.
In December 1973, during the World Championships, I debuted in Val d’Isère as promoter of the Colmar brand. That event marked the beginning of my great friendship with champions like Piero Gros and Paolo De Chiesa, which even today sees us enjoying golfing and skiing tournaments with much enthusiasm.
It was in those years that the “In case of snow, Colmar” slogan was created. As of 1978, we also began editing and distributing our very own “In the Event of Snow” in-house publication, which would eventually lead to the Colmar Show, which was recognised as being one of the most innovative communication events at the end of the 1970’s.
The Colmar Show was a travelling event that made stops at many Italian theatres during the winter, entertaining crowds with cabaret, dancing numbers, product fashion shows and sport demos. Well-known members of the entertainment industry took part in the event, such as Mike Bongiorno, Claudio Lippi Gianfranco D’Angelo, Leroy Gomez, Enrico Beruschi and many others.
Tickets were distributed to our resellers, who had the liberty to hand them to friends, clients and relatives. It was a real success which made us appreciate how important sport-based entertainment events were for our brand, with the ever crucial showbiz component.
The 1985 Alpine Ski World Championships were awarded to the town of Bormio. It was a foregone conclusion for us to become one of the main event sponsors and to dedicate a jacket to the games. The aptly named Bormio jacket is, to this day, one of my favourite products: it was comprised of a cotton/polyamide waterproof exterior with a detachable, quilted goose down interior.
Over the course of those 15 days of competition, we organised many related activities, such as the Colmar house where we displayed all our products and, in the early evening, came up with one of the most abundant happy hours with the support of a wine distributors and a well-known Milan eatery from that time.
We also raced against time to change our logo that year in order to fully take advantage of TV’s new advertisement potential, replacing the red dot with a horizontal version where the word Colmar is preceded by a stylized snow flake.
There is no doubt that our athletes did not score great successes here, yet it was at this event that we came to understand the importance of advertising on ski slopes during competitions.
In 1987, the “Bomba” Alberto Tomba, exploded with his extraordinary performances and it brought about sizeable increase in sales for us.
In 1990, Deborah Compagnoni’s great successes brought us even more prestige and our sponsoring of the Italian Team became the centre of our communication and marketing efforts.
Yet, as is often the case, periods of great excitement tend to eventually run to ground – traumatically so – with significant adverse repercussions for our company and its story.
In the summer of 1992, when tens of thousands of items of clothing replicating the Italian Ski Team apparel were being manufactured, our ten-year relationship with the FISI abruptly and unexpectedly came to an end. Our company took a severe financial hit that resulted in a catastrophic loss of image and credibility in the world of sport clothing.
Nonetheless, we rolled up our sleeves in no time and, in 1993, we began to invest in World Championship competitions, purchasing ad rights on chest panels, gates, finish lines and banners placed along slopes. It was a good way for us to obtain visibility and to reaffirm our brand throughout the world.
The new millennium placed us in front of significant challenges: new brands that were our direct competitors, ever growing sport brands with enormous marketing tools at their disposal and international chains that could take advantage of scale economies much greater than our own company had access to, which, instead, was still tied to our region and our family roots.
These challenges, however, stimulated and galvanized us. We are mindful of our history and the passion that links us to the sporting environment. We continue to work successfully and remain steadfastly committed to our pursuit for the best products in high-performance, technological apparel, which also boast sophisticated and fashionable designs.
Our experience in technical apparel, my love for golf and knowledge of the market led us to begin producing golf clothing in 2010. As we did with skiing, we relied upon the expertise of professionals in order to create high-performance sports clothes right from the beginning. Today we have four players who take part in European tours and other minor championships.
We are as active as ever in the ski world. We continue to sponsor World Championship races, even if I have not been following them so closely as I once did for some time. We dress important ambassadors of our brand, in addition to our friends, Piero Gros and Paolo De Chiesa, who are part of our great ski team, along with the likes of Kristian Ghedina, Giorgio Rocca and Daniela Ceccarelli.
Most of all, we have returned headlong to sponsoring national teams, contributing to Ivica Kostelic’s past successes. We have been the official suppliers of the French Alpine Ski Team since 2011, with which we have a great professional relationship. We have also been sponsoring Liechtenstein’s Ski Team for a couple of seasons, providing sport clothing to Tina Weirather.
And since skiing is a magnificent sport in continuous evolution, we also work with many young free skiers, attempting to follow and support the most exciting new disciplines. For example, we sponsor the French National Ski Cross Team and many young athletes like Luca Tribondeau and Richard Amaker.
The Colmar Originals line sprung to life from a simple idea in 2009, taking our vintage logo and reinterpreting the shape and feel of our historic products with a current twist. This line has allowed us to extend our range with lifestyle products that are able to attract the attention of a large target audience. If people born up until the 1980’s remember us thanks to our technical skiwear, new generations are probably more familiar with our down jackets featuring the red dot, the original company logo that was used up until 1985. The success and development of Colmar Originals over the seasons has led to the development of a full collection that has seen garments designed to round out your wardrobe come alongside the classic down jacket, thereby creating a real total look. Colmar Originals is an urban-lifestyle line that is current and sport inspired, yet the roots and positive values of the sport have never been forgotten – quite the opposite. The shapes, materials and fits have all come from the history and DNA of Colmar that spans across almost a century.
Today, my sister Laura, my cousins Giulio and Carlo (Angelo’s sons) and myself are at the company’s helm. What’s more, a few years ago my son Stefano joined us as the first representative of our family’s fourth generation. If you have been patient enough to take the time to read our story up until this point, you will have understood that our destiny is inextricably linked to sport. We continue to conduct research and development, we still test our fabrics in wind tunnels and listen to athletes so that we can provide them with clothing that is as high-performance as possible.
The challenges ahead for us involve our ongoing pursuit to produce high-quality sport clothing and, why not, to wait for some other sport specialty and athlete to come to the fore, becoming – perhaps by some lucky turn of fate – a member of the great Colmar family.