Word travels fast in Aspen, but rarely does it echo across demographics for years, as it has for Strafe Outerwear. Launched by John Gaston, 30, nearly eight years ago, and today run alongside his twin brother, Pete, Strafe is the unofficial kit for Aspen skiers and snowboarders as well as the uniform of elite athletes including the U.S. Ski Mountaineering National Team (of which John is a member).
Strafe designer and developer Pia Halloran heard the brand’s influence loud and clear when she dropped by the high school before the annual ski swap this fall.
“I was shocked,” she says. “All these kids were wearing Strafe hats and T-shirts. One kid who helped me carry stuff I was selling asked my name, and said, ‘Oh, you’re Pia! You used to work with my mom at Obermeyer, that’s so cool!’”
Says Ted Mahon, who has skied 100 of the highest peaks in Colorado and completed the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse backcountry race from Aspen to Crested Butte twelve times, “The Recon jacket and pant offer enough protection from the weather, but are also extremely breathable and cut athletically so you can move across that course quite comfortably—more so than anything else I’ve used through the years.”
Mahon also favors Strafe’s durable yet packable Cham 2 combo, inspired by Pete’s ski mountaineering (skimo) adventures in Chamonix, France, during the label’s nascent years. “It’s not bulky and heavy,” he explains. “NeoShell makes it really breathable. Going backcountry skiing, on a hut trip, or skiing a 14er, I don’t think there’s a better kit than the Cham 2.”
Strafe’s avalanche-like popularity across ages, activities, and abilities can be traced to Aspen Highlands. There in the base village at company headquarters—consisting of a corner retail shop plus office space on two floors for ten employees and counting—the Gaston brothers know exactly how they got here, as founder-owners of a locally grown apparel brand now sold in at least 150 shops around the world. They got here by skiing fast.
While freshmen at the University of Colorado Boulder, the freeride fanatics developed a “single-minded obsession” with the steepest, sickest, and often most treacherous terrain in these parts: the Highland Bowl.
“I didn’t like to hike,” John admits, “but on a low-snow cycle you can find incredible skiing up there, when the rest of the mountain is turning into bulletproof sheet ice.”
Still, the legendary 12,392-foot peak is “very deceptive,” he continues. “It’s right there, at the top of the lift … but not a five-minute-hike situation. You have to work to get to the top. It can be apocalyptic—70 mile-per-hour gusts on the ridge. Then you get on the chairlift and your sweat freezes. It gets vicious if you’re dressed improperly. We were in junky, cheap park gear, realizing its limitations every day.”
They accepted those limitations, though, because they had no choice. Functional, well-made outerwear by brands such as Arc’teryx in the mid-2000s was too slim, too short, too blah for their tastes. The brothers dreamed of longer, baggier styles sharp enough for a Seth Morrison ski video yet suitable for hiking the Bowl as well as hucking off cliffs—which they did some four days per week in Aspen for every three days of class back on campus.
In 2009, during a senior-year spring break trip to the Arlberg region of Austria—home to some of the most accessible high-elevation terrain in the world—the Gastons discovered that ultra-techy all-mountain gear did exist. “Sweet Protection and Norrøna—I was blown away at the time,” John says of the European labels featured in a St. Anton ski shop.
Back in Colorado, John launched into go mode after graduation. He made his first sketch, found a designer, and received the first Strafe prototypes—the Nomad Jacket, Nomad Bib Pant, and Sickbird Suit—in December 2009. He and Pete wouldn’t suffer through wearing “shells with T-shirts underneath, knowing we were gonna find that good level after a lap or two,” much longer.
The brothers tested the samples during that winter’s 2010 Battle in the Bowls at Highlands, which they won (and again in 2013). John wore the first iteration of Strafe’s Sickbird Suit, named for a Snowmass freeride contest award he won in college. (All three styles remain in the 2017/18 line.)
“Strafe is an attack from a low-flying aircraft that’s about speed and efficiency,” Pete explains. “Battle in the Bowls is the definition of that: Hike fast, ski faster.”
While Strafe’s alpine collections over the years mirror the evolution of the Gastons’ hard-core personal preferences—Pete’s thirst for adventure, apprenticing with Aspen Expeditions, and completing skimo-guiding courses and exams; John falling down the rabbit hole of endurance racing after recovering from a broken back—the brothers acknowledge that most resort-goers just want comfort.
“For the 99 percent of the population that has no interest in earning their turns, our products apply equally if not more to them,” John says. “Stop your average skier in the middle of a Steeplechase lap, they’re breathing so hard they can barely talk. You want to stay warm on the lift ride but then not overheat on the descent.”
Air vents matter, of course, but a garment’s peak performance starts with fabric.
Serendipitously, Strafe was born during a perfect storm within the ski industry.
“Back in those years, there were materials that fared okay in terms of breathability and waterproofness, but they were often really bulky and didn’t pack well,” recalls Mahon, now a Strafe ambassador. What’s more, “There was less focus on cuts and designs that function well while moving. John and Pete arrived on the scene with the advent of the ski-mountaineering, backcountry boom, where movement is incredibly important.”
Though fledgling Strafe was unable to secure an exclusive-use Gore-Tex license (a blessing, it turns out), it forged deals with a lesser-known Japanese company that produced traditional membranes—layers that provide protection while managing crucial airflow—in a similar fashion. Then Polartec released stretchy, breathable, hydrophobic NeoShell; triple-layer eVent membranes followed. Today Strafe uses new-and-improved versions of both, which the team prefers over anything else—Gore-Tex included.
Details are deliberate, too. Flat zippers with smooth-pulling, chunky teeth by YKK (the Japanese manufacturer of roughly half of all the zippers in the world) are nonnegotiable. Media pockets with hidden headphone ports are ubiquitous, but Strafe’s include inner mesh sleeves to corral bouncing cell phones, plus a reinforced-webbing tab to loop around an avalanche beacon strap, should one choose to forgo the safety harness.
Hamstring vent zips are offset behind side seams, minimizing snow blow-in when open and maximizing comfort while striding. Powder skirts are constructed from a single swath of stretchy fabric coated in waterproofing spray—no cheap, easy-to-rip taffeta here—cut longer in back for a cleaner, tighter fit.
“It’s a feature people might not think about, which is a good thing,” Halloran says. “You forget about it if it feels natural.”
And that’s exactly the point: Impressive design doesn’t distract, it fades into the background of the overall experience. “None of us at Strafe take our bibs off,” John says, arguing that the Nomad’s engineered shape renders them inconspicuous. Still, in addition to a standard zip-off bib, this year Strafe introduces a permanent bib version.
For ladies, Halloran designed the new Scarlett Bib Pant with a clever halter neckline that flips forward over the head, eliminating the need to unclip shoulder straps or remove a jacket during bathroom breaks (genius!). The bestselling women’s Belle Pant is lined with Polartec Alpha fleece, originally designed for U.S. Special Forces in combat; hot-running chicks can skip long underwear and still stay cozy.
Strafe’s 2017/18 collection hints of the new frontier: pieces that transition off the hill, since that’s where most of us spend our time anyway. Jarka Duba, founder and CEO of ZG Holdings and former president of Poc USA, is a huge fan of Strafe’s new Alpha Shirt Jacket.
“It looks like a button-down, but quilted and super-thin,” he enthuses of the lightweight Polartec construction. “They took a material you’d only find in an incredibly techy jacket and made a shirt you can wear out to dinner and not feel out of place. I travel with it everywhere.”
Such designs exhibit Strafe’s unique freedom to pursue more unconventional ideas.
“Working with younger people—they’re more open to taking risk,” says Halloran, formerly a senior soft goods buyer for Aspen Skiing Company for nine years and a merchandiser at Obermeyer for almost five years after that. She joined Strafe in December 2015. “Our customers and retailer buyers haven’t put us in a box yet where they expect us to do things year after year. We’re blazing our own path.”
That path is just a chairlift ride away.
“I first encountered Strafe while hiking the Highland Bowl,” says Eric Warble, who left Oakley after nineteen years to become VP of sales and marketing in 2014. “Joining Strafe was an easy choice because of everyone’s passion for adventuring in the mountains. It’s amazing that most everyone on the team gets over 50 days on the hill.”
Strafe employees being its main product testers and more (marketing director Whit Boucher was the company’s first official athlete and ad-campaign star), it’s little surprise.
Adds Pete with a grin, “The lunchtime Bowl lap is almost a requirement.”