Mountainwear brand Amundsen Sports is hitting the heights with performance technology – and a hot take on the knickerbocker. We head into the hills with them.
Our first hike of the trip came sooner than expected. It involved not mountains or glaciers but sidestepping children and ducking under street signs as we made our way – first strolling, then sprinting – from a boot factory in the northern Italian town of Montebelluna to the train station. As we leapt onto the train, sweaty and breathless, two pairs of weighty wooden skis (belonging to our companions) were thrust into our hands by a stern-looking train attendant. Jørgen Amundsen, founder of the Norwegian outdoor-clothing label Amundsen Sports (AS) and mastermind of this adventure, grinned. “Aren’t you happy you decided to come along?”
Every year Amundsen, his business partner and childhood friend Erik Friis, and several members of their tight-knit team embark on an exotic field trip to test the products in their new collection. It seems to be working: the brand, which Amundsen founded in 2010, is carving out a reputation as a cool, fashionable standout in the saturated outdoor market, picking up blue-chip stockists across Scandinavia, central Europe and the US.
Last year the gang went horse-riding across Inner Mongolia, sleeping in yurts and knocking back milk vodka with herders. This time they are making their way (mostly) on foot from Montebelluna back to their home, Oslo. Montebelluna, a town with a rich history of manufacturing high-performance shoes, is the starting point because one of its factories has made a hiking boot – or “muck” – for AS’s new collection. The guys are picking up the mucks and wearing them – as well as knickerbockers, shorts and anoraks – throughout their two-week jaunt, in which they will cover some 2,500km, scale the Dolomites and cross the borders of Italy, Austria, Germany and Denmark. Mercifully, monocle is only tagging along for the first two days.
We are a band of six. As well as Amundsen and Friis there are AS’s young bucks Trygve Markset (head of marketing) and Jens Christian Løvenskiold (head of US operations), and Fabio Deon, a veteran Montebelluna shoe-designer with whom they collaborated on the muck. With their backwards caps and untucked flannel shirts, the Norwegians are rock-star mountaineers. (“Wow, they look like surfers,” whispers one worker at the boot factory.)
Everyone is less impressed by the look of your writer, however. Deon, a larger-than-life Italian, is particularly concerned. “What are these trousers?” he says, gesturing at the slim-cut chinos that had looked just the thing in the Shoreditch boutique but do not have an ounce of functional merit. A handsome yet impractical backpack does little to appease him. “That is for hiking in London, not in the Dolomites. I will bring you something else to use instead,” he says. Later he hands over a rucksack that is waterproof and far more sensible.
Beyond being a shot in the arm for your writer, this adventure says a lot about Amundsen and his brand. “The most important reason for the trip is that we enjoy the outdoors. That is why we are in this business,” says Amundsen, as our train rattles past alpine villages on its way into the Dolomites.
Another key thrust of the adventure is to test the brand’s kit in real time. Many companies have advanced methods for trialling products: Gore has rain towers around the world; Toray, the Japanese textile giant, has a weather room that simulates rain, snow and humidity. But it’s tough to beat going back to basics, heading into nature armed with the new collection and a pair of scissors. “We make adjustments during the trip: in Mongolia, we added buttons to the knickerbockers above the knee so that we could fix them higher when it got hot,” says Amundsen, who has a Brad Pitt jawline and a calm aura. “It’s hard to make smart clothes if you aren’t going outdoors yourselves.”
The trained industrial designer looks perfectly at home as we begin our trek into the mountains. Sporting stretch-linen knickerbockers and a 30kg backpack, he carves us a walking stick from a branch and ushers us around tree wells and avalanche debris. Being outside runs in his blood. His great-grandfather’s cousin was the famous explorer Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 led the first successful expedition to the South Pole.
Jørgen grew up hiking and cross-country skiing in the forests surrounding Oslo and was captivated by his grandfather’s tales of Roald’s exploits. “Our brand is inspired by Roald’s philosophy,” says Amundsen. “He always tried to learn from the best: he went to live with the Inuits [in northern Canada] to see how they survived in the harshest environment.”
Amundsen, then, looks not to his competitors but to historical experts for cues as to what works best in the wild. AS’s muck is inspired by the Inuits’ footwear-layering system: there is a soft woollen inside-layer that encases the foot, preventing it from rubbing on the leather shell (it can also be removed and worn indoors, like a slipper).
The brand’s most distinctive offering, the knickerbocker, nods to Roald’s outfits. “All the mountain men used to wear knickerbockers because they are adaptable: they can be attached to gaiters, so your legs are covered, or pulled up when you’re indoors.” Amundsen has updated these quirky three-quarter trousers by rendering them in lightweight Swiss fabrics or hardy Austrian loden. “We are the only brand to make technical knickerbockers.”
The most valuable lesson Amundsen has borrowed from Roald and the Inuits is “don’t over-engineer things”. “You don’t need super-technical items designed for specific occasions, like a ‘Big Mountain’ jacket made from a special material. Simple fabrics and designs can work well.”
This helps explain why AS is resonating with young style-conscious men and women (the average customer is aged 30). These are functional clothes – made in Europe from breathable, durable wools and cottons – but their coolly understated designs make them covetable irrespective of their functionality. A corduroy overshirt with a fluffy arm-panel to attach fly-fishing hooks to appeals whether or not a customer has the blindest intention of fishing; a fisherman-style anorak is desirable whether one is trekking, camping or walking across town. “Style is super important to us,” says Amundsen. “If you want to make something for people to wear for all outdoor occasions, not one specific activity, it needs to look good.”
Our hike – all two days of it – is not without its mishaps. Fabio disappears for an hour, stuck in deep snow. The blueberries in Friis’s backpack stain his knickerbockers purple (“We’ve found our colourway for next season,” says Amundsen, grinning). At one point, monocle pauses to comment on the beauty of a mass of snowy boulders above us. “That is the result of an avalanche. We should move past this area efficiently,” says Amundsen, deadpan. This writer has never moved so efficiently in his life.
Yet there is an ease to proceedings. Routes are planned on the fly; Amundsen and Friis take smoking breaks. At lunch we drink red wine and pour bacon fat over vegetables. It is all refreshingly unvirtuous. This is an intrinsically Norwegian trait. “There is a Norwegian word – friluftsliv – that describes our outdoor lifestyle. It’s a philosophy. There’s debate about what it means but it’s basically about enjoying the outdoors, having some wine, and not treating adventures as a competition,” says Amundsen. “It means being peaceful and away from noise,” adds Friis. Whatever its exactitudes, you very much want to buy into this life they are living.
Indeed, the expedition reveals Amundsen’s talent as a master marketer. Before AS he started a watch company – the first in Norway – called Amundsen Oslo, which achieved international success. (He sold it in 2007 and used the money to start AS.) With both ventures he has shown a deft touch at creating not only desirable products but also a desirable brand that embodies a real and joyful sense of adventure.
He has built up AS by weaving a striking – and genuine – story about how it draws on the expertise of Roald Amundsen and the Inuits. Increasingly shoppers want to buy into brands’ stories – and AS’s is far more compelling than most. The expedition – which will be broadcast on its slick website and Instagram feed, and will include shots of everything from scaling mountains to smoking cigarettes – plays a pivotal role here. “If people see us wearing the gear ourselves they trust us. It gives the brand authenticity and it provides a more personal connection than if you just show brand ambassadors in your clothes.”
AS is growing fast (it’s valued at €5.3m and this year’s turnover is expected to be up by more than 50 per cent on last year), especially in the US, but its biggest market is still Norway. Operating a brand in the Nordic nation has perks and pitfalls. “In Norway people will spend money if they see something they are enthusiastic about, so there is a market for high-quality products,” says Amundsen. But while the country has upmarket shops such as Anton Sport, it lacks the luxury sports boutiques found in ski-towns in the US or central Europe, such as Austria’s Strolz. These, increasingly, are AS’s target.
That said, Amundsen is careful about expanding too quickly. His and Friis’s families own 75 per cent of the business (the rest is owned by employees and external investors) and they plan to keep it that way. Last year they declined a big US sportswear chain’s request to stock their products. “It would have been good short-term but it wouldn’t have been right for our image and we want to grow at a rate we can handle,” he says. “We don’t want to take huge risks because we want to keep control over our company.”
We are perched on a makeshift icy bench in the shadow of the Gruppo di Fanis peak. Beside us, Markset, wearing an AS T-shirt decorated with a cheeky illustration bearing a resemblance to Edmund Hillary, boils snow to make water and pours it over a state-of-the-art Japanese filter-coffee contraption. It’s the epitome of style in the wild.
To make its boots, AS called on one of Italy’s best shoemakers: Monte Sport. The Montebelluna factory is run by five women: the Torresan sisters and their cousins, the Pincin sisters. The women took over the business from their fathers in 2011. “Our company was born in 1985, specialising in track, hunting and hiking shoes,” says Annarosa Torresan. “But now we also do fashion shoes for brands like Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Hermès.” Monte Sport is one of the few companies here to make every element of its shoes in Italy, and the only one run by women. “It is beautiful – the five of us working together,” says Torresan.