On the face of it, Salomon shouldn’t be cool. Founded in 1947 in Annecy, France – a lakeside Alpine town of canals and peach-colored palaces – the engineering-led brand first made skiing equipment and then skiwear and clothing, branching out into shoes in the early nineties. With its hard-wearing sneakers a firm favorite with trail runners, Salomon has always been built around function rather than fashion.
But in the past five years, Salomon sneakers have been worn by Kanye West and Rihanna, and hyped by streetwear blogs from Highsnobiety to Hypebeast while collaborating with brands from Tokyo-based And Wander to London’s Palace Skateboards. Despite being part of Chinese-owned sporting-goods giant Amer, Salomon is as popular with stylists and sneakerheads as it is with Nordic skiers and Alpine trail runners. Its journey is a masterclass in finding a new audience while staying true to a brand’s core.
The Salomon story is really one about engineering, innovation and smart pivots, stretching back to before the second world war, when François Salomon made saw blades in a little home workshop. After the war, when the newly liberated tourists started returning to the mountains to ski, François saw an opportunity to adapt his skills to ski edges, or carres, which allow skis to turn sharply. But it was his son, Georges, who really took the business forward. Having studied engineering at night school, Georges’ first big idea was to build a machine to manufacture the edges, allowing him and his father to focus on developing ski equipment instead.
Georges came up with two game-changing ideas in the fifties, when skiers still used fixed leather straps as bindings, often resulting in broken bones as legs twisted with jammed skis. The first was a releasable ‘Skade’ binding, which attached to the toe-end of a boot; the second was a system he called ‘Le lift’, which allowed the bindings to release on heavy impact. Initially advertised as ‘Your guardian angel’, it eliminated a very literal pain point. Today’s ski bindings are still made with the same basic design.
By 1972, Salomon was the world’s number-one binding brand, making 1 million of them a year. It branched into ski boots in 1979, with the forward-flexing SX91 in 1984 considered the most influential ski boot of all time. In the nineties, Salomon began making snowboards, skis, and Alpine hiking shoes, while Georges’ obsession with innovation saw him buy US golf manufacturer TaylorMade, whose founder Gary Adams had designed the world’s first metal driver.
Salomon was bought by Adidas in 1997 and then sold to Chinese sportswear giant Amer Sports in 2005 when Adidas moved out of ski equipment and clothing. By then, Salomon was just as well known for its shoes, worn by the likes of trail-running champion Kilian Jornet Burgada, whose fastest-ever ascents of mountains including Everest, Matterhorn and Mont Blanc have brought the sport to wider prominence. More than 1 million pairs of the Speedcross shoe he wore are sold in Europe each year.
A move into fashion
Until 2015, the worlds of Salomon and fashion had never collided. The bright-neon colorways were designed solely for high visibility on extreme hikes and runs. But the story goes that a single customer walked into The Broken Arm, an influential Paris streetwear store, asking for a pair of Salomon Snowcross boots – which look like avant-garde aqua socks, albeit designed for trail-running in the snow rather than strutting the streets. Soon, Salomon and The Broken Arm were working on a collaboration: the same core design as the Snowcross, but with a new outer sole and a sharp grey, green and tangerine colorway.
‘It was a game-changing moment, but it was all very organic,’ says Salomon’s global brand specialist Alex van Oostrum. ‘It was about them buying into not just the heritage of the brand, but the technical aspects of the shoe.’
A series of seemingly surprising collaborations have followed, starting in early 2016 with German menswear designer Boris Bidjan Saberi, known for his use of technical materials, who redesigned the iconic Speedcross 3 trail-running shoe in all-black and all-white. With a growing demand for lifestyle-focused shoes, that same year Jean-Philippe Lalonde joined from Veilance, the fashion-forward arm of Canadian outdoor brand Arc’teryx. His brief was to start a new Sportstyle division at Salomon, fusing street style with performance, which started off with three employees and a blank slate.
The Advanced program that Jean-Philippe subsequently created largely kept the core shoe designs the same, but added bold colorways and design features. The Sportstyle team have grown to 12, but it remains a tiny portion of Salomon’s product range, which still covers the gamut of gear for running, hiking, snowboarding and skiing. But this lifestyle arm is the fastest-growing part of the business, according to Alex, giving it an outsized impact on perception of the brand.
In 2018, Salomon had a showroom at Paris Men’s Fashion Week, which felt like a coronation. Now, it is entrenched in the fashion world, with recent collabs including adapting the low-profile RX Slide 3.0 recovery sneaker into a Mary Jane mule for Comme des Garçons, whose founder Rei Kawakubo is a long-time fan of the brand.
From trail run to catwalk
Five key learnings taken from Salomon’s move into fashion.
Time the trends. Salomon has been at the forefront of a trend for techwear or gorpcore (a name taken from ‘good ‘ol raisins and peanuts’, a hiking term for trail mix), which has included brands like Marmot, On and Hoka One One. ‘There’s been a growing interest in really functional, really technical sneakers,’ says Fabian Gorsler, sportswear editor at Berlin-based Highsnobiety. ‘We don’t see that going away. In fact, after Covid, there’s more of a desire than ever to be outside and free, and for really functional products. The big thing about all Salomon’s products is that they really do what they’re supposed to do. They just work.’
But don’t follow them. Part of Salomon’s appeal is its authenticity. Alex says that Salomon’s Sportstyle sneakers are made with exactly the same commitment to performance as the rest of the range. Most collaborations are based on existing core designs, such as the recent white version of the classic Ultra trail-running shoe with Japanese streetwear minimalist Fumito Ganryu. ‘We’re never straying too far from the core of the brand, which is about product technology,’ he says. ‘Even in the city, people want functional designs that protect them and keep them comfortable.’
Collaborate smartly. Alex says that many brands now want to collaborate with Salomon, but it will only do so when it ‘feels organic’. That doesn’t mean playing it safe, though, as seen with the brand's collaboration with London-based Palace Skateboards. ‘Those are two worlds that might not have collided,’ says Alex. ‘Its audience is younger and more street-focused, whereas ours is older and more outdoorsy. But it felt right and has allowed us to grow our customer base.’ Jean-Philippe has said that collaborations have helped expand Salomon’s design toolbox, too: for example, Japanese streetwear brand And Wander encouraged Salomon designers to use reflective surfaces for the first time.
Always feed back to the brand. At the Salomon office in Annecy, there’s a quote from Georges Salomon above reception that reads: ‘I’m fascinated by what I’ll do tomorrow.’ Teams in Annecy constantly work on solving design problems, building prototypes of everything from Nordic ski poles to trail-running vests – which has fed into the Sportstyle division. ‘This idea that we can be innovative in a street-style space works because that sense of innovation has always been true to the brand,’ says Alex.
Work the archives. Salomon has recently started repurposing old designs for a new market, including a 2020 version of the 2001 XA-Pro in collaboration with Organiclab.zip, an Instagram account focusing on classic outdoor wear. The brand is set to re-issue three classic models as part of its latest collaboration with The Broken Arm. And there are plans to release more classic designs next year when Salomon celebrates 30 years since it first made shoes, initially to compete in the 1,000km Raid Gauloises ultramarathon. ‘Our heritage is such a big part of what we do and why we appeal to people,’ says Alex. ‘It makes sense to us that looking forwards means looking backwards, too.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.