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Anything but a downwards slope: Kingswood Ski talk 16 years in business, their design process, and more

After more than 15 years in business, enduring a recession, the Christchurch earthquakes, and more, Lyttleton's Kingswood Ski is going strong and retaining its tried-and-true design methods to create skis that are durable enough to keep up with New Zealand's rocky terrains. Ahead of a collaboration with Veuve Clicquot, co-founders Alex and Kris Herbert talk the company's journey, design processes and more. 

Down in the snowy South, Kingswood Skis is a boutique, hand-made ski maker based in Lyttleton. Founded in 2005 by Kris and Alex Herbert, the business has made a name for itself globally for their handmade skis that are extremely durable, particularly on New Zealand's rugged terrains. 

Each pair is made to order and handmade by Alex Herbert (a former Freeride World Tour skier) in their local workshop, using an old-school design ethos and bold graphic prints.

Despite technological advances made over the past decade or two, the skis' design process and materials used have remained a constant, with bamboo core, some fibreglass, carbon composites and European super-alloy metal, Titanal being used. Pricing has also remained similar – around $1200 for a handmade pair, which isn't too far off the prices of other top ski brands like Völkl, Fischer and Atomic.

And for this year's winter festival, the workshop has teamed up with champagne house Veuve Clicquot to release a limited-edition ski in a colourful print – with just 10 of the exclusive design being made by Herbert.


 

Below, Kris and Alex Herbert have a chat with Idealog about Kingswood Ski's design processes, what's changed over the last 10 years in business, and more.

Where did the idea for Kingswood Ski come from? 
 
The twinkle of Kingswood started back in the 90s. Alex had landed in New Zealand (and married me) in 1997 after 14-back-to-back winters – or seven years of chasing winter. He had survived those ski bum years by working as a ski repair tech (so he could work at night and ski by day). In 1999, he started his own repair workshop, a tiny back-alley business in central Christchurch called the Ski & Board Surgery. Ski shapes were going through a dramatic change at that time. Fat skis, inspired by snowboards, were changing the way skiers consumed powder. Alex was all about powder skiing and was frustrated that these new fat skis were slow to arrive in New Zealand. So he took matters into his own hands. He cut his favourite (and only) pair of skis up into 86 pieces (we have a photo of this) and starting analysing their construction. He knew good skis from bad skis after all those years at the repair bench. And so he set out to make himself a pair of super-tough fat skis. The first pair was pressed between to pieces of rolled steel clamped down by car jacks. But they worked. And then, of course, everybody wanted a pair. We still aim to make the best skis possible – and that’s why the collaboration with Veuve felt like a natural fit – great skis, great champagne – a perfect way to celebrate our favourite season.
 

 
How are New Zealand's ski fields unique to others around the world?
 
New Zealand ski fields are unique because they’re mostly above the tree-line and covered in super-sharp rocks (often without a huge amount of snow cover). Of course, New Zealand is also home to non-profit, club-run fields, where nutcrackers and rope tows give keen beans access to ungroomed terrain. We haven’t come across anything like this anywhere else in the world.


How does Kingswood Ski design its products to cater to this unique terrain? 

We make our skis extra tough to survive rock damage and to be repairable. This means thicker edges and thicker bases. We still run the Ski & Snowboard Surgery and Alex is still known as THE guy to fix major rock damage. So we can see first hand how our skis compare to others when smashed against a rock (ours win). 
 
Can you describe the design process you go through to create each pair of skis? 
 
Each ski is custom made and hand-crafted by Alex. We have a range of shapes and lengths that we start from, but Alex adjusts different parts of the construction to match the person’s size and skiing style. The basic shapes are constantly adjusted as Alex continues his search for the perfect ski design. One interesting note is that Alex is dyslexic and sort of struggles with numbers so he designs by sight. He sits with a CAD specialist and says “a little bit more in there, a little bit more out there” and then gets the shape printed out in cardboard so he can bring it back to the factory, stand where the binding goes and see how he likes it. Of course, he takes on-mountain testing very seriously, too, since that’s definitely the best part of the job! 
 
How has this process been refined since you founded the business? 
 
It’s tricky actually because there are so many factors, including the sometimes large differences in people’s skiing style that can effect a ski’s performance. By now, it’s really built into Alex’s head and based on 16 years of building skis and from the feedback we get.


 
Is there any new technology available now that makes this easier/changes the way you do things? 
 
We’re pretty old school – preferring the classic construction techniques to anything new fangled. Most of our factory equipment has been custom built in New Zealand since we couldn’t afford the kind of equipment that large manufacturers use. Alex is so analogue that his records are all kept in a 1980s ledger that he found in an opshop. It was lucky that we managed to rescue it from our building after the earthquakes. (We had to rebuild the commercial Lyttelton building that we live and work in…that’s another story.)
 


What inspires the choice of each of the different materials sourced from around the world?
 
We just buy the best stuff we can get our hands on. We only make 80 pairs per year so spending a bit more per ski is ok. Also, there is no bean counter at Kingswood – just two creative types determined to make a business out of what we do.
 
How much demand is there for your products? Do you have global customers outside of NZ?
 
When we started, we exported more than we sold locally. We were one of a handful of boutique manufacturers around the world and we had pioneered bamboo cores for skis, so there was amazing demand from early adopters looking for the new and different. Now, there are literally thousands of boutique manufacturers so we don’t stand out as much for being different. Hopefully we still stand out for quality, which is why we have lots of repeat customers.

 
What's next on the horizon for Kingswood Ski?
 
We have never put growth on our agenda. We question the sustainability of a system that relies on constant growth. We are in it for the lifestyle more than anything – endless growth sounds like hard work. So we are just aiming to keep the ship sailing along and keep improving our product as well as continue building relationships with our awesome customers. I think as a brand, we are starting to find our voice a bit more – maybe that comes with age, like a cantankerous old man. Last year we did a topsheet series that was designed to get people talking about issues that affect the planet. And just this week, we launched the Shameless beanie, a bit of a poke at WORLD’s Bangladeshi-made tees. 



Our 10-year-old son has just started saying he’s going to take over the business when he grows up, so maybe that’s the future of Kingswood. He’s a lot like his dad – a dyslexic brain that loves making things and hates numbers. He told us this morning that he would also like to start a Kingswood eco-friendly ski field and that in the lodge he would build a “very small museum about the founder of Kingswood Skis.” We all had a good laugh at that one. Could happen.

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