Stephen Sullivan co-founded Cloudveil back in 1997, and for 13 years helped grow the climbing and skiing apparel company from a back-of-napkin sketch into a global brand with distribution in 40 countries.
As part of that growth, Cloudveil went through a series of ownership changes, first to Sport Brands International (the parent company of FILA) and later to Spyder. Sullivan stayed on at the helm, trying to buy the brand back but Spyder sold Cloudveil to a private equity group in 2010, and now he’s starting over with a brand new company.
With his 18-month non-compete clause satisfied, Sullivan recently announced the launch of “Stio,” a technical and lifestyle mountain apparel brand debuting this fall. Don’t expect to see the product show up at your local gear shop anytime soon, though. While Cloudveil sold through as many as 500 domestic specialty outdoor retailers, Stio will sell through just one brick-and-mortar shop to start—its own flagship store in Jackson, WY—and will primarily pursue a consumer-direct e-commerce and catalog strategy.
We caught up with Sullivan to find out more about the new venture.
Let’s start with the name—what does “Stio” mean?
We’re not going to reveal the exact nature of the name right away. We’re probably going to run a Facebook contest for people to figure it out. Naming a brand is a super challenging endeavor. I went though the litany of names, starting with a list of 500 that got whittled down to 100, and started looking into domains and trademarks.
Cloudveil was named after a peak in the Tetons. It’s part of the grand traverse and is a really great name. One of the nice things about the name Stio is that it would be good for a bike line, or a car, or new modern kitchenware product. I liked having a name we can build meaning around, without any preconceptions.
Why go direct-to-consumer instead of through traditional outdoor retailers?
I have multiple answers to that. The first answer is that I see it as the wave of the future. I see more and more companies doing branded retail stores, and also sales through their own websites. Patagonia, for example, has dozens of their own retail locations now, plus they have a very healthy direct-to-consumer business
The second part is the sheer complexity of having a wholesale business. You have to have sales reps, host annual sales meetings, build tradeshow booths. Quite honestly I’m not interested in being on an airplane 200,000 miles a year again. Principally, I just grew weary of not being able to put out product that I thought was cool, that people were buying, but that retailers weren’t interested in.
One of our challenges in competing in this sea of wholesale giants—The North Face, Patagonia, Columbia, etc—is that it’s really hard to translate a brand’s story in every retail location. We spent an inordinate amount of money at Cloudveil attempting to do that, and with Stio we want to be able to control the brand experience from soup to nuts.
Is this an indictment against outdoor gear retailers?
Not an indictment at all, but the 80/20 rule definitely applies—20 percent of the retailers are really, really good, and I would consider having a relationship again. The others, they’re okay, they’re keeping their businesses alive, but I don’t think we are going to head down that road again, unless it is in a location that we’d never contemplate opening our own retail.
We had strong directtoconsumer sales at Cloudveil and always found that the most interesting products and colors succeeded in this channel—products that we had a hell of a time selling into retail. There were a couple that became iconic products for the brand, but that we could not sell to stores. Say we’d sell 500 units to retailers, but 3,000 direct to consumers.
Understanding that the new line has yet to be revealed, can you give us an overview of what sort of product to expect?
We’re going to cover a lot of bases. We’ll have everything from branded T’s and hoodies to waterproof/breathable jackets—basically all the things you need to live in the mountain environment. Importantly, the line is not just for the most extreme skier or ice climber, but anyone living in a mountain environment. We’ll have high-end outerwear styles that are very well crafted with a little element of fashion.
In your original press release, you referenced the term “mountain maturity”—what does that mean?
Mountain maturity revolves around the idea that people are getting tired of the aspiration overload going on. If you took the logo off of three-quarters of outdoor apparel websites, you couldn’t tell the difference [between the brands based] on product alone, they are all trying to pitch the same story. What we’re trying to do is provide a completely fresh design ethos and aesthetic. We’ve got a line of products that you’ll feel just as comfortable putting on and walking into the nicest restaurant in any city or mountain town as you would leaving in the back of your truck if you’re going up to ski in the afternoon.
Our products will be beautifully constructed with technical textiles. The short and simple version: it’s where technical fabrics meet lifestyle. I’ve looked very hard at what a number of urban “outdoor” brands are doing, and how they’re applying technical fabrics to the urban market. We will bring an outdoor/mountain ethos to this.
Speaking of the urban market, we recently praised Mission Workshop for its new Arkiv Field Pack, but panned their $700 Eiger jacket, which uses Schoeller technical fabrics and is stylish and all, but who’s going to spend $700 on a jacket?
You’d be shocked. I’ve seen that jacket, and it’s a cool jacket, and maybe it is kind of hard to figure out who it’s for, but there is a customer. Some of this type of urban stuff is not what I’d consider mountain outerwear, but it does have a place. The biggest thing for us is that we live in Jackson, so we come from a mountain perspective. It has to have a functional ethos to make the grade in our environment.
What about price?
I like nice stuff. Our MSRPs will be on the high side, we are not trying to be a price-point brand. We’re a premium brand, with beautiful textiles, great construction quality, superb fit and finish.
Can you be any more specific about products?
The line is really small to start—we’ll have about 40 styles, and a bunch of accessories. We have a really funky new fleece called the Basis that’s a whole different way to look at base layers. We’ve got some down and some softshell—we’ve tried to cover a lot of bases. There’s definitely a bit of mountain fashion. There’s a jacket in the line I could wear on the burliest day in Jackson in the winter, but also to dinner.