THE term "high fashion" has taken on a whole new meaning thanks to skiers and boarders heading up the North Shore mountains this winter.
The 2012-2013 season is off to a big start with early snowfalls blanketing Grouse, Cypress and Seymour.
Outerwear for skiers and snowboarders is always reinventing itself and styles range from bunny-hill newbie to park-rat hipster; hard-core racer to extreme backcountry rider.
Snowboard outerwear has done a complete 360 from the days of baggy clothing, says Casey Nicholson, a buyer at North Shore Ski and Board.
A look at American Olympian Shaun White - a rock star in the snowboarding world - reveals that skinny-cut pants and long slim jackets are very much on trend.
"It's not the snowboarders dressing like gangsters anymore, it's the skiers," says Nicholson, noting skiers are still leaning towards the baggy look.
Once you've decided how bold you want to go with pants, it's on to choosing the right jacket. For most people on the mountain, choosing a jacket from a ski or snowboard brand is irrelevant, says Nicholson.
On the North Shore, the most important feature is waterproofing and a powder skirt that prevents snow from coming up into the jacket on wet or snowy days. But technically sound garments don't come cheap.
A top-of-the-line women's Burton jacket costs $539, but comes with Gore-Tex, insulation, vents, detailing, a removable powder skirt and "finger panties," a glove-like layer at the end of the jacket's sleeves.
Colour-blocking and using colour pops with bright neons in details like zippers and cuffs is a popular look from the last few seasons that is still going strong. Whether considering a bright plaid or polka dot jacket, think carefully. "Patterns are hit or miss," says Nicholson.
For the non-freestyle skier, Spyder and Descente brands are still on top of the world, says Cameron Wardell of Swiss Sports Haus in West Vancouver.
Generally women prefer a tailored coat a la Helly Hansen and are looking for four-way stretch, form-fitting and waterproof pants, says Wardell.
"Women want yoga pants, except they're ski pants," says Wardell. Descente clears a $300 price point among most women who ski recreationally, says Wardell.
Freestyle skier Mike Apps, who considers himself on the frontier of slope couture, says the bright poppy look is passÃ©.
"We've gone through a transition from the colours or 'Skittles look' to more solid basic earth colours," he says.
It has been a slow progression from the baggy "gangster" outwear look but the "hesh" or "gypsy" look is gaining popularity this year, he says.
"It started off as more a mixture of tight pants, ponchos or flannels, powder beards and whatever other garbage people could mix in there," says Apps.
"Your typical Seymour skeezebag look," he says.
Freestyle riders take their outerwear looks very seriously, he adds.
"You watch the X Games and see how at many levels it's one big fashion show. Kids buy into it, they want to wear what the pros are wearing because they think it will make them ride like them," says Apps.
Whether we like it or not, fashion-related decisions label a skier or snowboarder as a weekend warrior, snow bunny or hardcore rider, he says.
"The mentality is if you dress a certain way you probably ride a certain way. So the more current with the trends you are the better you must be at skiing or snowboarding. People who don't care about their image must not be as involved with the sport and therefore are not as cool," says Apps, who admits that people go overboard.
His favorite thing to see in the terrain park is a person with non-descript style "throwing down" and going big.
"Really what you wear should have nothing to do with skill level, but everyone assumes they should go hand in hand."
Esthetics aside, developments in ski equipment are drawing people back to the sport in droves.
"The rocker has made our world so much easier," says North Shore Ski and Board owner Brett Williams.
Rocker is the curve of the ski from tip to tail which allows riders to get all the advantages of more ski without having to maneuver as much edge. This means most skiers can take on terrain and snow conditions that were historically only for the most technically apt.
Five years ago, people switching back from snowboarding were going to park skis because of the then-revolutionary twin tip. But now it's not just daredevils and punk skiers crossing over.
"Skis have changed so much and have become so much more fun to ski on that there's no reason not to," says Wardell.
"Across the board they're switching back because it's time."
A new pair of mountain skis without bindings will cost between $500 to $1,100.
Almost all of this season's skis are fat with a good tight curve radius. "It's all about fatter, fatter, fatter," says Williams.
The added surface area means some skis are featuring snowboard-inspired graphics, says Williams.
As for size, Williams says the classification "women's skis" is a misnomer. Anyone who is 140 pounds or lighter should definitely be on women's skis.
"They should call it a lighter person's ski," says Williams, although he admits some of the graphics are "a bit too flowery" for most men.
There are dozens of different factors to consider when selecting boots, but the best boot is simply the one that fits your foot, says Wardell.
K2 Skis recently came out with Full Tilt boots. They feature a floating ribbed tongue (like the flexible part of a drinking straw) instead of the usual hard plastic overlap and scream '80s.
They also come with removable covers that can give the boot different looks, such as that of a basketball shoe or a work boot.
"They just re-market with new colours and kids have been eating them up," says Apps.
For $650, Apps says "they're not worth the hype."
There is also a trend toward "slack country boots," which have a small buckle in the back that can be flipped up to hike mode, allowing the boot to pivot both ways for backcountry trekking.
Bigger skis and added rocker have opened up the backcountry to many skiers because they can ski powder more easily, which means these boots will only get more popular, says Williams.
Snowboards still employ the flying V rocker system, but the technology has not changed as drastically as with skiing. Longer, stiffer boards are better for charging big mountain while shorter, lighter boards with lots of flex are ideal for riding in the park.
The latest technical trend for snowboarders is to mount bindings on canting plates. This way, riders can mount a wide stance, but the plates allow the knees to tilt in, making it more comfortable to hold a wide, cowboy-like stance that is better for sliding rails and landing big airs.
The days of laces on snowboard boots are all but gone. Almost every boot this season has speedzone tightening systems involving either dials or quickdraws.
"No one knows how to tie a bow any more," says Williams.
Helmets are mandatory for all riders in the terrain parks at Grouse, Cypress and Seymour. Most helmets feature a small, non-detachable brim. By a landslide, the most popular helmets are Smith (for skiers) and Bern (for either), which both have toned-down, subtly peaked brims.
Trying to decide whether to put your goggles over or under? The under the helmet look will be around for at least a few more seasons, says Apps.
The trend in goggles echoes that of skis - bigger is better. Smith, Oakley and Scott all make OTG goggles with softened sides to fit over eyeglasses.
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