In 2007, Mike Collins was a ski bum living in a shack in Colorado, chasing powder. Sometimes that meant long hikes hauling his skis. To get them off his back Mike rigged some webbing into a carrying system, which he was wearing when he met a group of telemark skiers who wondered if he’d bought it.
Mike grew up in East Tennessee, skiing whatever and whenever he could. He left a corporate job after investors pulled funding from a program he was working on, ending his position and those of all the people he’d recently asked to relocate for the company. Jaded, he moved to Colorado, bought a shack, quit cutting his hair and started living on his savings, spending less than $600 a month.
“That’s how I was going to live until those telemarkers said ‘did you buy that or did you make that,’ and that changed everything,” he said.
That was the start of Freeride Systems, a company that would become known for its technical jackets. Mike bought a plastic sewing machine at Target and started selling his carrying device on ski forums and through classified ads.
It wasn’t long before he started getting calls from people who wanted to support him but didn’t need the carrying system.
One of the people Mike hired to help him sew webbing could also sew garments. So Mike designed a jacket with all the features he wished his technical gear provided.
Freeride jackets have a hood that can cover a helmet. They have zippers a gloved hand can move and a neck collar that zips all the way up to the face, and can be cinched to fit anyone’s head. Mike’s design also features breathable fabrics and a three-way venting system.
“There’s not one thing in the jacket that is there randomly,” he said.
They made a pile of the jackets and they sold out.
Soon, local plow and bus drivers and search and rescue teams were wearing the jackets.
Mike reinvested the revenue from his sales into the company, so that each year he could make a better jacket. Three years ago he used a seam tape machine so old it involved hand ironing on the jacket. But his approach means he doesn’t owe on any loans, and there are no investors to whom Mike has to answer.
In 2013 ABC sent out a request for a USA made, technical jacket for its staff.
“We rolled in with long hair in pony tales, unshaven,” he said.
While other companies made formal presentations with glossy catalogues, Mike had only a few samples.
“I said ‘Look, we live in the mountains. We make really good garments. Here are samples,’” he said.
The pitch worked and Freeride won the contract. Mike used money from that big sale to buy better seam taping machines.
Unlike other clothing companies, you won’t find Freeride jackets at the big shows, or their gear on clearance as the season changes.
“I wouldn’t say we’re anti-industry, but we don’t embrace the cycles big industry puts out there,” he said. “If we have a jacket that didn’t sell all the way through, it’s going to be for sale next year.”
The company doesn’t make many products. Mike has been working on pants for about three years and thinks he’ll start selling a pair next year, to go with the company’s three styles of jackets
And while big companies are focused on how many jackets they sell, Mike is more interested in who wears them. Recently, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center adopted Freeride jackets for its forecasters to wear in the field.
“That,” Mike said, “is an even bigger deal to us than ABC.”