zai has been unaffected by the recession, with clients happy to spend from 4,000 to 9,000 on a pair of skis created with pioneering ground-breaking materials, says Josie Goodbody
A decade ago there was no real bespoke ski brand to speak of. Of course the big label ski manufacturers made skis that could cost however much one was willing to pay but in terms of buying a pair of skis that was bespoke and handcrafted the market was empty.
‘When we started zai we knew that if we wanted to succeed we needed to go very high end, make something totally different,’ says Simon Jacomet, the founder and creative director of zai. ‘Since then, there have been a lot of imitators who have attempted to copy what we do, but they don’t get there. We’re waiting for them to catch up. If they do, we have other advantages.’
At the time Jacomet was working in the development of ski manufacturing at Salomon. An artist by training and a ski teacher by profession (he was part of the Swiss national team of ski teachers) he was also already somewhat of an innovator at Salomon, working on the carving of skis, helping to pioneer this new type of ski design when it was first coming onto the market in the late 1980s. 1990s skis characteristically had parallel edges, the same width from top to bottom.
Then came the snowboard, which was able to carve easily through the snow due to the curved side rails, which made the board narrowest in the middle and the snowboard easy to turn by tilting it on its edge. The new skis followed this trait with edges of varying thickness, as with a zai ski: side on, you see a sculpted edge with a radius that changes significantly. Carving skis allow much faster turns than old style skis, because there is minimal sideways drift. (Pictured left: the zai Laisa ski.)
However, Simon was becoming disillusioned at the necessary compromising and cutting of corners involved in mass production. He wanted to be able to design a ski for performance regardless of what its final price might be.
In his hometown of Disentis, in the canton of Grison, he found the perfect place for his creations to take life: an old printing works beneath the mountains upon which he had learnt to ski as a child. Windows were enlarged to enable those who work at the company to be inspired by the mountains and work began creating the first zai ski.
SIMON CHOSE THE name ‘zai’ from the local Rhaeto-Romanic Swiss language meaning ‘tough and resilient’ and he picked his employees from the locality, not only to create employment but also to safeguard the innovative products being created. They also had the benefit of having grown up skiing the mountains around Disentis, so were experienced enough to test the skis and amend or ameliorate the designs to reflect their needs.
Ten years on and several different designs later, whose names include Spada, Laisa, Feffa, Testa and Nezza, zai has been unaffected by the recession, with clients happy to spend from 4,000 to 9,000 on a pair of skis created with Simon’s pioneering ground-breaking materials. For example the granite core unique to the Spada ski is sourced from Grison and has the same compressive strength as aluminium.
zai do more than just skis: they also produce golf equipment. The zai sabi putter (pictured left) is handmade using state-of-the art materials unique to zai. Because each putter is finished by hand, each one is unique. The innovative and lightweight material zaira, the same used in zai ski design, is used in combination with heavy brass for unprecedented peripheral weight distribution in the putter head.
The result is a very large sweet spot for higher fault tolerance in the swing. The putter can be swung steadily, perfectly balanced and in a straight line, allowing incredibly accurate putting. The unique directional form of the putter head is designed to assist in better visual alignment with the ball. Every element of the design, while visually striking, has a specific purpose.
IN 2009, HAVING thus far focused on technical advances, it was decided that zai needed to build on its reputation and brand strength towards expansion. Private equity investor Patrick Aisher, with experience of investing in small companies, had tried the skis, thought them very good and heard that they were looking for further investment.
They also needed a new sales-oriented CEO, so Benedikt Germanier, an old friend of Simon Jacomet and former ski instructor left his job at UBS and came on board, taking the sales burden off Simon who could continue the product development. Since the restructuring of the company the brand has flourished and interest in zai skis has increased globally.
In an important yet unsurprising partnership, the first zai for Bentley ski was launched in 2010, and is now in its second incarnation available in snow white or Bentley green with a striking spring steel lattice design.
In the same vein, zai benefits from ongoing collaborations with several top athletes, including Franco Cavegn (Swiss former downhill specialist with 35 top-ten World Champs finishes including 3 podium finishes, plus competed in 3 Olympics) and Antoine Dénériaz (French, Men’s Downhill Olympic Gold Medal winner, 2006). Both have zai skis named after them and designed with their input.
ZAI ALSO PRODUCES a line of ski wear and accessories. The ski clothing, Cassacca, has been created with Loro Piana, the Italian cashmere and wool clothing company, which was able to create a woollen fabric suitable for skiing – allowing freedom of movement as well as regulating body heat and moisture. Keeping with its company tradition of employing locals, elderly ladies of the town’s retirement home knit woollen ski hats.
Expect a good deal more from zai in years to come. Simon continues to innovate and experiment with new products. In the new golf division the idea is to have different weights of putter and putter designs available. A zai golf bag and other accessories such as sunglasses and ski goggles are also in development.