Col d’Lizard Keeps Winter Athletes Warm

January 11, 2011  
Filed under Business

By Stephanie Choate

As temperatures fall below freezing and snow piles up, thousands of winter enthusiasts will pull on Col d’Lizard jackets, hats and long underwear — all created by Charlotte resident Katherine Sundstrom.
Sundstrom outfits staff at several major ski resorts — including Breckenridge Ski Resort and Winter Park Resort in Colorado and Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont.

She fills online orders from across the nation, as well as Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. She ships several thousand products a month in the winter, by far her busiest season, before things taper off in the spring and summer.

“It’s like my harvest season,” she said.

Sundstrom sews everything herself in a converted barn at her home in Charlotte.

Sundstrom said she loves hearing from satisfied customers. She said she often gets letters from customers telling her how the gear helped in “perilous situations” like a biking accident. Or, just that it kept them warm.
Sundstrom said those letters give her the “warm fuzzies.”

“That’s the greatest, hearing from people who have enjoyed the thing I physically made,” she said. “You feel like you’ve made someone’s life a little nicer.”

George and Cindy Jackman of Stowe have purchased fleece pants, shirts, vests, headbands and biking jerseys from Sundstrom over the years.

“I think her products are great and her service is fabulous,” Cindy Jackman said. “If I say I need the arms two inches longer or the legs two inches shorter, she’ll do it no problem.”

Jackman said she’s been wearing Col d’Lizard gear for years, and has purchased it for other people, too.
“I go out skiing in her stuff all the time, and it’s held up really well,” she said.

Humble beginnings
Col d’Lizard started out of necessity.

Sundstrom started making clothing in Colorado as a single mother in the 1990s, looking for a way to feed her three young children after a divorce.

“That’s how the company started, out of hardship,” she said. “It’s funny and I think it’s inspirational, if life throws us weird circumstances, you can build off that.”

Sundstrom knew how to sew, from making customized outfits for her daughter’s gymnastics events. She decided to try selling her creations.

“I went way out of my comfort zone and took things around to stores to see if they wanted to buy it,” she said.
Eventually, a representative for a new children’s outerwear line, Molehill Mountain Equipment, noticed Sundstrom’s stuff in stores and asked if she wanted to join the company’s design team. Sundstrom said she worked there for four or five years.

“I learned a lot, working with them, and that’s when I decided to launch my own company,” she said. “I just thought, ‘I can do this.’”

Sundstrom launched Col d’Lizard in 1998. The business took off, and soon she was outfitting staff at major Colorado ski areas and ski schools and grossing $700,000 a year at its peak.

Since she launched Col d’Lizard, Sundstrom has made an effort to buy all of her raw materials from U.S. manufacturers and hire Americans, rather than outsourcing cheaper labor and goods.

Sundstrom said she feels very strongly about the issue, comparing outsourcing labor to prostitution.

“If you’re not going to support the community that you’re getting your income from, I have a hard time with that,” she said. “I always thought, how can I look at these women who work for me and say, ‘I don’t care about your family, I’m going to lay you off and get super cheap labor?’”

Eventually, Sundstrom got so busy that she felt she needed a change. She said she was constantly working and never got to do much else.

“I thought, ‘This is crazy, I’m not living,’” she said.

In 2004, she decided to move to Vermont, and opened a store in Stowe.

“I just loved everything that was Vermont,” she said. “It’s very wholesome and has a lot of really strong people …. I loved that spirit, that pioneer type spirit.”

She moved to Charlotte in the summer of 2009, after meeting now-fiancée Christopher Solbert.

Now, Sundstrom makes everything herself.

“I’m pretty much reduced to a one-man show,” she said. “I basically have come full circle, back to where I started.”

She still produces a lot of gear, though. Sundstrom said she can make a fleece jacket in about 20 minutes, and a hat in five.

She doesn’t mind slowing the business down. Now that all of her kids are out of the house, Sundstrom said she just wants to focus on her “quality of life.”

“I feel like I accomplished what I wanted at the beginning, which was to support my children,” she said. “It’s served its purpose and it’s a great achievement, but now I’m sort of on the downside.”

For the first time, Sundstrom said she has begun turning down some large orders from longtime customers, which she said was difficult.

Though she still wants to continue to produce quality products and maintain the business, she said her focus these days is “less on business, more on personal.”

 

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