How La Sportiva Is Navigating Climbing's Rapid Growth

From the feet of Alex Honnold to apparel on the day-pass wielding newbie, the Italian brand takes a head-to-toe approach

How La Sportiva Is Navigating Climbing's Rapid Growth

Author

Matt Stieb

00
photography courtesy Boone + Bailey Speed

Matt Stieb is a Brooklyn-based writer, climber, photographer, and associate editor at New York Magazine.

It’s 6:50 a.m. in Estes Park, Colorado, the mountain-town gateway to some of the premier climbing spots in North America. Classic granite at 7,522 feet, calling to be climbed—except, it’s raining. I’m with La Sportiva’s Marketing Director Jonathan Degenhardt in a condo parking lot when we make the call. Pear Buttress, the five-pitch beauty just a few miles outside of Estes, is out. Movement Climbing + Fitness Boulder is in. So we load into La Sportiva’s minivan, a chaos of sticky rubber and bright, Euro-colored climbing apparel, and head out.

Considering La Sportiva’s recent growth, perhaps a gym was more appropriate anyway. In the past five years, as indoor climbing has blown the sport from an alpine specialty to a city phenom, the Italian cobblers have enjoyed wild growth as part of the popularity spike. As a privately owned company, Sportiva doesn’t publish their sales figures, although they will admit to a majority of rock shoe sales on the continent. So, for all the shoes worn on the bouldering mat in Queens, Toronto, or Monterrey, at least half of them will hail from Sportiva HQ in the Italian Dolomites (yes, they actually manufacture in Italy, and have since the brand's start in 1928).

Ogling the Instagram feeds of the world’s big wall climbers, you might notice La Sportiva on a majority of their feet, too. Though the company takes great strides to make an intro kick that’s as comfortable as it is functional, hooking climbers from their first day-pass. “What we want to do is to give someone the best experience we can in their first days, their first experience climbing,” says Degenhardt. “The big thing for that is, if your feet hurt, no matter what thing you're doing, it sucks. I don't care if you're playing hockey, or hiking, or running or rock climbing, if your feet are in pain, that sport, that activity is the worst thing you've ever done.”

La-Sportiva-Climbing-Adam-Ondra-3
00
Czech pro climber Adam Ondra inside the La Sportiva Innovation Center

For the day-one climber, that means a fairly flat shoe that teaches the early footwork of the sport--fat toeholds, wholesale smearing, maybe some heel work. As the grades get harder, climbers need a more aggressive shoe for edging on hairy little holds. “As you evolve in your rock climbing, suddenly we’ve got more tools for you,” says Degenhardt. “We have 20-whatever different pairs of rock climbing shoes, they're all different, and they're all intended to be different. Climbing at a high level is when you need the most confidence in your footwork, so we make our shoes to a climber’s demand. Alex Honnold is going to wear something different than Tommy Caldwell, different from Margo Hayes.”

La Sportiva has been working in rubber and leather since 1928, when founder Narciso Delladio made boots for his mom to travel from valley to idyllic valley in the Dolomites. But climbing shoes have been the company’s focus since the 1980s. (A purple-and-gold hightop, appropriate on the Masters of Stone or the Showtime Lakers, was the highlight of the era.) Looking around the gym in Boulder, the Crayola palette of the shoemakers seems to be on every other foot in the house. Less common, however, is Sportiva apparel. The alpine logo shows up on a few pairs of climbing pants in the top-rope area, but mostly it’s a sanctuary of denim. It appears that La Sportiva’s next great challenge is from the ankle-up.

In 2013, La Sportiva entered the soft goods market with mountaineering apparel—a move nicely timed with the rise of gym climbing. Puffies, hoodies, and rainproof shells have performed well so far, the kind of insulation gear that can be balled up in a crag bag to throw on if the weather turns. “The climbing bottoms do really well, too,” says Degenhardt, “'cause there's not too many great climbing shorts or pants on the market.”

Marketing to indoor scramblers and outdoor specialists, the aspirational shot has inspired generations of climbers to tie in, chalk up, and buy stuff. From Jordans to Vans to claw-shaped Sportivas, that strategy isn’t going anywhere. “We're the only shoe to have climbed the Dawn Wall,” says Degenhardt. “The three individuals who free'd those moves all did it with our product.” That’s Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in 2015, and Adam Ondra, briskly, in 2016. Degenhardt says that the Caldwell/Jorgeson first free ascent garnered 2 billion media impressions. The Freerider free-solo by Alex Honnold, also in Sportivas, garnered 4.75 billion impressions, something in the ballpark of a World Series game. Whether or not gym climbers intend to actually go outside--or like me, a climber whose annual trips to the crag can be counted on two hands--the aspirational shot will continue to sell shoes indoors.

"We don't have any anxiety about bubbles at this point. We've weathered downturns, depressions, and a World War.” -

To the chagrin of some oldtimers, La Sportiva began running ads in 2015 featuring climbers in the gym. Paige Claassen, who’s sent 5.14c (read: gnarly) routes in Colorado and Oregon, found herself at Movement Boulder, repping the gear indoors. For Spring 2018, the Italians will release their first gym-designed collection. “In some ways it almost looks like more traditional athletic-wear, almost yoga-styling,” says Degenhardt.

After the climb we head to La Sportiva’s North American base, a warehouse about a mile from Google’s new campus in Boulder. A few years back, the company shared the space with an admirably dirtbaggish crew of parkour athletes. As Sportiva reps talked sales figures and recruited climbers to their team, the parkour kids hung laundry, shirtless, just outside the window.

Parkour has come and gone, the gym is closed, and Sportiva took over their lease, with an expanse of boxes of pants and fleece headed to retailers on the continent. I ask Degenhardt if he was concerned about a similar pop of the bubble for climbing gyms. Could such untethered growth continue? “In a lot of ways, gyms have built the market, which is pretty awesome,” he says. “They used to say, ‘Oh, we've got a lot of climbers in Boulder, let's make a climbing gym.’ Or Seattle or Salt Lake or wherever. Now what people are saying, ‘This is a metropolitan area. We have the potential to create a lot of climbers. Let's build a gym here.’ We don't have any anxiety about bubbles at this point, 'cause we've been doing this a long time. We've weathered downturns, depressions, and a World War.”

Selling a few shirts should be a walk in the park then.

Published 10-25-2017

use code 'FIELDMAG' for free shipping
Shop now