Like equatorial penguins and panda ants, alpine parrots are something you’ll likely Google before believing they exist.
That’s the same way the outdoor product industry views Raquel Vélez’s customer base, as it takes considerable online sleuthing to discover women who enjoy outdoor adventure aren’t always svelte, White, and encased in six-packs.
Vélez’s company is called Alpine Parrot; it makes hiking apparel for the woman least likely to earn centerfolds in seasonal gear catalogs or on the cover of Backcountry: plus-sized women.
Alpine Parrot’s first product will be pants, called the Ponderosa. They’ll range in sizes from 14 to 24 and debut on Kickstarter in April.
Vélez named her pants after the first run she did at Mt. Rose while learning to ski. She loved it, but needed more than sweats under rain pants.
A subsequent ski shop visit went poorly, leading Vélez to where she is today — trying to affect change with a pair of pants.
“If going all-in on a sport, you should have the right gear,” she said. “I needed proper snow pants, but found only one pair in the entire store that fit, and I wasn’t going to buy men’s pants, the crotches are too low, the hips never fit … it’s just a terrible experience. I thought ‘this is stupid.’”
Vélez enrolled in a fashion course. Her class-project pitch, a plus-sized snow apparel company, wowed her instructor.
“My teacher was like, ‘you’ve got to do this, you understand your market, you get it,’” she recalled.
Truly committing meant giving up a Bay Area tech salary, and the snow market is very small. But, pants for hiking and general outdoor activities represent a much larger market. Vélez had her plan.
The idea of “knowing your market” stuck with her, and is why she thinks companies attempting to bridge the gap into her demographic aren’t making it across, because they don’t employ or collaborate with people who, as Vélez describes, “look like me.”
“Socially, there’s not enough representation of people who actually go outside and participate in nature. The reality is two-thirds of American women are a size 14 and up, the average is 16 to 18, yet most apparel brands stop at 14, maybe 16, and you’re lucky to get that,” she explained. “Now a bunch of people are wearing leggings to go hiking, that’s fine, but that’s not good enough.”
It’s also a matter of color, according to Vélez. “There’s not enough people who look like me in ads, and I know I’m not the only person out here who wants to go hiking and skiing.”
Vélez spent her childhood in New Jersey after her parents moved from Puerto Rico. Because of Puerto Rico’s vibrant landscapes, merely stepping out of the house was “to be in wilderness,” she said. “Plus, immigrants don’t measure success by sleeping on the ground camping.”
The Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) 2020 participation report revealed that women’s impact on the outdoor product market is growing, albeit slowly.
The gap between women and men taking part in outdoor activities is the lowest on record, with 46.2 percent of outdoor participants female versus 53.8 percent male.
Although women of color are active outdoors, they remain under-served, and integral to Alpine Parrot’s mission.
The OIA report stated Caucasian participation in outdoor activity dropped from 80% to 72% since 2010, suggesting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) are putting pressure on gatekeepers.
Still, outright permission to enter remains elusive.
“You’re starting to see more Black and Brown faces, but you’re still not seeing a lot of people of size,” Vélez said. “I argue that you can’t truly be open to people of color until you’re open to people of size. You just can’t, there’s too strong a correlation.”
Along with the social and economic benefits of its mission, Alpine Parrot is also all-in on environmental sustainability, knowing interest in protection and preservation only comes about when something is cherished.
“Apparel is the second largest polluting industry on the planet,” she said. “But, people save the things they love, but how do you know if you love something if you never get the chance to know it?”
Vélez says the lack of options for her customers are an actual physical barrier to them going outside. She wants to change that.
“[Without the right gear] there’s no reason why you would go outside, find out you love it, and try to save it.”
Vélez hopes the launch of Alpine Parrot’s Mt. Rose-inspired Ponderosa pants will give plus-sized women of color something to celebrate. Beyond that, she wants her pants to do more than make people who look like her comfortable outdoors.
“The day me and all my friends can walk into REI and buy clothes not based on size or fit, but based on color and use … that’s the day we win, the day when we have as many options as everyone else.”