Raquel Vélez had never grown up outdoors. She said she was more likely to be found “with her nose stuck in a book”.
But when she discovered skiing in her late twenties, Vélez fell in love with it.
The problem, however, was that in size 16, Vélez struggled to find the right gear. Most outdoor clothing brands, such as Columbia and Patagonia, have a very limited selection of ski pant sizes ranging from 12 to 22 for tall women.
But the average weight for women over 20 is 170 pounds in the United States, according to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 68% of American women wear a size 14 or larger, market research firm Plunkett Research estimated in 2016.
“I learned to ski in sweatpants under rain pants and a hoodie under a coat because that’s what I had on,” Vélez said. “But when I was ready to upgrade, nothing suited me.”
Around the same time she was learning to ski, the Denver resident also learned to sew. She said she was tired of buying jeans that never fit and attended a pattern school to learn how to make her own.
While there in 2018, she took a course in fashion history and brand development. She was commissioned to create a clothing brand with an eight-piece clothing line. That’s when she had the idea for Alpine Parrot, an outdoor clothing company for tall women.
“Outdoor brands don’t show tall people in any of their ads. So it makes you think, ‘Oh, I’m just the weirdo that likes to ski and doesn’t fit into anything,’” Vélez said. “And that creates a whole chicken before the egg problem where, because people don’t see tall people represented in the industry, they don’t think they exist.”
“But in my research, I found so many online communities of people who may be bigger but like to get out, whether it’s skiing, rafting, hiking or fishing, and can’t find any gear that suits them. So I knew there was this untapped market.
Last month, she launched Alpine Parrot’s first product, a pair of plus-size women’s hiking pants called Ponderosa Pants, via a Kickstarter campaign. In the first three hours, she reached her goal of $10,000 and doubled it in eight hours. As of Tuesday, she had raised $52,139 from 429 backers. Over the next two days of the campaign, she hopes to raise $60,000.
“I wanted to use Kickstarter to send a public message to the outdoor industry because they often overlook people of size and color, and show big brands that customers like me exist,” Vélez said. “And I think our message has been sent out loud and clear, so it’ll be interesting to see how brands respond. I’m starting where other people are just trying to catch up to me.
The Ponderosa pants, which retail for $139 on the Alpine Parrot website, run from size 14 to size 24 and come in sage green and slate gray. It’s made with quick-drying, abrasion-resistant UPF-40 fabric and features an integrated waistband, five pockets, an adjustable cuff to convert them to capris and a carabiner loop.
“Although I originally wanted to make ski pants, I decided to launch hiking pants first because the ski industry is very small compared to the general outdoor industry,” said Velez.
The Ponderosa pants are also available in two cut styles, the “mountain cut” and the “river cut”. The Mountain fit works best for bodies with waists smaller than the hips, while the River fit works best for those with similar waist and hip measurements, she said.
When Vélez started designing the hiking pants at the end of 2019, she created a pair perfectly adapted to her morphology. But she considers herself more of a Mountain fit with wider hips and a smaller waist. After testing the prototype on a variety of models, she realized that not everyone was the same size. So she went back to the drawing board.
“Most people call these body types ‘Apple’ or ‘Pear’, but I hate those terms because I don’t like to be compared to fruit, so I came up with Mountain and River,” Vélez said. “What is more powerful than a mountain or a river?”
Vélez plans to use Kickstarter funds to pay for its first two production runs. She is making the first batch of 150 Ponderosa pants with a company in Broomfield, and the second batch of 600 pairs of pants will be made in Honduras, she said.
Before making Alpine Parrot his full-time job, the entrepreneur worked as a software engineer in California for almost 10 years. But on a trip to New Zealand, she came to the conclusion that she was exhausted.
“Being a woman of color in the tech industry is extremely difficult,” said Vélez, who is Puerto Rican. “It’s dominated by white men, and I hit glass ceiling after glass ceiling, and I was just tired eventually.”
“But I find so much joy in being outside. I’ve skied every season flawlessly since I learned years ago, and if there’s no snow on the ground, I’ll go camping. So, I knew I wanted to do something that embraced the outdoors.
“Finally, I turned to my husband and said, ‘I just want to make pants!’ And here we are.”
Vélez, 36, moved to Denver with her husband two months ago. She runs the company from her home with a team of entrepreneurs and has self-funded the company with money she earned when a former employer at a tech company went public.
There is only one species of alpine parrot in the world, the kea, which lives in New Zealand. While traveling there, she was inspired to name her business after the parrot after learning more about the bird, which is sacred to New Zealand’s indigenous people.
Alpine parrots live and play in the snow, and they’re known to be social and intelligent, Vélez said. They have an olive green exterior, but when in flight they show rainbow underwings.
“When I think of the people I serve – people who are underrepresented on the outside, namely people of size and people of color – I think of how, despite all the stereotypes that say people of size or color don’t engage in the outdoors, we’re absolutely here anyway,” she said. “And, just like the alpine parrot, when we’re in our element, we really and truly shine.”
Over the next five years, she said she wanted to make more pants up to at least size 30, possibly size 36 depending on demand.
The entrepreneur also wants to add different styles of pants, a pair of shorts, flannel shirts and jackets to the clothing line, and eventually expand to a variety of apparel for sports such as fishing, skiing and climbing.