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There’s a lot to love about Nederland, the mountain town (population 1,500) situated about 17 miles and 3,000 feet above Boulder. With easy access to hiking trails, a ski resort just 10 minutes away, and enough bike routes nearby to make Greg LeMond swoon, the community offers outdoor opportunities galore. And the legacy of a local dead guy frozen in a Tuff Shed will always give the town a certain uniqueness (no matter where his festival is held).
Those attributes make Nederland—known simply as “Ned” to the locals—not just a great spot to visit (and in 2022, more than 52,000 people did, according to visitor center records). In the eyes of Bonie Shupe, chief product officer and refounder of performance merino brand Ibex, they make Nederland the perfect place from which to relaunch a sustainability-minded outdoor apparel brand. “Nederland is where we work and play,” Shupe says. “I definitely like to plan all of our collections [with Ned in mind].”
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Nederland isn’t Ibex’s first mountain home. In 1997, original founders John Fernsell and Peter Helmetag based the merino brand in Woodstock, Vermont. The pair, a former investment banker and sheep farmer, respectively, believed in the wonder of wool and set out to remind the outdoor industry—enamored at the time with synthetics—of its benefits.
There are many. Wool acts as an insulator in cold weather but breathes when it’s hot. The natural fiber has a hydrophobic shell, making it naturally water-resistant, and a hydrophilic core, so it moves moisture away from the body while it’s still a vapor. Wool is also antimicrobial, so bacteria can’t grow on the fiber in the same way that they do on polyester or cotton. (In other words, it won’t stink when you sweat.) When spun into garments, the wool fiber dries quickly, resists wrinkles, has a built-in sun protection, and stretches without bagging out (like polyester does). Oh, and wool is fire-resistant, biodegradable, and compostable. For the most part its downsides are few—mainly that it can be itchy next to skin and expensive to use.
“Because wool was developed by evolution over such a long period of time, it’s an incredibly intricate fiber,” says Jordan Todoroff, general manager at Ibex, “whereas polyester, for instance, is just plastic.”
Back in the ’90s, Ibex wasn’t alone in megaphoning the advantages of wool (specifically those of the finer, softer merino variety). In Steamboat Springs, Peter and Patty Duke were trying their darndest to get sock brand Smartwool off the ground, while across the globe, Icebreaker was spinning up base layers using wool sheared just outside of their Auckland, New Zealand, home base.
Though Ibex was part of a small merino movement, the brand was innovating in its own right, Shupe emphasizes. The original founders used wool as insulation (in place of down), and they were the first to create seamless merino garments and led the way in athletic silhouettes. “They were really taking what people thought of as old-fashioned merino wool and innovating it,” Shupe says, noting that as a result, Ibex earned a loyal following. “Their story helped advance everyone else [in the industry] because they were breaking all the rules.”
Rule-breaking, however, often comes with consequences; Ibex was no exception. Pumping money into research and development meant less left over for marketing. Their abundance of product styles weren’t selling through at retail. Personnel was in flux too, including the exit of both original founders. So in February 2018, the then-owners sold their assets, while behind the scenes, acquisition company Flour Brands took over as the winning bidder. “There were a lot of small reasons why Ibex went out of business,” Shupe says. “They ultimately just made the decision to close because they weren’t overcoming the obstacles that they needed to with the team they had.”
Meanwhile, back in Nederland, a self-described “wool geek” was refining her resumé to highlight a dual degree in apparel design and fiber arts, along with expertise in merino specifically. “I really just put my time and energy into wool because I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Shupe says. “I was honing everything to try to get my dream job.”
It worked. Managing director of Flour Brands David Hazan came across her LinkedIn profile and reached out. “At the time, I was looking for someone product-focused with merino wool experience to help get the supply chain going again,” Hazan says. “Within a short period of time, it was apparent that Bonie was the right person to run [the] product and represent the brand. Bonie fits the profile of the Ibex customer and knows exactly what they want.”
Shupe began leading Ibex full-time in October 2019. Nobody ever questioned that she would do so from her passive-solar home in Nederland. Phone calls and video conferences were fairly commonplace (and only became more so six months later when the pandemic hit). She already had all of the design tools on her computer, and it was easy to build up a complete wool sample collection. When needed, the airport was just 90 minutes away. Plus, living in the mountains was “on-brand” for Ibex, Hazan says.
Over the past four years, Nederland’s access to natural playgrounds has provided Shupe with insight into the types of products outdoors-lovers need, the conditions that elite performance gear must withstand, and ample opportunity to put prototypes through the paces (literally). Ibex’s spring 2023 Springbok collection, for example, is inspired by Shupe’s go-to trail run, the 15.7-mile High Lonesome Loop. Because Shupe sometimes brings her tenkara rod and casts a line in Devils Thumb Lake, she added the Wool Aire Vest (less than 10 ounces for the women’s medium with 80 grams of insulating merino fill) to last fall’s line-up.
The ability to live close to nature in Nederland also inspires Ibex’s focus on sustainability. Today, the brand emphasizes biodegradable materials in its garments, uses compostable packaging (both Shupe and Todoroff tested the bags personally in their backyard compost piles), sources only Oeko-Tex- and bluesign-certified dyes, and offsets its carbon output. “We love and are inspired by the natural world around us,” says Todoroff, who moved to Nederland when he joined the Ibex team in 2021. “There’s a high desire to maintain that.”
Then again, plenty of other mountain towns offer the same natural beauty and ever-present reminder to protect it. But there’s a grittiness to Nederland that separates it from the Vails, Aspens, and Tellurides of the Centennial State. High-end boutique clothing stores don’t dot the main street. Chain restaurants? Non-existent. Some locals—including Todoroff—live in homes more than a century old.
“People [here] own things that are 100 years old, and they work just as well as they did 100 years ago because they’re cared for and maintained and were well-designed to begin with,” Todoroff says. In the same vein, Ibex apparel won’t follow blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clothing fads or fall apart after a single single season. “We make timeless apparel that’s made to be repaired, that’s made to be cared for or passed down. A lot of that is informed by this town.”
Just like their hometown, which values hard work and heritage and doesn’t fit the same mold as more well-known mountain destinations, this brand with sheep’s wool at its core plans to do things its own way—what Shupe considers a better way. “We’re not following the crowd, we’re leading,” she says. “We’re really working to take merino to the next level.”
And by Dolly, Ibex is doing it from Nederland.