Ibex in the Land of Ibex

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It is Swiss Quality, yes?

The question comes more like an assertion, and I rush to answer. “Actually, American. Ibex.” Who knew my usually low-key sense of patriotism would well up and surprise me? And over a t-shirt, no less.  “It’s wool,” I point out as the questioner invades my space and fingers the fabric. “I love it.”

I’m in Switzerland for the summer for my company, Run the Alps, guiding trips, running races, and exploring every corner of the Alps I can reach. The questioner is the race director of one of the Europe’s most famous trail races, part of the renowned international skyrunning series.  In fact, I’m getting a little sick of hearing about Swiss Quality. The phrase is everywhere. My friends and I have started to mock it. “Your haircut: is that Swiss quality?” I’m all for pride in your work, but in this country where the trains are (truly) never late, it’s getting a bit out of control. The son of American friends living in Neuchatel didn’t want to bring his glue stick to school, because it wasn’t made in Switzerland. Seriously.

The race director wasn’t the first to notice, though—in fact, he was late to the game. Three months earlier, as I was busy getting ready to depart my home in northernmost New Hampshire for the summer, Run the Alp’s first order of Ibex shirts arrived. Within two weeks, I had to reorder. Friends and family loved them so much, I gave up and simply left a box of shirts in my car. Every time I stopped at my local café, I would sell another shirt. Or two. Or three.

To explain my choice of shirts, I have to make two admissions. First, I’ve run trail races for nearly twenty years now. And, in my basement, there’s an overflowing box of unworn race shirts. A few years ago, my guilt overtook my desire for commemoration, and I simply stopped accepting any more. Who needs another cheap, plastic shirt? Who needs even one, for that matter?

Now, the more embarrassing admission. The shelf above my washing machine at home is filled with so-called “sports detergents.” Each makes a bold claim to finally, definitively, eliminate that nose-wrinkling stink from those polyester shirts. In fact, they do work—for about a day. (I finally got the scientific answer as to what’s going on, courtesy of a story on NPR.)

I knew the solution. And so, one day last spring I emailed Ibex.

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Added to the shirt was a simple, beautiful logo designed by my longtime friend and colleague, Josh Rubinstein. Josh brings a clean, graceful aesthetic to everything he touches. He’s thoughtful, and understands how our brains are wired when it comes to reading artwork. And, as a former winter backcountry caretaker for the Appalachian Mountain Club, he also appreciates the value of a well-crafted wool product. My contribution to the design process? Knowing enough to get out of the way as much as I could allow myself, and let Josh do his thing. Original Design Company in North Haverill, New Hampshire, wrapped up the project with careful silk screening.

As the summer progressed, our simple little shirt became a cult hit. Family members lobbied to get their own, before supplies ran out for the year. Swiss friends tried to fit into what sizes had made it into my bags for the summer. High in the Alps, strangers would come up to me and ask (in French, or German, or even Italian), “How can I get one of those?” Innkeepers asked if they could buy and credit my bill.  Emails on the topic started showing up in my inbox:

Hi – I was just walking in Zermatt last Saturday after the Matterhorn Ultraks Skyrunning Race, and saw suddenly a guy with a fantastic t-shirt that said, “Run the Alps.” I am now on your website. Very good website. A nice team! Do you sell your t-shirt? I love it! Keep Running, Frank

I think associations say a lot about who you are—as a person, and as a company. They speak directly to your choices and your values. So, I owe you thanks, Ibex, for making Run the Alps look good.

Swiss quality? Not this time.

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Doug Mayer is a producer for the NPR show, Car Talk, and is the founder of Run the Alps. He lives in Randolph, New Hampshire, with his dog and a constantly-dwindling supply of Ibex shirts.