Raquel Vélez had never been an outdoorsy kid growing up. She said she was more likely to be found “with my nose stuck in a book.”
But when she discovered skiing in her late 20s, Vélez fell in love.
The problem, though, was that as a size 16, Vélez had trouble finding the right gear. Most outdoor apparel brands, such as Columbia and Patagonia, offer a very limited selection of ski pants sizes ranging from 12 to 22 for plus-size women.
But the average weight of women over 20 is 170 pounds in the U.S, according to a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 68 percent of American women wear a size 14 or larger, market research firm Plunkett Research estimated in 2016.
“I learned how to ski in sweatpants under rain pants and a hoodie under a coat because that’s what I had,” Vélez said. “But when I was ready to upgrade, nothing fit.”
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-making school to learn how to make her own.
During her time there in 2018, she took a course on the history of fashion and brand development. She was assigned to create a clothing brand with an eight-piece apparel line. That’s when she came up with the idea for Alpine Parrot, an outdoor apparel company for plus-size women.
“Outdoor brands don’t show people of size in any of their advertising. So, it makes you think, ‘Oh, I’m just the weirdo who likes to ski and doesn’t fit into anything,’” Vélez said. “And this creates a whole chicken before the egg problem where because people don’t see plus-size people being represented in the industry, they don’t think they exist.”
“But in my research, I found so many communities of people online who might be bigger but love going outdoors, whether for skiing, white water rafting, hiking or fishing, and can’t find any gear that fits 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, through a Kickstarter campaign. In the first three hours, she reached her $10,000 goal and doubled it in eight hours. As of Tuesday, she has raised $52,139 from 429 backers. In the next two days of the campaign, she hopes to hit $60,000.
“I wanted to use Kickstarter to send a message to the outdoor industry in a public way, since they often neglect people of size and color, and show big name brands that customers like me do exist,” Vélez said. “And I think our message has been sent loud and clear, so it will be interesting to see how brands respond. I’m starting where other people are just trying to catch up.”
The Ponderosa Pants, which retail for $139 on Alpine Parrot’s website, range from size 14 to size 24 and come in sage green and slate gray. They are made with quick-drying, abrasion-resistant UPF-40 fabric and feature a built-in belt, five pockets, an adjustable cuff to convert them into capris and a carabiner loop.
“Although I had initially wanted to make ski pants, I decided to first launch hiking pants because the ski industry is super tiny compared to the general outdoors industry,” Vélez said.
The Ponderosa Pants also come in two fit styles, the “Mountain fit” and the “River fit.” The Mountain fit is best for bodies with a smaller waist than hips, while the River fit is best for those with similar waist and hip measurements, she said.
When Vélez first began designing the hiking pants in late 2019, she created a pair that fit her body type perfectly. But she considers herself more of a Mountain fit with larger hips and a smaller waist. After testing the prototype on a variety of models, she realized that not everyone her size is the same shape — 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 being compared to fruit. So I came up with Mountain and River,” Vélez said. “What’s more powerful than a mountain or river?”
Vélez plans to use the Kickstarter funds to pay for her first two rounds of production. She’s manufacturing the first round of 150 Ponderosa Pants with a company in Broomfield, and the second round of 600 pairs of pants will be made in Honduras, she said.
Before she made Alpine Parrot her full-time job, the entrepreneur worked as a software engineer in California for nearly 10 years. But while 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 had hit glass ceiling after glass ceiling, and was finally just tired.”
“But I find so much joy out of being outside. I’ve skied every single season without fail 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 is running the business from her home with a team of contractors, and has self-funded the company with money she made when a former tech company employer went public.
There is only one species of alpine parrot in the world, the kea, which lives in New Zealand. While on her trip there, she was inspired to name her company 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 are known for being social and intelligent, Vélez said. They have an olive green exterior, but when they fly they show off rainbow underwings.
“When I think about the people I serve — underrepresented folks in the outdoors, namely people of size and people of color — I think about how, despite every stereotype that says that people of size or people of color don’t engage in the outdoors, we’re absolutely out 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 wants to create more pants that range 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 apparel line, and eventually expand into a variety of apparel for sports such as fishing, skiing and rock climbing.