MOUNT HOREB — Geoff Werner’s passion for skiing and his career in outdoor apparel intersected about 10 years ago in his Shorewood Hills garage.
That’s where he began to fill a niche with Arctica, an online store he founded that sold jackets and pants directly to ski racing enthusiasts. Hats, belts, gloves and racing suits would follow, along with a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Verona.
But continued growth, which includes outfitting the 36-member Hong Kong ski team vying for a spot in the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing, has brought Werner and his company to a 25,000-square-foot space in Mount Horeb.
This is where, in a former World of Variety store, Werner and his small but experienced team are designing, marketing and shipping ski wear to consumers around the globe and to more than 50 retailers nationwide.
“The goal was always to be relevant, and you have to have a certain amount of scale to be relevant,” Werner said. “It’s not a hobby, but we’re all doing this for the same reason: We love to ski. But at the same time it keeps me engaged with an industry that I also like. I really like working with this particular product category.”
This region of southwestern Wisconsin is known for its rolling hills, trout streams, family farms, cheesemakers and Norwegian heritage. But in the past few years, it’s also become a hub for the garment industry.
For years the anchor has been Lands’ End in Dodgeville, but other players have emerged.
Duluth Holdings in late 2018 opened its $20 million headquarters in downtown Mount Horeb and a block away has one of the company’s 62 Duluth Trading Co. stores that dot 33 states.
The village is also home to McFee on Main, a women’s clothing store that opened in 2016 and is owned and operated by Lynn McFee, who had a three-decade career with Ralph Lauren.
Gemplers, a work-wear company established in 1939, is based here, while CFL, an international product development, supply chain management and sourcing firm for the clothing industry, also has an office in the village.
“It just kind of has happened, but it’s a fabulous community to live in,” said McFee, whose husband grew up just outside of Mount Horeb and who credits the village’s strong economic development efforts and Chamber of Commerce. “For me, I just love seeing what Geoff has done to his piece of that strip mall there. He’s a great, quiet addition. You don’t really know he’s there, but he does a huge business.”
Building a team
Werner, 63, has worked for some of the biggest clothing brands in the industry, including Abercrombie & Fitch and Eddie Bauer. He came to Wisconsin from Seattle in 1992 to join the men’s division at Lands’ End and fell in love with the Wisconsin lifestyle, which for him includes racing sailboats on Lake Mendota and on Green Bay.
He left Lands’ End in 2008 but not before meeting Katherine Hurley, a former Gap executive who worked in Lands’ End’s children’s division but is now in charge of Arctica’s merchandising, product development and marketing.
Werner met Christine Belle, his customer service and operations director, at Tyrol Basin, while Tim Nysted, who had been at W.W. Grainger in Janesville, a supplier of industrial equipment, maintenance supplies, tools and parts, oversees Arctica’s warehouse, shipping and facilities.
“He really has a unique way of looking at a business, and some people just don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit,” Hurley, who joined Arctica in 2018, said of Werner. “He has that ability to take a smart risk and feel confident about it but also knows how to navigate it if it’s not the right decision.”
After leaving Lands’ End, Werner had no intention of searching for another job. Instead, he created his own way forward that includes Arctica websites and small warehouses in Hong Kong and Germany.
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He would not release annual revenues but said sales have been growing by more than 30 percent each of past five years. Werner had been scouring the Madison area for a suitable and affordable site and happened across the Mount Horeb space after visiting a friend at Duluth Trading Co.
Arctica does not have its own brick-and-mortar retail store, but Werner purchased the Mount Horeb building at 1290 Springdale St. across the street from a McDonald’s.
The facility is now filled with rows of shelving stocked with ski clothing. A wall at the front of the building is used to plan and lay out the company’s marketing strategy for Facebook, Instagram, ski industry websites and email. Photos of Arctica clothing include shots by Scott Markewitz, a Utah-based outdoor sports photographer whose other clients include Powder Magazine, Under Armour, Camelbak, Adidas Golf and Keen.
Another wall is used to show off conceptual designs for upcoming clothing lines, while there’s also space that replicates a retail setup to give Werner and his staff an idea of how their products will look and display on a sales floor.
In Wisconsin, stores carrying Arctica products include Erik’s bike shops and Les Moise, a ski and tennis retailer with shops in the Milwaukee suburbs of Brookfield and Mequon.
Ski pants range from $200 to $250, jackets go for $150 to $550, and race suits made from bonded polyester, Lycra and knit fabrics sell for $350, about $250 less than some of the company’s chief competitors.
“Part of what I saw was an opportunity to provide high-quality product at a fair price,” Werner said. “We’re not the cheapest guy in town. We don’t make cheap product, but I love the sport so much that I hate to see the cost become a barrier to entry. We’re trying to make it easier for people to get into the sport.”
Werner grew up in New York, where his father was an arranger and composer on Broadway, and learned to sail on the Jersey Shore.
But when he was in his early teens, his family moved to southern California so his father could pursue work in film and television. While his father wrote music for chase scenes in “The Dukes of Hazzard” and for the family drama “Eight is Enough,” young Werner began skiing at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which forged his passion for skiing and outdoor fashion.
He not only has mined the connections he’s made over the past 35 years in the skiing and clothing industry to build Arctica but is constantly looking for ideas when he travels, whether it’s in Europe, Asia or Downtown Madison.
“He finds inspiration not only in the stores where they sell clothes. He goes to a kitchen store, to a surfing store,” said Werner’s wife of 30 years, Claudia. “For him, inspiration is everywhere and in everything.”
More recent additions to the company include a waterproof down jacket, a down wind shirt with curved arms and the Gate Master, a down jacket that is made for race training in frigid temperatures.
In addition to supplying the Hong Kong ski team, Arctica also has partnerships with more than 40 ski teams around the country. Later this week, Werner will be at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Denver, one of the industry’s major trade shows.
“Geoff is always engaged in this industry and this business,” said Hurley, who ran merchandising at Wintersilk in Madison from 2014 to 2018. “It doesn’t mean that it’s just always outerwear, but what’s happening in a print and color and pattern perspective. It’s just kind of in his DNA. He really loves it.”
One of Werner’s first sales was 100 jackets to the ski team at Tyrol Basin. One of the earliest products for the company were ski pants that zippered down the side and could be easily removed just prior to the start of a race. The pants from other companies were only sold in black, so Werner created 10 colors of pants.
Over the years, skiers began requesting Arctica clothing at ski retailers, which led to the wholesale component to Werner’s company. Today, sales are split about evenly between retailers and consumers buying directly off the Arctica website.
“This gives us lots of breathing room. We needed space for people to be able to work,” Werner said of his Mount Horeb facility. “My biggest challenge is keeping up with the growth.”