Inside the S-Lab

Inside the Design Facility of One of the Biggest Brands in Outdoor Sports


July 24, 2017 Sports and Outdoors By Photo by Tanner Bowden

Just over an hour from the outdoor mecca of Chamonix-Mont Blanc lies the town of Annecy, France. While seemingly secondary to the more frequented destinations of Paris and Marseille, Annecy is decidedly French; the heart of town contains a maze of old streets and canals joined by bridges, bordered by churches and lined with vendors offering a range of cured meats and cheeses.

But look beyond the tropes of European tourism and you’ll notice that the lake (known as the cleanest on the continent) is ripe for sailing, while the the mountain ridges are prime for hiking. It’s no wonder that Francois Salomon and his son Georges chose the town as the base for a manufacturing business that would grow to become one of the most well-known and respected names in outdoor recreation in the world.

Salomon and son began their venture in 1947 with metal saw blades and ski edges machined just steps away from le Palais de l’Isle, a medieval castle that sits against the canals of Old Town. By 1972, Salomon became the world’s leading manufacturer of alpine ski bindings. The decades that followed saw the company launch itself into the business of alpine and nordic ski boots, skis, hiking footwear, apparel and running shoes. Along the way, Salomon moved its headquarters and design facility to the Metz-Tessy commune of Annecy, where it remains today.

It was within those walls that designers created products that both completely redefined sport (like the 1080 did for skiing) and those that continually improve upon tried and true concepts (the new, lightweight Sense Ride trail runners, for example). In the U.S., Salomon is one of those brands that is known and respected, but its story, compared to those of other big names like Patagonia or The North Face, isn’t known well. You know Salomon skis and boots, you know its running and hiking shoes. But maybe you don’t know that in 2002 it made a then-revolutionary surfboard blank called the S-Core. Or that up until the mid 2000s Salomon produced some of the most popular inline skates on the market. Or, finally, that Salomon’s highly-specialized S/Lab collection is designed in close collaboration with the company’s core athletes, including Kílian Jornet. Maybe it’s time the veil of false secrecy was lifted, even if just a little.

All that’s required is a trip to the Rhône-alpes region of France and a momentary look behind the doors of Salomon’s immense design facility. It is a place where a designer might stitch a sports bra in the morning and fabricate a ski binding in the afternoon. A place where 20 iterations of a cycling jersey are created in order to shave 15 seconds off a one-hour time trial. A place where product-clad mannequins are maliciously outfitted with measurement devices and forced into ovens and freezers. A place where a pair of robots named Bea and Maurice weave custom running shoes in under five minutes. There are many things behind those doors that are forbidden from appearing in photographs. Here are some of the things that aren’t.