CREATING OUTDOOR CLOTHING THAT ENCOURAGES AND CELEBRATES UNDERREPRESENTED PEOPLE IN THE OUTDOORS
by Raquel Vélez
I never really considered myself an “outdoorsy” person. For one, I didn’t grow up loving the outdoors. For another, I never really saw people who looked like me talking about how great it is to be outside all the time. While all the kids my age played tag and hunted for bugs, my elementary school self preferred to be inside, living vicariously through characters in my favorites books and movies.
This was my life all through college - to be clear, I was also really athletic, playing on the varsity volleyball team in high school and taking dance classes in college. I’d go on what I like to call “nature walks” with my family - my aversion to bugs aside, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through El Yunque or climbing the Great Wall of China. But the idea of eating food out of a bag, sleeping on the ground, and being away from civilization? No, thank you. My immigrant parents didn’t work their butts off to give me a bed to sleep in and a roof over my head just so that I could pee in the woods!
I met my now-husband in my mid-twenties. He grew up very differently from me; he was probably a bug-hunter as a kid and was definitely a regular attendee at Burning Man. He introduced me to nature in a really innocent way - he asked if I wanted to take his dog for a walk in one of the nearby parks. Little did I realize that the park was more than a suburban park with a swing set and a sandbox there were trails and trees and a distinct lack of the sounds of urban life.
On these walks, I discovered that I really loved being surrounded by trees. I especially loved looking out on incredible vistas. And being away from “it all” was far more useful to my mental health than the constant grind of workaholism. But I still wouldn’t consider myself “outdoorsy.
We moved to northern California in 2013. I was so excited to live in San Francisco - I started “city hiking” just to see as much of my new city as possible, loving how simple it was to walk from one end to the other (it’d be a long day, sure, but it was still doable)! We explored more parks, both within city limits and in the surrounding areas. I think having the excuse of two dogs needing to get out of the city was what really drove us to more trees and steeper climbs.
"On these walks, I discovered that I really loved being surrounded by trees.
We went to explore Lake Tahoe, only 3 hours away from SF by car. My husband wanted to learn to ski, and even though I’d tried once and failed miserably (pro-tip: don’t let a boyfriend teach you to pizza and french fry and then leave you to figure the rest out on your own!), I was hesitant to let him go by himself, so I insisted that I join him, that we take a lesson, and that we try not to fall off the mountain and die.
I put on the clothes that I had packed for the trip; I knew it might snow, but I didn’t have any snow gear - armed with sweatpants, a hoodie, water resistant pants, and a raincoat, we headed off to the mountain. I squeezed my juicy calves into painful rental boots, bought a pair of goggles to wear over my glasses (I’ll never know why I didn’t wear my contact lenses that day), and headed off to the bunny hill with a pair of skis, poles, and a helmet.
I remember it was snowing. There were several people in our lesson. The instructor was patient and passionate about the slippery metal sticks that were supposed to go on our feet. My feet hurt, and I was cold.
But I loved it. I loved every minute of that lesson, especially the parts when we went downhill. My pizza (wedge) was terrible, and I was terrified to french fry (parallel ski), but the feeling of the wind on my face transformed my very being. And then we attempted a ski lift and went down a green run, thinking that we had properly mastered the bunny hill. My husband crashed, and I couldn’t stop. I flew down the mountain, and - like a character out of Looney Toons - I crashed into a pile of snow with a little mushroom cloud. But I laughed. And laughed and laughed and laughed.
I dreamed of that 4-hour experience for days. I couldn’t wait to go back. I have skied every season since then, and my pizza and french fry bunny-hill style has graduated to carving down black diamonds. I still laugh every time I fly down the hill. I’m smiling just thinking about it now.
"My feet hurt, and I was cold.
But I loved it. I loved every minute of that lesson, especially the parts when we went downhill.
Skiing was my gateway into nature. When there wasn’t enough snow, I turned to hiking. When hiking wasn’t enough, I started camping. When I couldn’t drive out to the mountains, I started rock climbing. I think it’s safe to say I’m “outdoorsy” now.
But even then, I hesitate to use that word.
Because if it wasn’t for that flying-down-the-mountain joy, I doubt I would have ever discovered my love for being outside.
The unfortunate reality is that as a plus size woman of color, there are social and physical barriers to entry when it comes to enjoying nature: socially, it’s rare to see Black and brown people outside; physically, it’s rare to find clothes made in my size that will serve and protect me from the elements.
Despite generations of ancestors who have worked on, lived in, and served the land, American people of color have been pushed away from
" I think it’s safe to say I’m “outdoorsy” now.
But even then, I hesitate to use that word.
nature. Whether that’s from explicit segregation, barring Black folks from entering national parks, or from the promise of the American Dream that pushes immigrants to work hard to buy a home and step out of poverty - there is an underlying cultural fear and lack of exposure. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it helps no one to deny the presence of these stigmas.
And despite the fact that 68% of American women are a size 14 and up, or that the average American woman is a size 16 or 18, it’s nearly impossible to find outdoor gear in outdoor retail stores that come in sizes larger than 14. (In spring 2020, I counted less than 10% of hiking pants at a certain national chain were available in “plus" sizes.
So how do we fix this? How do we give people the gifts of fresh air and separation from overwork, when there are so many systemic barriers in place? When I learned how to ski, I used the clothing I had available to me at the time. When I fell in love with skiing, I went looking for snow pants and a snow jacket. As a size 16, my options were limited to a pair of pants that barely fit my hips and left a massive gap in the waistband. Truly - only my love of flying gave me the ability to forgive the regular amounts of snow that snuck down my backside with every fall.
So I decided to use my background in mechanical engineering to learn to sew. I started with making a pillow, then skirts, then t-shirts. I worked my way into the depths of sewing, to the point where I learned to make my own patterns, and took classes on fashion history and brand development. I went to a factory boot camp, learning to use industrial sewing machines along with the basics of mass production.
Through this process, I made clothes that intentionally fit my body, and I never felt so comfortable and confident. Many of us who have spent any time trying to modify our bodies to fit our clothes miss out on the epiphany that occurs when our clothes are modified to fit our bodies. Just as skiing changed my perception of the outdoors, so too did properly fitting clothing unlock my perception of myself.
The epiphany was so impactful that I desperately wanted other people to experience it too. Despite my nearly decade-long career as a software engineer and engineering manager, I decided to leave my job and start an outdoor apparel company.
While it might appear extreme on the surface, the reality is that I had everything I already needed to be successful: my deep-dive sewing hobby gave me the understanding of how to sew, make patterns, and work in a factory; I have vast experience in product development through my career in software. The only thing missing was a product.
So I set out to make hiking pants. A lot like snow pants, hiking pants are cheaper and easier to make, with a far larger of audience.
I named my company Alpine Parrot, which refers to the kea, the only alpine parrot in the world. A treasure of the Māori people, the kea lives in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and lives a life outside the stereotype. Whereas most folks might associate parrots with tropical beaches and jaunty songs, the alpine parrot plays in the snow, makes friends easily, and is one of the smartest animals on the planet. Moreover, despite its olive green exterior, its rainbow underwings are breathtakingly visible when it flies. Alpine Parrot’s mission is to create outdoor apparel that celebrates and encourages underrepresented people in the outdoors, namely people of size and people of color. Like the alpine parrot, underrepresented people are grossly underestimated - we are out here, participating in nature and thriving. And, like the alpine parrot, when we are in our element, we really and truly shine.
Nature is for all of us, whether we consider ourselves “outdoorsy” or not. It’s my hope that by breaking down some of the physical barriers to entry, we can come together as a community to break down the social barriers as well.