Meet Raquel Vélez, founder and CEO of Alpine Parrot, an outdoor apparel company that caters to women sizes 14-24. They currently sell the Ponderosa Pant, a hiking pant that won the Outside Magazine summer 2022 gear guide’s Editor’s Choice award. In 2021, Raquel was named an Outside Magazine “Outsider of the Year.” I chatted with her about how/why she started Alpine Parrot, the future of the company, systemic barriers to outdoor recreation, and so much more.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about Alpine Parrot: what makes it unique in the outdoor apparel space, and where did you get the inspiration to start it?
I did not grow up in the outdoors. My family’s from Puerto Rico. I like to joke that the idea of voluntarily sleeping on the ground outside in the cold is not the definition of success for immigrant families. It’s like, “we worked really hard so that you wouldn’t have to do that, that’s the thing that you do when you have no other choice.” I wasn’t discouraged from going outside, but I wasn’t exactly encouraged either.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I discovered skiing. It was like this incredible experience. I was like, “Puerto Ricans don’t ski. That’s weird.” But my husband really wanted to go learn how to ski. And I was like, “I’ll go hang out in a little cabin or whatever.” But then I realized, if he dies on the mountain, I would never know. So obviously, I should go with him. And being the practical-minded person that I am, I was like, “and we should take a lesson.”
I learned to ski in rain pants over sweatpants, a hoodie under a raincoat. Rented all the gear. And it sucked, it absolutely sucked. The boots didn’t fit. It was snowing that day, it was cold. It was wet. And I couldn’t concentrate because my feet hurt so bad. But I fell completely and totally in love with skiing. And I was like, “This is the most amazing, most joyful thing I’ve ever experienced in the outdoors. And I want to do it again and again and again.”
Long story short, I’ve skied every single season since then. But when I went to go trade out my rain pants over sweatpants. I couldn’t find anything that fit my body. And I was like, “How am I expected to participate in a sport that doesn’t even give me the gear that I need to be safe and comfortable.”
Hilariously, the same weekend I learned how to ski, I also learned how to sew, because I hate buying jeans. My background is I’m a mechanical engineer. And I was like “How hard could it be to make my own pair of jeans?” So I learned how to make a pillow. And then I was like great, let’s do jeans. It took me over three years before I did that, but it was a good idea at the time.
Being an engineer, I like to go deep. So I started buying patterns, but it’s the same issue with fit, they have this idealized model in mind. And if you don’t fit that model, then you have to do a lot of modifications. I got really tired of that, so I learned how to make my own patterns.
In the process of making my own clothes, I discovered the power of fit. When something fits your body, It’s a game-changer. It actually affects your confidence, and it affects the way you move in the world. Being a larger-bodied woman of color, I’m not used to finding acceptance in a lot of these different spaces. And having clothes that fit that let me be safe and comfortable outside just gives me the space I need to find that joy and that peace in nature.
I actually found a pattern-making school literally two blocks away from my work. There was a class on brand development and history of fashion. And the final project was to create an eight-piece line where you make up a brand, you figure out who your target customer is, you design a logo, all these cute little things. It’s totally fake. But I created an a plus size women’s ski-wear line. And my instructor pulled me aside afterward and she was like “You have to do this.” And I was like, “No way. I work in tech.” At the time, I was working as a software engineer for a very large tech company. And she was like, “Yes, but you understand this market because you are this market and this market has nothing.” And I was like, “I know there’s nothing that’s why I created it.”
So I basically, after that class ended, I went to New Zealand to speak at a tech conference. I was so burned out, I turned to my husband, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore. Can I go make pants?” And he was like, “OK.” And then a few months after that, I started Alpine Parrot. A few months after that, I quit my full-time day job. And six weeks after that, the pandemic shut everything down.
Have you gotten into other kinds of outdoor sports besides skiing? What was that process of discovering the outdoors like?
Skiing was definitely a gateway sport for me. Before skiing, I would definitely say that I did what I’m gonna call “nature walks”. Like you find spaces in nature, maybe there’s a trail. You don’t do anything hard. You don’t have gear, you maybe bring a bottle of water and a granola bar. But since discovering skiing, I got into (indoor) rock climbing. And so like, I got into hiking for realsies.
I swore I would never camp because why would I voluntarily sleep on the ground outside in the cold? But during the pandemic, my husband convinced me to at least start glamping. I was like, “This is really awesome, I get to wake up in these incredible spaces.” We had a slide-in camper with an actual mattress in it and a stove. And then I had friends explained to me, “You know, if you like hiking so much, you could keep going and then sleep on the trail, and then wake up and keep going some more,” and I was like, “What, I could keep hiking?! I don’t have to go back to my car by a certain hour?! This is amazing! Tell me more!”
I went on my first camping experience last summer, like car camping. So summer of 2020. I just discovered what it means to wake up outside like, not in a house. That was great. And then last summer, I discovered what it meant to like set up a tent and have like a sleeping pad and sleeping bag. And of course I borrowed literally everything, or rented. And then this summer, I’m going on my first backpacking trip. It’ll be a three-day/two-night thing, and I’m freaking out about all the gear. I don’t know that I’m ever going to be a thru-hiker. But I like the idea of section hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail with a buddy.
What do you see as the biggest barriers to participation in the outdoors today?
There’s a lot. Cost is 100% one of them. It’s super, super expensive to go out. And, and that also really messes with the immigrant brain, like, “Not only am I voluntarily sleeping on the ground and the cold outside, but I’m also paying more money than I would need to just stay at a Motel Six.”
So cost is a big one. But then also just general representation. People just don’t even know how. I couldn’t even tell you whether or not I knew how because I just had it in my mind that it was never even an option. Growing up, camping was something that white people did. That’s not something that my people did. It was just completely fenced off. I think the more that we see people who look like us, whether that’s people of size or people of color, you start to gain that confidence. I never would have even considered it if it wasn’t for like other people saying, “Hey, I want to try this.”
What do you see as some potential ways to address the socio-economic barriers toward outdoor recreation?
There’s lots of really interesting tactics that I’m seeing people do. Just last week, I learned about “pro deals,” which is a new thing for me, because I’m used to having to pay full price for things, which means I wait for sales. But everybody in the outdoor industry knows that nobody in the outdoor industry makes enough money to be able to afford the things in the outdoor industry. It’s really funny.
But that doesn’t matter as much for people who aren’t in the industry in the first place. There’s only like six or seven states in the entire country where they actually charge you for entering a State Park. California is one of them. Though just this year, Governor Newsom announced a bill that allows State Park passes to be available at public libraries. So you can go and you can borrow a state pass. Little things like that of just making it accessible without having to pay help a ton.
I think the used gear phenomenon that’s taking off is huge. And then I really just think that there should be more opportunities for communities to get access to products at more reasonable prices, like brands already sell their stuff to wholesalers/retail partners for a massive cut. It’s like 50% off. If we’re willing to give that away to wholesalers, why aren’t we willing to give that away direct to consumer? It’s tricky, you still need to have a sustainable company, you need to be able to pay your bills. So you can’t just cut everything all the time. But I think that there are creative ways that you can address some of the systemic inequalities from a socio-economic perspective. Working with nonprofits, there’s some really great gear, like lending libraries, all of these things are options. But I don’t know that we’re always thinking about it.
You mentioned feeling when you were growing up like outdoor recreation was not really a part of your culture. How has your family reacted to you setting out on this new journey in the outdoor industry?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. On the island of Puerto Rico going to the beach isn’t a thing that you prepare to do, you just go. And Yunque, which is one of the only tropical rainforests in the United States, it’s incredible. It’s beautiful. I went as a kid, but it was never put together as “we’re gonna go on this great outdoor adventure.” It was “let’s go to the jungle.” The mindset is totally different.
So I think my sister looks at me kind of like, “OK, you do your thing,” but she’s also getting tons of new piercings, so it’s like, “OK, and then you do yours.” My dad, I think he’s excited that I’m making clothes and I’m starting my own company. I think he doesn’t want to think about it too hard because he’s afraid for my safety. I haven’t talked to the rest of my family about it because I don’t think they’d understand. If it was a fashion thing, I think it would make more sense to them.
Does Alpine Parrot have any other products in mind, besides the pants?
Yes, absolutely. The pants are just the start. We’re working on shirts, we’re working on shorts, we’re working on jackets. My goal is to make everything that Patagonia makes, but in the sizes that they don’t carry. So like, if you’re outdoorsy, whatever your sport, if you can’t find clothes that fit you in the larger sizes, I want you to be able to find something from Alpine Parrot. It’s super easy, because I just go, “what do I need? I guess I’ll just design that.” We’re working on some warmer or colder weather apparel options, pants and shirts. We just showed off our spring/summer line to potential retailers.
Who’s “us” right now when you’re talking about Alpine Parrot?
I started the company by myself in 2019, and I have since hired people. So I actually have a team of three full-time people. I’m one of those three, with a director of operations and a director of marketing. And then we also have a team of contractors who do everything from product development, to supply chain management, to graphic design, like all the things that you need in order to have an apparel company. I do not try to pretend that I can do it all. I’d much rather hire the experts.
How did you secure the funding to start the company?
Starting an apparel brand is absolutely capital intensive. You have to buy all the raw materials, you have to find somebody to turn those raw materials into finished goods. And then once you’ve shipped those finished goods to some other place, then you can sell it and collect money for it. So you have to have the money upfront before you can start selling the thing.
I was extremely fortunate in that before starting Alpine Parrot, I was at a tech company that went public while I was an employee. So I made enough money through that, that I could kind of start getting started. I basically used my own money for the first two years, and then this year started talking to investors. It’s really hard finding capital for these things. I recognize that there’s a massive, massive, gaping hole of opportunity for this market. I’m trying to get as much money as I can at the front, so that I can build things really quickly, get people excited about the brand, and grow things from there.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge in starting and growing Alpine Parrot?
Supply chain. This has been so hard. Right now my factory is having trouble getting thread. We’ve been on hold for months because it turns out that they can’t even get the raw material in order to make the thread. Fun fact, did you know that one of the chemicals used to process nylon is made in Ukraine? So when there’s a war going on, you don’t have access to that chemical, which means everything with nylon is going to go up in price.
And then on top of that, shipping, oh my goodness, it is so expensive. I’m losing my mind trying to figure out all the shipping. I mean, all of this comes down to supply chain. And it’s just made things really, really hard. We sell out super fast in so many sizes, which is awesome. But then I can’t replenish it quickly enough. It’s super hard.
Your model is much more sustainable than other kinds of fast fashion. I’m sure that affects things.
Absolutely. Our factory expects the people working in it to only work reasonable hours. So it’s not like people are working 10 hours a day, six days a week, like, that’s gross. We don’t do that. So it means that it takes longer for things to get made. It’s hard.
How does your background in mechanical engineering and the tech world inform how you’ve gone about this? Do you think it gives you any sort of secret advantages? Or do you think it makes it harder?
Oh, I definitely think I have a massive advantage to being an engineer (sic). The thing that really sets us apart is our fit. We have multiple fit styles for every single one of our products. Right now we have two on our pants, “mountain” and “river.” That came about because I am super diligent about testing. Traditionally, apparel is made with a single fit model, usually a size six or eight, and then a pattern is made to fit them perfectly. Then they algorithmically define all the other sizes. I was like, this process is broken for people in bigger bodies. And so I was like, “I’m just going to do it a little bit differently.”
Instead of one fit model, I had 30 fit testers. And through that process, I discovered we come in different shapes in addition to different sizes. I’m already thinking about a third shape, because there’s enough people who have started to come out of the woodwork being like, “neither of these shapes work for me.” I’m super analytical, I’m very data-driven. And I like to iterate on things. I don’t get super hung up on perfection, but I do get really hung up on “good enough.” So like, if it’s not good enough, it’s out. It’s not worth our time.
The fact that I’m able to do that very quickly, it means that we cut our costs, we cut our production time we cut a lot of things. We use data to help drive our decisions. It means that we are more likely to win when we do get something out and we get something out very quickly. Also, I like spreadsheets, which not everybody does. But business people need spreadsheets. So I’ve got that advantage.
Do you guys have any plans to stock Alpine Parrot products in stores?
Yes, absolutely. The reality is that the people that we serve, people size, people of color, their relationship with shopping has completely fallen apart. The idea of walking into a store, and finding something that fits you is so novel, that a lot of people just don’t even bother trying. I’ve walked into stores so many times being like, “I just need a pair of jeans,” and walking out. I never find anything that fits me.
Such an important part of the experience of shopping is being able to touch something and try it on. I want to bring that experience back. And the only way to do that is to put things into stores. So we have we’re talking with a bunch of retailers all over the country. They’re super excited about what we’re up to because they feel just as bad when someone walks in and says “I’m going on a trip of a lifetime. I need gear,” and they have to say “I’m sorry, I have nothing for you.” That’s heartbreaking for everyone. So I’m really excited that there are retailers around the country who are like, “We need whatever you’ve got.” So, yeah, it’s happening.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
There are three pillars to why we do what we do at Alpine parrot. The first one is cultural/social: everybody deserves to go outside, so let’s make sure that everybody has the things they need to be safe and comfortable in the outdoors. The second one is economic: 68% of American women are a size 14 and up and yet less than 20% of outdoor apparel is made in plus sizes. The third one is environmental: I truly believe people save the things they love, but if you don’t know that you love the outdoors, why would you care about Bears Ears (National Monument)? Why would you care about these massive forest fires or flooding? It doesn’t matter to you, it doesn’t affect you. But if we can expose more people to the beauty of nature, then we can add them to the front lines. At the end of the day, when we exclude people from the outdoors, we’re actually making the outdoors worse and making it harder for us to save this incredible nature that we love.
It’s mostly just really exciting to kind of share Alpine parrot with the world. I’m really excited for how things are continuing to grow.
Follow Raquel Vélez on Twitter and Instagram. Check out the Alpine Parrot website, and follow them on Instagram and Twitter. Buy the Ponderosa Pant here.
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Raquel Vélez/Alpine Parrot.