One look at Nadia Burton and you understand why she founded her own gear company.
For starters, there’s her flair. When I met Burton at Steamboat, the former pro skier’s home hill, she wore a ball cap adorned with a massive, flamboyant fabric flower. Her ski pants looked like camo-print couture. The 39-year-old has an unconventional look, so it makes sense that she’d become restless with standard-issue gear.
Burton is the kind of petite that most brands consider to be off the big-sales spectrum. But with her one-woman company, Big Hollow Designs, Burton isn’t chasing large-scale production. She’s dedicated to making quirky products like neon scarves, colorful skirts, and the coolest snow utility vest on the planet for core snowboarders and skiers like herself. She also makes jewelry—bangles account for about a third of her total revenue and effectively subsidize her WhatVest production.
Throughout her twenties, Burton competed on the Freeride World Tour and worked a smattering of ski-bum jobs: cat-skiing guide at Grand Targhee in Wyoming; waitress and landscaper in Driggs and Jackson, Wyoming; and heli-ski guide in Alaska. She was the first sponsored female athlete for ski gear and apparel brand Icelantic.
But Burton also had a creative side that skiing didn’t fully express. In 2014, at age 33, she started making jewelry. Burton soon met Scott Ebinger, a sewer with Atmosphere Mountainworks who shared the studio space she was renting in Laramie, Wyoming. After apprenticing with him, she started stitching crazy polyester costume “WhatVests” (named after the What Fest outdoor music campout in Centennial, Wyoming) for her friends to wear to summer concerts and on river trips.
In summer 2017, once Burton felt ready to work with thicker, more durable fabrics, she made herself a snow utility vest. Featuring four pockets on the front and a broad shovel carrier on the back, it had a lot in common with the tool vests already offered by Dakine and Volcom. “But they never came in my size,” Burton says. “And they’re all boring colors—gray and black.”
Burton’s vest was hot pink and turquoise and functioned just like the commercial vests she coveted. As a big-mountain skier, Burton wanted a comfortable way to carry her avalanche shovel and probe that didn’t involve skiing with a bulky backpack. “The vest distributes the weight of your gear all around your body, not just on your back, so it doesn’t throw your balance off while you’re making turns,” she explains. It also fits tidily onto a chairlift, making it practical for sidecountry touring off ski resorts.
Last winter, using a donated sewing machine, Burton started making snow-specific WhatVests for her friends and collaborated with Icelantic to produce a limited-edition run of 100 units. She further ramped up production in summer and offered her first full product line in a range of sizes and four different color schemes for Winter 2018–2019.
“My vests are a lot more streamlined than the ones made by bigger companies,” Burton explains. Those are covered with clips and buckles; hers has a smooth, uncluttered four-pocket exterior made of 1,000-denier Cordura nylon and 420-denier pack cloth. Inside are two mesh drop pockets, and on the back are two more zippered pockets for carrying a shovel (in the larger one) and extra gloves (across the lower back).
In future years, Burton would like to offer WhatVests that do a better job of accommodating larger breast sizes. “This summer, I’m going back to the drawing board to see if I can’t design a version that uses darts in the breasts and maybe figure out a way to fit broader hips with a flared bottom or shorter cut,” she says.
“My biggest challenge is that I’m a one-woman show,” Burton says. She’d like to hire a seamstress to help keep up with demand or maybe consult with an industrial designer that could “help me take things to the next level,” she says.
For now, Big Hollow Designs is 100 percent Burton—and that’s more than OK with her. “I work all the time, but it really doesn’t faze me,” she says. “I’ve figured out a way to combine my love of art and design with work in the ski industry. I feel like I’ve found my calling.”