Colorado’s Bleeding Heart Apparel breaks into ski market with hand-sewn gear
Bleeding Heart basics
Heavy-weight insulated jacket, $360
Medium-weight insulated jacket, $300
Insulated vest, $220
DWR nylon outer
Wicking polyester and rip-stop nylon inner
Hand-painted, fully taped seams
Custom design work (think CU colors)
All products are handmade by owners Jred Markowitz and Kyle Kaltenbacher in Silverthorne. Wait time is typically two weeks from order to delivery. To browse styles or purchase, check the online store at http://www.bleedingheartapparel.com.
It all started with a neon-pink hoodie.
A few years back, not long before East Coast transplant Jared Markowitz graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder, he owned an almost impossibly bright Volcom hoodie. As he describes it, the hoodie was the kind of eye-popping pink his friends would notice from across the parking lot at Copper, or across the village, or even across the wide-open expanse of Spaulding Bowl from the top of Storm King.
“I didn’t need a cellphone, I didn’t need to text anyone, I didn’t need any of that crap,” says Markowitz, who’s lost all trace of a Long Island accent after eight years in Colorado. “It was social networking through a jacket, as stupid as that sounds. People would see me from across the hill and we’d meet up.”
On a gorgeous, nearly summerlike day smack in the middle of March, Markowitz and CU alum Kye Kaltenbacher are sipping beers on the patio at Alpinista. The two skiers have just wrapped up an afternoon of slushy park laps, and when Markowitz heads inside to buy another round, Kaltenbacher leans back, kicks one leg over the other and starts chatting about the conditions. The snow is just fine, he says, the epitome of spring park season: nice and soft and forgiving, even if the ramps are just a bit sticky.
“I mean, the park has gotten so much better since Woodward took over,” Kaltenbacher says, nodding his head back toward the bar. “And then they brought in that guy from Keystone. They just know how to get it done.”
Like Markowitz, Kaltenbacher prefers Copper to just about any ski hill in Summit County. Almost every weekend during the season, he braves a nearly four-hour trek from Colorado Springs to Summit, skis for a few days, crashes at Kaltenbacher’s Silverthorne home, then makes the return trip to his 9-to-5 as an architect with Transit Mix Concrete Co.
Between Monday and Friday, the two spend hours on the phone talking and strategizing and occasionally arguing about the logistics for Bleeding Heart Apparel, their roughly 5-year-old outerwear company. What started as a hobby in college has slowly turned into a legitimate business — or at least a soon-to-be legitimate business — with a mix of heavyweight jackets, midweight jackets and insulated vests, all hand-sewn in Markowitz’s living room.
Markowitz, who’s wearing one of the company’s vest, returns with beers and plops down in a red lounge chair next to his friend. He and Kaltenbacher kick their legs into the sun, hardly noticing as a group of three skiers blatantly ogles Markowitz when he clip-clops past them with pints.
“They really do stand out,” Markowitz says of the jackets, which turn heads just about everywhere around town. “They fit in if someone is in a crowd, but if you’re out riding, you get noticed. This is about having something that’s just plain cool.”
Think of it as pink-hoodie syndrome: Markowitz’s vest is decorated with multiple colors, thick accent stitching and the Colorado “C” over craggy mountain peaks.
It’s a slight tweak on the design found across Kaltenbacher’s jacket, a 3-year-old model emblazoned with black, white and purple — not quite Rockies colors, but close. When first crafted, his jacket was a beta model, the sort of product most budding entrepreneurs keep locked in a dark closet.
Yet it’s still Kaltenbacher’s go-to jacket, with little more than a bloodstain near the hip pocket to show for 100-plus days of skiing. When he points to the stain, Markowitz laughs.
“I really do put my blood, sweat and tears into these,” he says.
It’s part metaphor, part reality, but for an art major and self-taught tailor like Markowitz, it’s the Bleeding Heart philosophy in a nutshell. He only makes clothing he would wear, and the jacket itself is the crux of the company’s business plan: Marketing is expensive — why not let your product do the talking?
“It’s loud enough that it speaks for itself,” Markowitz says. “Any day I’m out skiing, I get three or four comments on the mountain, but outside of that, we don’t do much marketing. I don’t like to push our gear. I’d rather have someone discover us because it’s unique, loud, whatever, and then when they put it on, they realize, ‘Holy s***, this is a good jacket.’”
A GRASSROOTS APPAREL MOVEMENT
Bleeding Heart was born soon after Markowitz ditched that Volcom hoodie for the wild, uncharted waters of custom manufacturing. His parents bought him a $150 sewing machine — “It seemed like such a major investment back then,” he says — and he set to work learning the ins and outs of clothing design the modern way: by watching YouTube videos.
From there, Markowitz brought Kaltenbacher into the fold. The two met by chance in Boulder one morning while loading their cars to head to the hills. They soon started skiing together almost every weekend, and when Markowitz threw around crazy ideas for an outerwear company, Kaltenbacher was on board.
“Teaching yourself is hard — it’s hard as hell,” Markowitz says. “The first two years I kept saying, ‘These things are hardly fit to put in the garbage, let alone sell.’ But Kyle has been a huge motivation.”
Last year, Bleeding Heart finally passed the $1,000 revenue mark and officially became a business, Markowitz says. By now, he’s created about 30 to 35 jackets by hand, including custom designs with CU colors and the logo for electro-funk group Dopapod. Photos of that jacket soon showed up on the band’s Instagram feed — yet another touch of nontraditional marketing, like donating a jacket to an early March fundraiser for Brolin Mawejje, the first Ugandan Olympian snowboarder.
As a relatively small start-up, Markowitz is sewing just about any time he isn’t working as a coach at Woodward. (The company suffered its only workforce setback when he broke his arm on the job earlier this season.) The living room is still his workspace, and he’s admittedly picky about cleanliness — blood, sweat and tears notwithstanding. He has to be: Each jacket requires about 15 to 20 hours of work from start to finish, which explains the $300-plus price tag.
“I have to be kind of a jerk to my roommates, making sure they don’t have food or anything by the materials,” Markowitz says. “We wash our hands, we don’t smoke inside — I can be kind of a Nazi when it comes to what I do.”
Markowitz’s attention to detail makes his jackets more than flashy fashion statements. No matter the conditions, they’re incredibly breathable, from sweltering-hot spring afternoons to full days spent hiking through the backcountry. Bleeding Heart gear is the all-around package, much like the owners. Sure, they enjoy park laps, but when the snow really falls — like the 2-foot dump in February — the trees and bowls come calling.
“Our concept is the same no matter what: Have fun with whatever you’re doing,” Kaltenbacher says of skiing. “If you want to hit powder, then hit powder. If you want to hit trees, go hit trees, you know?”
As Markowitz and Kaltenbacher finish their beers, the two start digging into the company’s future: what they’ve learned, where they’re headed, how they plan to get there. Both enjoy the grassroots appeal of companies like NWT3K and Big Agnes of Steamboat Springs, and even as they look for ways to actually turn a consistent profit, they won’t compromise their roots.
“I really do love this jacket more than any other jacket I’ve had,” Kaltenbacher says. “Word of mouth doesn’t sound hard, but it’s me sitting at the bus stop, saying, ‘Hey, man, we have this company.’ That’s constantly what I do up here.”
Which, once again, brings Markowitz back to the pink hoodie. He enjoyed Volcom through high school and college, but in the late 2000s, the company started suing others over patents.
That corporate mentality doesn’t appeal to either owner — like neon, it’s too loud, too crass, too outdated. Markowitz would much rather pound the piste and pavement, slowly spreading the word about his jackets until … well, until those three skiers ogling his vest decide to ask where he got it.
“We’re beyond the days of neon, but people still love it,” Markowitz says. “We can design it, we can draw it, we can make anything. We just want people to be happy with whatever they’re wearing.”
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