Turn For The Better | The Korua Shapes Interview

How KORUA Shapes built one of the most iconic companies in snowboarding

“It was actually one of the names on Stephan’s short list when they were coming up with Clast neck warmers,” says Nicholas Wolken, co-founder of KORUA Shapes, when asked about the origin of the brand. “We had 240 names or something crazy. We graded them all and sent the list out to friends. In the end KORUA was the one that most people liked. It reminded us of a lonely island. We found out later it means ‘you the people’ in Maori, and ‘precious jewel’ in Finnish.”

KORUA has come a long way in a short time. Launched in 2014 – a full couple of decades after most of the competition – Nicholas and his riding buddy-turned-business partner Stephan Maurer sold around 15 snowboards in that first season (“mostly to friends,” he admits). Today, it’s firmly established as one of the coolest board builders in the business. So how did they get here?

Alek Oestreng getting down and dirty | PC: Aaron Schwartz

A key tailwind, of course, has been the recent resurgence in the art of turning, especially amongst older riders. But the KORUA crew did more than just jump on a trend; they helped drive it. As 30-somethings themselves, Nicholas and Stephan understood the desire many of us feel to keep shredding and progressing while leaving those icy park landings behind. And with the Yearning For Turning video series, they recorded that journey in a fresh, fast-paced format that seemed to capture the snowboarding zeitgeist. Even now, 10 volumes in, the launch of a new YFT edit has the power to stop the WL office in its tracks while everyone gathers around the computer for an impromptu screening.

I’m curious to learn more about how these guys developed such a winning formula. In a crowded market, KORUA’s creative stands out for being clean, sharp – you might say typically Swiss. It begins with the boards themselves, which feature minimalist graphics on every model, either a plain white topsheet and a solid red base, or (in the case of their specced-up Plus line) black all over. It’s a bold move that essentially does away with the traditional artwork every other brand relies on to help sell its gear. How did it come about?

“I put it to Aaron that the plain white boards work because they’re timeless, just like a turn”

“The idea was to have carryover boards, so we don’t change our boards every season,” explains Nicholas. “And a lot of that also came from us being a super small team and thinking we’re making a really small, niche-kinda brand. Some of this stuff we realised later on was really beneficial [for the brand identity], but it just worked for a small company at the time. It’s also more sustainable, and it gives Aaron time to work on other creative stuff, rather than coming up with a new graphic for a bunch of different boards every year, which is a lot of work.”

‘Aaron’ is Aaron Schwartz, KORUA’s Canadian creative director who oversees most of the brand’s visuals – including photos, videos and social media. I put it to Aaron that the plain white boards work because they’re timeless, just like a turn.

The Korua Pocket Rocket

“Sure, but it’s also about simplifying,” he says. “In its essence, snowboarding is turning – whether it’s on piste or powder – and the brand is built around that essence. It’s the joy of turning. [So] creatively, we’ve stripped it down to these essential elements like red, white and black boards, or monochrome videos. Keeping it very minimal and reduced. Stripping the graphics down to a white topsheet also lets the shape speak for itself. It’s not really clouded by any other noise.”

And shape, of course, is central to the brand. Hell, it’s in the name. Wide, directional silhouettes are KORUA’s M.O, but with so many competitors jumping on a similar bandwagon, Nicholas and his friends have found themselves pushing the boundaries further than ever before. Witness the Concept line, a range of extreme shapes that functions like Willy Wonka’s inventing room – a place where anything goes.

“Pictures surfaced this winter of Nicholas hanging ten on a snowboard as if he were enjoying a waist high session at Malibu”

“It’s total creative freedom,” says Nicholas. “Whereas the other boards need to work in most conditions, a Concept model might be a board that just works in powder. That helps us to develop new ideas and, more often than not, ideas from the Concept line end up in a shape for the Classic line.”

For Nicholas, who’s spent over twenty years perfecting his edge craft, the motivation these days lies in “trying new things and seeing what a snowboard can offer; [designs] we might not know about yet or always thought were impossible. If you’d asked me three years ago about riding a board on the nose I’d say it’s the dumbest idea ever, but usually it’s those ideas that are worth following up on.”

Nicholas taking the Nose Rider out for a spin | PC: Aaron Schwartz

Ah yes, the Noserider. Pictures surfaced this winter of Nicholas hanging ten on a snowboard as if he were enjoying a waist high session at Malibu. These head-scratching tricks were made possible by a board that features an aggressive taper and a channel-insert running almost all the way to the nose, so you can mount the bindings in ways previously considered crazy – that’s if they were considered at all.

“It came from an interest in longboard surfing,” he explains. “I wish I could do it – I’m a horrible surfer – but just the way they move on the board seemed like something that would be super nice, and I was thinking it sucks that snowboarding doesn’t offer that style of riding. We tried doing cross steps a bit, with one foot strapped in the binding and the other not, and it came from that.”

“Aaron admits that, as an art director, sticking to such a fixed video formula – much like their simple board graphics – brings limitations”

As strange as moves like this are, they’re not completely out of reach to the average rider, unlike most of the tricks being thrown down at X Games or the Olympics. That’s also the appeal of the whole Yearning For Turning series, which trades triple corks for high speed euro carves.

“Nicholas and Stephan came up with a recipe that really worked,” says Aaron. “At the time [of the first episode], follow-cam filming was still kinda new. Stabilisers were only starting to get a little bit more refined, and this really fast-paced filming and editing became our calling card.”

So too are soundtracks that explore the lesser-known realms of Euro synth-pop and the Neue Deutsche Welle genre. It all adds to the sense of a company proud of its alpine roots. “What we’re doing in Europe is cool too; we don’t have to imitate the Americans,” argues Nicholas. “In the past, when I grew up, if it didn’t look American it wasn’t cool. But I think that’s changed; people have got more open-minded. We have good music in Europe for sure.”

Aaron admits that, as an art director, sticking to such a fixed video formula – much like their simple board graphics – brings limitations. “Keeping it fresh every time is definitely difficult,” he says. A single three-minute cut is often the product of a whole winter filming, during which time team riders of the calibre of Lars Popp must occasionally be tempted to mix things up with a big trick or two. When they’re back in the editing room, I wonder, is there an actual policy of vetoing spins above a certain rotation? Would they ever include a 900 in a YFT edit, for instance?

“We want it to be the kind of snowboarding where you feel like, ‘I might go and try that next weekend.’”

“If it’s a good crash we might!” laughs Nicholas. “But we definitely wanna keep it relatable. We feel like this is something that people can go out to do without risking serious injury. We want it to be the kind of snowboarding where you feel like, ‘I might go and try that next weekend.’ I think that’s what sets us apart from other brands that show high-end snowboarding almost exclusively.”

Interestingly, they’ve yet to commit to shooting another YFT this winter (“We’ve capped it at 10 for now”) but when the KORUA crew does return to screens, you know it will be worth the wait. Likewise, Nicholas and the gang won’t rush to release any new board shapes next year unless they’re ready. With so many funky outlines available these days, coming up with something original – and still functional – is a tough ask. In fact I’m tempted to suggest we’ve seen it all at this point… haven’t we?

Nicholas Wolken heading into the white room | PC: Aaron Schwartz

“I ask myself that every time we’ve finished a new shape, but the good thing is we don’t have pressure to release one every year. Maybe the time will come when we’re like, ‘Hey, our line is perfect now, it’s complete’, and we’ll just stick with it. But typically, every one or two seasons they’ll be a [new] idea. If you look at surfing as well, there’s [still] so many different shapes – and you can go into three dimensional bases and stuff like that.”

Looking to the future of the company more generally, then, what’s the goal? Having gone from a bedroom operation to a respected brand in seven short years, will KORUA Shapes be challenging the big boys next?

“You might suggest they’re the opposite of unique. And yet at the same time, they really are unlike anything else on the mountain”

“We don’t wanna become huge,” says Nicholas. “We’re just staying realistic, taking it one step at a time and doing business in a cautious kinda way. Like, I’d rather order too few boards and be sold out at the end of January than have a lot of boards. I think it can actually be really good for you as a brand, creating that scarcity. That uniqueness.”

Green thumbed James Niederberger loves plants | PC: Aaron Schwartz

And that, right there, is where the genius of KORUA Shapes truly lies. Because each of their boards looks, on one level, the same as all their others. Red base. White topsheet. You might suggest they’re the opposite of unique. And yet at the same time, they really are unlike anything else on the mountain. As they say in Thailand: same same, but different.

Long may that continue.


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