By Amie Henderson
If you’d been present at the birth of something as significant as snowboarding, you might be inclined to brag a little. You might recount tales of innovation and development, you might even be tempted to name drop a little. Not Serge Dupraz.
Dupraz Snowboards have been on our radar for a while, but it wasn’t until last winter season that we eventually tried one for ourselves. This isn’t a board for your casual, trendy snowboarder. It’s a snowboarder for true riders. It’s a snowboarders snowboard. It takes me quite a while to coax the difference between the two concepts from Mr Dupraz, who’s likely the most humble, passionate, interesting man I’ve ever met in the industry.
Born in Annecy and growing up between Lake Geneva and the mountains of the Portes du Soleil, it’s hardly surprising that sliding on water became an obsession for Serge. “I took part in national sailing championships, I became interested in windsurfing and instead of becoming an engineer as my father wanted, I decided to move to Hawaii immediately after finishing school”.
Hawaii in 1981 was a hot bed of surf innovation. Serge cut his teeth with industry pioneers, learning to shape boards on Oahu’s North Shore where it was all going on. Later that year he returned to France and opened the country’s first windsurf board workshop, producing custom boards using the latest materials from California and with an emphasis on evolutionary shapes. It becomes obvious to me at this point. Serge was always leading the way.
During the winter of 83/84 Serge watched the first snowboards as we know them arrive. Prototypes were made by hand and while Jake Burton was styling up the east coast of America with his rider-friendly first efforts, Tom Sims was disrupting the west coast with his skateboard inspired skills. But it was Dimitrije Milovich’s Winterstick that inspired Serge most. “Milovich influenced the entire market. The Winterstick became my reference. I wanted to launch that style in Europe where our mountains offer much more fun”.
What did Serge’s first snowboard look like? Called Hot Snowboards to begin with, it was made for carving in powder first and foremost, challenging traditional board geometry. Its swallowtail shape is now a distinctive brand feature, but the original bindings were made from rubber, much like water ski bindings. There were no highbacks but there was a lot of excitement. Serge persuaded a ski manufacturer in the Jura mountains to make his first boards and in 1986 the Hot Snowboards 160 carving board launched. “My goal was to create one of the top three snowboard brands in the world. I watched the big companies, I watched their new products and they were watching mine too. Over the following seasons they began to adopt my technology. And they had big marketing budgets too.”
Whilst you may never have heard of Dupraz Snowboards, you’ll most certainly have heard of Burton. Interviewed recently about the development of snowboards during the 1980s, Jake Burton recounted, “Serge Dupraz designed a revolutionary board that was capable of laying a trench in the snow with its six meter radius. Every manufacturer jumped on this brilliant idea. The Hot Pro Team dominated at the time.” High praise indeed from the industry’s leader.
Until winter 86/87 snowboarding was forbidden in Avoriaz. For some reason I feel the need to repeat this point to Serge. Avoriaz? Arguably the home of freeride in the French Alps? No snowboarding? “That’s right. To promote my boards I organised a contest in Châtel. No one had ever held a snowboarding competition in France before. Not one. We were the first. I’m pretty sure there’d never been a freeride contest anywhere in the world at this point. The judges were all surfers. There literally was no other group of people with the ability or the skill to be my jury,” Serge explains.
As the Portes du Soleil ski area grew and snowboarding became more popular, there was a natural evolution from the Hot Snowboard to the Dupraz Snowboard. While the launch board had been designed for fresh powder, Serge wanted to experience the glide – the surf-like feeling – everyday, regardless of snow conditions. A piste-friendly board was born with steel edges, high back bindings and a huge portion of added fun. “I’ve always been able to mix the parameters to improve my snowboards without limitations.”
In 1990, Serge’s snowboards were selling 4 – 5 times more boards than Burton in France. The newly launched Dupraz Revolution – an even bigger carving machine – launched, but as with every new concept, other brands followed. Encouraged by sales and with an ‘imitation is flattery’ outlook, Serge invested heavily in stock. Three winters of very poor snow followed. Retailers went bust. Stock went with them. Invoices went unpaid. There were production problems. There were distribution problems. Resources dwindled away to nothing. Serge licensed his brand to a manufacturer and left the market entirely.
The years passed and freestyle snowboarding evolved. I don’t believe for one moment that this obsessive, creative snowboarder’s snowboarder wasn’t watching what was going on. “The industry was, and still is, obsessed with freestyle snowboarding. They don’t look at how and where we actually like to ride. Very few snowboarders spend lots of time in the park. Brands weren’t looking at real life. It’s too risky for the big brands to innovate – these days they have to push out tried and tested products with a few tweaks here and there. I knew I could still innovate. There was still work left to do”.
The Dupraz D1 snowboard launched on 1st December 2003. It’s objective was performance, pleasure and more control, both off-piste and on. This is a board that pushes you to play. There’s a long, tapered nose to counteract the ‘snowplough’ effect and nothing else recreates that surf feeling quite like it. It’s Serge’s way of doing things. “I was very naive. The industry loved the board but by 2003 snowboarding was so big. I needed a huge marketing budget to make the impression my new board deserved and I didn’t have it. The winter sports media paid no attention to small producers. I produced what I could afford to. That’s all.”
Thirteen seasons have passed since the D1 and even though the board is still stocked in around 90 outlets worldwide, the chances are you still won’t have heard of Dupraz Snowboards. Sometimes I get the impression that Serge wants his brand to remain the best-kept secret in snowboard hardware. But while so much time, skill and passion goes into his products, surely he wants just wants them to be ridden? “How do people decide how to buy a snowboard? They take advice from the guy in the shop. They read the modern winter sports media. The guy in the shop isn’t recommending the D1, even if they stock it, because a mass-marketed board is more likely to sell. It’s a better pitch. And the magazines? They’re concerned with making the sport look extreme. I worry that snowboarding is becoming less accessible.”
Serge and I spend the next hour debating business profits versus equipment evolution in the entire winter sports industry. This is my kind of conversation and while Serge has arguably taken a non-commercial route to business development over the last 35 years, I come to an important conclusion. Dupraz may be small but it certainly isn’t niche. Serge’s boards are for everyone – any mountain, any condition, any ability. You don’t know about them because no one else is talking about them. If I hadn’t tried one, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.
Serge Dupraz – humble, obsessive, infinitely passionate. He deserves the last word in this feature. “Snowboarding. Snowboarders. The average rider deserves more than we have. Snowboarders aren’t supposed to follow trends. We make them.” His next board is currently in development.
Dupraz is still based in Annecy, you can check out the website and find out more about the brand HERE.