All about the feet: Winter Park’s Le Feet Lab is an icon, innovator for feet in the ski industry
Jacques Thomas didn’t dream of working with feet for a living. But it’s where he would end up making a name for himself.
“I was working in the ski industry, and I was watching my friend work with ski boots and racing, with stinky and sweaty feet,” said Thomas. “That’s the last thing I wanted to do. But I realized that boots were the most important part of skiing. They’re 90 percent. If you don’t have good boots you can buy whatever skis you want, but it’s not going to help.”
In 1979, Thomas founded Le Ski Lab, a custom ski boot and shoe fitting company in Winter Park. Nearly 40 years later Thomas’s business, subsequently renamed Le Feet Lab, still stands as an icon and innovator in the world of custom boot fittings.
Thomas was born in Paris in 1945 where he grew up on the slopes. He began working as a ski instructor at the ripe age of 16, but had more technical ambitions. Thomas studied as a mechanical aeronautical technician, with intentions of working with planes. He joined the French Air Force where he discovered that he was colorblind, and was unable to fly or work on planes.
Dejected, Thomas turned his sights toward more familiar endeavors.
“I got to the Air Force and I was colorblind, so I couldn’t touch the plane,” he said. “They sent me to the office and I found a note in the trash. I uncrumpled it and they were looking for ski instructors for the Air Force Pilots. So I spent the winter there teaching skiing at a beautiful resort.”
Thomas went to the Centre de Montagne Air in Tignes, and quickly realized that he wanted to work in the ski industry. He stayed in the mountains during the winter, teaching skiing in France, Switzerland and Italy. His travels continued in the summer months when he would work as a tour operator, taking visitors around Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Yugoslavia.
“I loved what I was doing,” said Thomas. “It was a great job and I had a great time traveling around in those countries.”
In 1969 Thomas’ travels finally took him to the United States. He was hired as a ski coach in Woodstock, Vermont, where he helped put three racers on the U.S. National Team. He was asked to return the following year, but dissatisfied with the size of the mountain and the short ski season he decided to move out west, and began working as an instructor at Mammoth Mountain in California.
He was hired by Look Bindings, a major ski binding manufacturer in France, as a technical adviser for U.S. distribution in 1974, and spent the next two years promoting the product in the northwest.
In 1975, Thomas accepted a job with Rossignol, a French ski and snowboard manufacturer, to set up a world wide junior racing program.
“They were putting together a new budget to try and recruit all the best kids with potential,” said Thomas. “When they’re 14 years old they don’t cost as much as some of these people already competing in world championships and the Olympics. So that was a great job for me to travel around and be able to recruit some young skiers, and watch some races and some World Cup when I was around.”
Thomas worked as a technical adviser for the French Ski Team during the 1976 Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, helping racers wax, tune and test their skis. He later continued working with Rossignol helping to manage and coach the professional team in 1977 and 1978, taking home two world team titles.
He arrived in Winter Park in 1979.
“I came here two or three times for races at Winter Park,” Thomas recalled. “I saw the town had a lot of good things to offer.”
In the four years after setting up the original Le Ski Lab, Thomas expanded his business to four locations in the Fraser Valley. With a technical background and an acquired passion for boots, Thomas began to innovate in the field. He became a technical adviser for Zipfit Liners, and began inventing his own tools to help his employees with fittings. His first invention, the “Edge sensor,” is an automatic beveling tool which is now used by major ski manufacturers. Thomas also created the “Bevelmeter,” the first bevel measuring tool on the market.
“We didn’t have any machines when we would go on the road,” he said. “You’d tune the skis from one race to another with a tool box and a file. To teach that and to get the right edges is difficult. So I designed a machine so I didn’t have to spend time teaching employees to do a perfect and consistent job every day.”
Thomas continued to perfect his craft, and in 1998 condensed his four ski shops into one. In 2005 he changed the name to Le Feet Lab, a now renown boot fitting business recognized by America’s Best Bootfitters and Masterfit University.
Today Thomas runs the shop with his daughter, Jacqueline, and continues to be an innovator in the field of feet. On top of ski boot fittings, Thomas creates custom orthotics, works with persons with disabilities and has even consulted with professional sport teams like the Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies.
And all from a guy who never wanted to work with feet.
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On the same day a crucial workforce housing project in Winter Park suffered a setback, four residents requested the town add them to the waitlist for affordable units.