BY 1969, Robert Redford had ascended to the status of both Hollywood leading man and downhill heartthrob. He had just purchased a tract of land in a quiet canyon south of Salt Lake City, now known as Sundance Mountain Resort, that he hoped to turn into an elite Hollywood enclave. That same year he starred in “Downhill Racer” as a small-town Olympic hopeful navigating his way through the refined world of European ski racing.
Aside from the film’s snow-covered scenery, its most memorable visual element might be a ski sweater Mr. Redford’s character wears: a snug black pullover with a red-and-white stripe spanning the chest. It’s more minimalist and less aggressively alpine than traditional Scandinavian ski sweaters—so often slathered in Fair Isle patterns or smattered with snowflake motifs. Eschewing both bulk and kitsch, the pullover looks modern even now, as plausible on the concrete sidewalks of Manhattan as on the powdered slopes of Sundance.
Ski sweaters like this elicit nostalgia for a time before crinkly Gore-Tex jackets. In recent decades, the skiwear industry has preached that high-tech synthetics are the be-all and end-all. However, for decades the world’s best downhillers wore sweaters of pure wool—a material with its own high-performance qualities, despite your average sheep’s ineptitude at sports.
Aspen, Colo., native Greg Poschman, 60, who currently serves as the county commissioner, has been a lifelong ski sweater fan. “If you get a quality sweater, it will last forever. I’ve actually lost more than I’ve worn out,” he said. “I like to hike up to Highland Bowl, you carry your skis and the sweater is perfect because it breathes.”
With so many big ski brands utilizing synthetic fabrics—Arc’teryx, the North Face, Obermeyr and Karbon among them—niche labels are standing out by reclaiming natural fibers. “Scandinavians invented skiing and they’ve skied in boiled wool and knitwear forever,” said Louis Joseph, founder of Alps & Meters, a Boston-based brand focusing on traditional skiwear. He laments how coldly futuristic today’s gear has become and argues that if a sweater “was great in Zermatt in the 1900s, then it should be satisfactory for today.” That premise guided Mr. Joseph’s decision to sell vintage-inspired sweaters knit from heavy-gauge, naturally water-repellent lamb’s wool. Substantial enough to wear as outerwear with a proper base layer (though perhaps not in driving sleet), most feature reinforced elbows designed to withstand panicked mountainside tumbles.
Aztech Mountain, a line designed by Mugler creative director Casey Cadwallader, takes a more contemporary approach to knits. The brand’s Matterhorn range offers both quiet, monochrome sweaters and vibrant Bauhaus-striped ones. Some are treated with a durable-water-repellent finish for extra protection from precipitation.
“The secret is to find a sweater with the right stretchiness so it doesn’t sag as the day goes on,” said Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller, a part-owner of Aztech. He saw a number of Redford-style sweaters on display last month at the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Mt., during its popular “Retro Weekend,” when skiers are encouraged to sport vintage gear. They fit right in, he said, but don’t wait for a throwback weekend to emulate Mr. Redford’s timeless ski-hero style.