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Local Outdoor Apparel Company Fosters Mountain Lifestyle
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Cassie Abel, founder and CEO of Wild Rye at Ketchum HQ, with her dog Kirby.
   
Monday, April 1, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KATE DALY

Little did Cassie Abel know when she attended third grade at Community School that it would be such a pivotal point in her life. But that was her first step into becoming the founder and CEO of Wild Rye years later.

Based in Ketchum, the women’s outdoor apparel and accessories company sells products in some 300 stores nationwide.

Cassie grew up in Vashon Island outside of Seattle and, when her mother filled in for a teacher on maternity leave at Community School for a year, the family rented a condo from Ned Post, the former president of Smith Optics whose son was a classmate of Cassie’s.  The Abels liked the place so much they ended up buying it and spent a lot of time in the Wood River Valley.

 
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Wild Rye offers stylish and comfortable women’s clothing for biking and other outdoor activities.
 

Cassie went to Colorado College where she played lacrosse and majored in Economics.  For her thesis she chose “Marketing and Branding in the Ski Industries” and she did case studies on Smith and K2 skis.

After graduation she took an investment banking job in Denver, then gravitated back to lacrosse, coaching at UC Berkeley before switching over to work for a marketing agency in San Francisco.

“I ended up in Tahoe every weekend and fell back in love with the mountains,” she said.

She accepted a marketing position at Grand Targhee in Driggs, Idaho, for a year until her dream job came through in 2012 and she moved back to Sun Valley to act as a global communications person at Smith.

 
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Shannon Allen, vice president of People & Ops, sits with Cassie Abel, founder and CEO; Ren Egnew, marketing specialist, and Keeley Vestman, sales coordinator.
 

“I went to trade shows in the outdoor industry and saw very few women…and the women’s apparel almost never fit; it was not very exciting,” she recalled.

When Smith relocated to Portland, Ore., Abel started consulting with a friend in Tahoe to develop a new company focused on more technical, quality, contemporary looking outdoor apparel for women.

They launched Wild Rye in 2016, and in 2018 Cassie bought out her partner and moved everything to Ketchum.

Wild Rye now has nine fulltime employees, all women who like bringing their dogs to work at the corner of 6th St. West and Second Avenue. It also boasts one male whom Abel describes “as the token cat guy in Seattle.”

 
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Cassie Abel founded Wild Rye in 2015 when she couldn’t find technical apparel that met her standards of function and style.
 

In addition, the company has a pro team of female athletes and ambassadors, such as nurses, ski patrollers and even a biochemist who ski jumps. They play key roles in product development because in exchange for free clothes they give valuable feedback on what is or isn’t working.

Abel says the company continues to strive to make comfortable and stylish base layers for snow sports to get away from what she remembers as the only choice a decade or so ago when long underwear was “tight, and made you feel like sausage encasing.”

Wild Rye’s mountain bike shorts are strong sellers and have crossed over to other sports.  Cassie finds women using them for hiking, golf and on the river, given they are quick dry and sun protectant.

All manufacturing takes place in Asia. Sizes range from 0 to 24.

 
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Cassie Abel named her company after a mountain native hearty grass that grows between 6,000 and 9,000 feet in alpine meadows and granite outcroppings of the Rocky Mountain West.
 

“We’re fundraising, we’re looking to raise capital to expand our product line,” said Abel.

In the next year or two customers can expect to see an “active dress” and some “court-friendly” items.

The first brick-and-mortar Wild Rye is slated to pop up in Boulder, Colo., this summer.  Otherwise, products can be found locally at Sturtevants, Pete Lane’s, Backwoods, Elephant’s Perch, Galena Lodge and The Trailhead. Elsewhere, they can be found at REI, Title Nine, Evo and Backcountry stores, as well as online at www.wild-rye.com.

One feature on the company’s website is the “pre-loved” section where people can resell their Wild Rye gear directly to another customer and receive 80 percent of what the product sold for or 110 percent store credit.

“We love it for the circularity, and it increases our accessibility, allowing people to enter our products at a lower price point,” Abel said.

Abel is proud Wild Rye is a Certified B Corporation supporting community practices and employee policies. It’s also Climate-neutral Certified, and a member of 1% for the Planet, which entails donating 1% of annual income to approved environmental charities.

She is also pleased to have started Women-Led Wednesday in 2018.  It’s an annual shopping day--the Wednesday before Thanksgiving--when people are encouraged to buy from what has grown into a directory of 800 women-led brands.

What really makes Abel happy, though, is being able to ski and mountain bike with her husband, Mike Stemp, and their four-year-old son.  Stemp is a special education teacher at Ernest Hemingway STEAM School and a part time guide for Sun Valley Guides.

The family lives in Ketchum with Kirby, one of the friendly dog greeters at nearby Wild Rye headquarters.

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