Elli Iselin: Aspen's Fashion Kaiser


When the gondola was installed in the mid-80s, it became not only the primary access point to Ajax, but also the de-facto center of town. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to property bordering the plaza as, “beachfront.” (As in, Performance Ski is beachfront.)

However, in the 1950s when Aspen was still rebranding from sad ghost town to glamorous ski resort, the action wasn’t at the foot of the mountain. Rather everyone ate, slept and drank over at the Hotel Jerome. Facing this beating heart of town on the corner of Mill and Main sat Aspen’s chicest little ski shop, Elli’s of Aspen. For over 30 years, Elli Iselin dressed Aspen in the finest European skiwear. But who was this fierce little Austrian with a sharp eye, a sharper tongue, big dogs and fast cars? (She drove a Corvette and then had to downgrade to a Pontiac Thunderbird later in life.)

Elli Iselin (born Stiller) grew up skiing with her family in the woods outside Vienna. “How people stared at us!” she said of her childhood. “Of course there were no lifts. We walked up.” Elli was named to the Austrian Ski Team in 1936. Friedl Pfeifer coached her to six national championships and a spot on the Olympic team. They both made it out of Austria before the war and ended up in Aspen where Elli worked for Friedl as a ski instructor alongside her husband Fred.

On Thanksgiving 1954 she opened Elli’s of Aspen and the store played an important role  blending sophisticated European fashion sensibilities with the fresh, dreamy modernity of mid-century America. The sport of skiing was only just taking off, and naturally ski wear along with it. A champion skier with impeccable taste and flawless instincts, Elli was the ideal person to navigate the radical ascent. 

“Rather than focus on trendy garb she sold the highest quality items,” reports Tim Willoughby, Aspen’s unofficial historian. “Her customers recognized quality and were willing to pay more for it.”

When asked the secret to her decades of success, she replied in typical Germanic tartness, “People came back because they liked the shop.”

While Elli did design some of her own ski outfits that were quite popular in the day, "fashion empire" wasn’t the goal as it was for her contemporaries Klaus Obermeyer and Willy and Maria Bogner back in Germany. Her legacy was more subtle, but perhaps just as important. Elli's location, longevity and uncompromising vision instilled upon generations of Aspenites that looking good and feeling good, no matter the conditions, simply must find harmony. That said, creating harmony isn’t always a harmonious exercise. Elli was notoriously difficult, but isn’t that abundance of will what forges great things?

In the ‘70s she re-sided the shop with new wood and wanted to keep the color natural. The city told her that it had to be painted Bayer blue because it was historical. Her response, “Fine. I guess that makes me historical.” 

Indeed she is ... a legend.

All photos courtesy of Aspen Historical Society.