Outside Influences :: Outlier ~ Part 1
Our Outside Influences series talks to specialists in areas related to carry, to see what learning might be relevant within carry.
Outlier have cropped up a few times in Carryology, but we were eager for a proper in-depth interview with the folks behind the brand. While their primary focus is around active apparel, look closer and you’ll discover that there’s more carry to this brand than meets the eye. From their UHMWPE Minimal backpack, to innovative pocket detailing, and a collaborative approach with fabric mills, Outlier are a great example of a small startup changing a whole industry.
Abe Burmeister and Tyler Clemens, the founders of Outlier, let us behind the scenes to talk shop. There was enough talk that we’ve split this interview into two parts. So without further ado, let’s dive into part 1…
Andy: When you guys started there seemed to be a cycling focus to your brand, but now it’s really shifted more into general active apparel. When you look at brands like Finisterre and Rapha they have really kept a specific activity focus, you know, it’s either surf or it’s cycling or it’s something like that. How about you? Are you trying to generate more general active gear?
Abe: We don’t want to be a lifestyle brand, right? So we look at for instance Apple. When Apple makes a product they’re not, “Oh yeah, we’re just trying to make it for 25 to 35-year-olds in this market and there’s this many of them.” They’re like, “We’re trying to make an amazing product.”
So we have customers and most of our customers are in a certain range and live in cities and whatnot. But we have people who are in their 60s or their 80s who love it. And then there are kids who are saving up to buy it. It doesn’t really matter to us.
Tyler: And then the flip for us is that we want to make stuff that we’re going to wear. We’re actually making stuff for us to wear that we love.
Andy: So do you think of you and your friends as, “Alright, here’s our test group. This is who we want to stoke…”?
Abe: It’s just we make it for ourselves.
Tyler: Yeah, and we’re lucky that we have an Online Direct model so we can make a small run. We do prototypes and do a beta run of it and then release it to our mailing list, and get some feedback from them as well.
Andy: That’s the beta run where there’s not as much warranty?
Abe: Yeah, we experiment on products, and what we found is we’d make a few because we’re making locally and we have that ability; put it up, test it, see what happens. And if it sells fast then we’ll make more and if it sells slow, we won’t.
What we started seeing is that if we said it was experimental, people would buy it even though they didn’t want it, just because —
Andy: A limited edition.
Abe: Yeah, or they regret it, or they buy too many sizes and then they return it, and so it was hurting our ability to do this kind of experimental stuff. So now we make it a little more high risk, like “You buy it, you keep it.”
Tyler: So then people who really want it will get it, and they’ll give us the feedback. We get feedback all the time; every day people are sending us e-mails telling us, “You know, I love this about the product but do this.”
Andy: And you seem pretty active on Twitter as well. I guess you see things pop up in that comment dialogue.
Tyler: Yeah, we’re always communicating with people.
Abe: But we also have what we think is a pretty generous return policy. It’s 45 days, any reason, any condition. So in order to keep that – the experimentals were sort of making that policy tricky. And we’re like, “We want to keep that policy as strong as possible.” So the experimental stuff is opted out of it now and it lets us keep experimenting publically. We’re always experimenting internally too.
Andy: Are you starting to get better attention from the mills? I always know it’s hard when you start small.
Abe: The shirt we released, the oxford, that was a custom mill fabric. So that was really cool that we got to work—
Tyler: Directly with the mill; we spec’ed the yarns on that, we spec’ed the weave, we spec’ed the finishing.
Abe: The shirt size is easier to work with because they’re always doing these yarn-dyed patterns and stuff. The shirting mills are better set up to kind of switch and customize, and the mill that we actually work with, they actually also extrudes the fibers themselves. So they were pretty cool to work with.
Tyler: Yeah, they were great. And people at the company really were talking about our company before and looking to us as inspiration for doing some of their line. So they’ve been really open and receptive to working with us.
Andy: So did your oxford come through that program, or once you’re doing your own custom fabrics is it a bit harder?
Abe: It’s a little bit harder but we did it and we did an experimental edition.
Tyler: Yeah, we did a small run and we got some feedback on that. But really, it was our feedback driving that one. It was personally what did we want out of it? And so we went back and we iterated on the fabric and changed the yarn sizes so that they have a little bit more dimension and breathability.
Andy: So pulling them open a little more?
Tyler: It’s just the dimension of it, like the different thicknesses.
Abe: When you have a thick yarn and a thin yarn, when they’re woven together they’re different diameters and you get more space developing in between them.
Tyler: So we went back and tweaked that. And then we did our next run of it and we had an amazing response; people love them.
Andy: In terms of testing, do you try and simulate all seasons? Do you jump in a hot room and sweat it up if it’s the middle of Winter when you’re testing these things?
Abe: A little bit. One of the things we try and do is develop stuff in season and test it.
Tyler: On this one, we did a lot of field testing. We were at it all year round.
Abe: It’s not your middle-of-Summer shirt, you know? But you can easily wear it in the Spring, Fall, and some Summer days too. So that was pretty easy to test. But with certain things it gets tricky. We would look around and like find a walk-in fridge or something.
Tyler: And then when it does get tricky like that, sometimes it’s good to get outside information. So we take it to a place called Vartest and they run standard tests on fabrics, things like dimensional strength.
Andy: Is that side of things starting to increase for you guys? I know often when brands start, it really is going off raw intuition.
Tyler: It is, yeah. I think it’s still definitely intuition, but it’s nice to have the other information because more information makes you…
Andy: It helps you understand why that’s doing that, or why something wore out in the crotch.
Tyler: Yeah, exactly.
Abe: It’s interesting because you can get these numbers and sometimes they mean something, sometimes they don’t. So people talk about waterproof, and you get this water column number and people know there’s a number and that higher is better, but you don’t really know what it means and how it relates to—
Andy: Breathability or…
Abe: Yeah, there is no breathability. So there’s different measurements and we’ve started working with this laboratory which is crazy because it’s in the middle of Manhattan and you could just walk in this huge, old building and the whole floor midtown essentially is just this insane laboratory.
Tyler: It’s amazing.
Abe: They’re testing stuff for the military, and there’s a little biohazard room. So it’s pretty wild, and we’ve been working with them.
Tyler: But also it allows us, now that we have a broader range of fabrics, to test against what we know those fabrics are. So we’re now comparing in our own line, which is nice.
Abe: We never just use a number for the sake of a number. We want to know what it means, right? Some of it makes sense, like pounds per square inch. You can figure, “All right, that makes sense.”
Tyler: We actually haven’t published any of those results either. And we haven’t said this for what it is because we want to build up more of a body of knowledge, and then use that.
Abe: Absolutely, but one of the big things is we’re buying all this stuff from the outdoor industry, and we buy from other industries too but in the outdoor industry there are a lot of people who shop by numbers.
They’re like, “Okay, we need something that does this, this, and this.” And their suppliers figure out how to make that as cheap as possible but you get a crappy fabric. It doesn’t feel good. So we want to avoid that whenever possible, and the whole has to be greater than the numbers no matter what.
Andy: I think one of the funniest things about the outdoor industry is that it’s so much about appreciating nature, and yet all the gear is bright, synthetic, crinkly, kind of noisy. It’s not natural outdoors and it’s really odd. It’s one of the things you guys are starting to fill really nicely and we’re starting to see merino wools come back in, we’re starting to see natural fabrics treated in more tech ways, all that sort of thing. It feels like it’s been missing so badly.
Abe: Yeah. It’s funny because we see the outdoor industry and we don’t really see ourselves as making for that. But some of our stuff is better. It’s not our design parameters, right? So we’re not trying to make stuff you can backpack in but sometimes it’s –
Andy: It actually works.
Abe: We’re using better fabrics.
Tyler: Absolutely. Our dungarees are incredible for hiking…pants for the climbers that are really great for general.
Andy: The stretch, they’re not bad in weather, they dry quick, all those things. I guess slugging it out on a bike is a similar sort of vibe.
Abe: The guys at Juniper Ridge, the soap brand, they wild craft soaps and stuff and they live in our stuff. They go out for like a couple of weeks at a time and are like, “This is the stuff.” So they’re our testers, but at the same time it’s funny because we see all these problems with the outdoor industry – and there’s good stuff too – but we see it and we know but we don’t really try and address it too much. We’re still just taking the fabric and going. But we get to see a lot.
Andy: So thinking about your audience, it feels like your audience really is an urban base because it is mixing work and play, kind of a more active community.
Abe: Yeah. I think part of the reason the outdoor industry is the way it is is because you’re – it’s weird because it’s sort of antisocial – it’s social in its way because some people are out going out there alone but a lot of people are going out there in groups. But they want to get away from people so they don’t really care what they’re communicating to other people.
Tyler: The outdoor industry is also built for the extremes, right? Building for expeditions on Everest. But that’s not what you’re doing every day and so that’s not our customer. We want to design for every day like we live.
Andy: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, Fridays you open up to everyone and let them come in and try things out. Is that really interesting for you guys? Do you try and kind of eavesdrop in and overhear…?
Tyler: We actually find ourselves helping.
Andy: And in terms of your business, I guess you guys are managing pretty quick growth as well?
Andy: Is it fairly frequent hiring at the moment?
Tyler: Right now, yeah. It’s starting to get into a busier season for us.
Abe: We’re bootstrapped so our ability to buy fabrics constrains our ability to grow. But there’s a lot of iterations on stuff we’ve been developing or have developed and we have a seamstress who is working four days a week, and we’re building almost all our prototypes in-house now which is great. Stuff just gets made, and we can test it and play around. We’re making almost all the patterns in-house now too.
Andy: Yeah, so it’s still really an apparel focus. However, you guys are starting to do a few more collaborations on accessories. You did the original collaboration on the Minimal Backpack. So how do you decide when to try and do it all in-house versus external collaboration?
Abe: It’s very collaborative, so we debate what we want to focus on. The whole company is involved in that and it’s really where the energy’s at. If people are excited about something, and we don’t care if it’s apparel or what, if the energy’s there then we’re going to run with it because we want it to be fun.
Tyler: But in the case with Mike [Mike St. Pierre] at Hyperlite, it kind of fell in naturally because we had met him at Outdoor Retailer. We really enjoyed hanging out with each other, and we liked what they were doing.
Abe: Yeah, we were one of their first customers. We were looking at the fabric, the Dyneema they were using. And then we were talking to the Dyneema people, and they had one of the bags, and we were like, whoa, that’s where we should be happening.
Tyler: So it developed pretty organically. But the great thing with them was that we couldn’t actually make that ourselves. So we brought something to the table and they brought something to the table, and we actually made a pretty cool product.
Andy: It’s sold out at the moment. Is it going to come back, are you reworking it a little?
Abe: The Minimal will come back, at least one run of it.
Andy: One of the things about Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylenes is that because they are so hard to work with they’re so often very minimal backpacks. Whereas I guess a lot of your customers are commuting with a laptop, with a bit of tech, with a bit of other stuff. How have you balanced that?
Abe: We did another pack with them this Summer. It was a version of the Windrider, we kind of stripped – the same thing we do with the Minimal. Well, the Minimals actually were the ones we told him to make in that fabric. We knew he was making bags but we were like, “Take the fabric you’re using in this bag and put it into this bag.” He was making it with the non-laminated stuff that’s just Mylar and Dyneema, and that stuff is strong but it wears through relatively quickly because of the Mylar. And then it looks like a plastic bag because it’s Dyneema encapsulated in Mylar, right?
Tyler: It was cool though. But we helped with making the strap a little bit better too and that kind of stuff.
Abe: Yeah. A lot of when we work with Mike it’s just taking what he’s doing and figuring out how to strip it down so that our audience is going to appreciate it a little bit more. People are going into the backcountry and they need certain things, and a lot of those packs are specified for very particular activities.
Andy: A lot of them are still custom-made. It’s like going up K2 you’ll kind of get every little detail custom designed for you.
Abe: Yeah, we feel like Graham [Graham William] at Cilo Gear in Portland, you know, a lot of this stuff is pretty awesome. Really spec’ed out.
Tyler: For the Minimal we wanted it just to be stripped down but also have the ability to pack up to a really small size. So when you have that design parameter, you don’t want to design for laptops. Actually, our stance on laptops is that we don’t commute with laptops ever. We use everything through our phone. So there’s not much use to design to that.
Abe: We try and avoid really tech-specific designs. We want to be as useful as possible, so we try and make things that are a little more versatile. It’s the same with pockets on our jackets; our philosophy is more stripped down. And one of the key things we do is psychologically we want the pockets to be distinct to avoid when you’re trying to find something and you’ve got so many pockets you don’t know which one it’s in.
Andy: Are you expecting people to ride home with a phone in their pocket with keys and some coins and that sort of thing?
Tyler: It depends on where you put it at. We put it here [indicating front shirt pocket], so we actually developed this little catch-flap thing. So it goes over the top of whatever is in your pocket, so if you do lean over it doesn’t come out.
Abe: Our pockets are always designed to be deep so things don’t fall out.
Andy: Pocket design is just one of those things that so few people have really thought much about. The way you’re describing using your product, there is this feeling of really believing in your product.
Abe: Yeah, so with our sweat pants we built a catch which is pretty discreet. And then one of the things we like to do a lot is build these kind of secret stash pockets. That really came from when you’re riding your bike around and you don’t have a bag and you think you’re going to be home soon or whatever, and then you want to buy a magazine or eat a sandwich or grab a beer or something. It’s not built for long-term carry, but just to have that quick pocket you can throw something in and get it to your next location.
Andy: Without it compromising the garment really; it’s light, it’s slender. So it feels like a major part of how you guys started was fabric insight, to really understand the fabric performance. Are you starting to move more and more onto these construction insights?
Abe: The construction came in pretty early, but the fabric’s what made it work from the get-go. We fell in love with the tech fabric, and it’s what made the very first products. But you know, we had this Pivot sleeve, and this was kind of our…
Tyler: This was us playing with form and design, and using the fabric in its natural stretch in the bias to really loosen up and really allow movement.
Abe: It’s partly the bias, but a lot of it’s the construction. We’re limiting the seam here. Usually when you pull forward, it starts pulling across the back. By eliminating that seam, you get rid of that. And then the bias gives you extra stretch. But it’s not even necessary.
Tyler: And you know we did gussets in pants.
Andy: Yeah, it makes a difference. Funny enough, I’ve ended up in some Levi’s Commuters where they’ve reinforced the crotch. But the way they’ve done it is downed the hell out of the inside, so it tears apart your inner leg when you walk. It kind of really grates on you. They’ve built reinforcement on the inside, but they’ve then zig-zag stitched the whole lot to get it in, and so it kind of just starts rubbing. [Laughter]. It’s not quite resolved, but this is Levi kind of playing in your guys’ space. They’re starting to go, alright, well let’s think about it more and put a bit of stretch in and put some stain resistance in, put a bunch of actual features in.
Abe: They’re stopping using the NanoSphere. The NanoSphere is what helps things roll off, like the water resistance, and it’s because Greenpeace really targeted them about sort of chlorofluorocarbon treatment. So they’re going to be switching to something else which won’t work as well. It has good water resistance. But it doesn’t have any of the oil resistance. So it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
Andy: It’s funny with that stuff, I was talking to some Nike designer friends really recently, and they were saying, “Yeah, occasionally we see these fabrics that are amazing! And other brands are using it.” And they’re like, “If only they didn’t have really bad labor practices or terrible influences on the environment or whatever,” and Nike have been really disciplined with holding back and not using these fabrics that they’d love to be able to but they don’t complete the picture.
Abe: An Italian company makes our rivets and shanks and stuff and they have this amazing matt-black finish and literally they have a little sticker that says, “no eco” on it. They tell us, “No, you can’t sell it in Japan. You cannot sell a product with this finish in Japan. It’s so bad for the environment.” So we always look at it, and we’re like, “God damn!”
Andy: It’s so hard to get metal finishes in black that look great and hold up and don’t chip off.
Tyler: We don’t tend to have that problem with fabrics so much though because we’re working a lot with Schoeller and designer textiles…
Andy: And they’re already Euro standard, the whole deal.
Abe: Yeah and some of them set the standard. But the Europeans aren’t angels when it comes to chemicals either, you know? They have certain higher standards and certain things are just like, “What?”
Andy: Yeah, totally. Do you guys have a philosophy with what you’re trying to do there, like avoiding toxins or trying to find things that can be recycled…?
Abe: We want to make the best possible product, and that means considering everything. So we’re pretty lucky in that a lot of our – like the Bluesign standard came from Schoeller, right? And so Schoeller had been thinking about this stuff. They’re in Switzerland, it’s landlocked, they care about the environment and the pollution and that helps a lot. And then the merino stuff, there is different metrics, but most people rate it pretty highly in terms of the environment. When they rate land, when they consider all land as being equal, it gets bad environmental things. But if you consider what you could be doing with the land otherwise, then all of a sudden it has a great environmental incentive. A cotton field could be used to feed the world, right? If the mountains where the sheep were on, like there’s –
Andy: But I’ll tell you, in many parts of New Zealand if they’re not putting sheep on that land, the land’s empty. It’s some form of livestock; there are not enough people to fill it and there’s not as much crop farming.
Tyler: It’s definitely a big consideration in our design. It’s not something that we promote because what we’re trying to do in the end is just make a better product of what’s on the market. And that is a lot in terms of the function of fabric and how it looks and the feel of it. It’s not the eco story behind it; that’s a part of it. The labor practices behind it are part of it. But really, it’s about the product.
It’s like when they pushed organic cotton like crazy and then –
Andy: Now they’re going more and more synthetics, and just getting away from that because of all the water issues.
Abe: And when you look at cotton that’s organic or that’s not organic, well organic cotton takes up twice the land to grow the same amount of cotton, so yeah, it’s tricky. So we try and make the best choices we can. We certainly don’t try and hype it because we don’t know what’s up, and ultimately it’s just like that’s the best.
Andy: And the longer the garments are actually used and loved, the less harm you’re doing anyway.
Abe: And then the NanoSphere that we put on a lot of stuff, right, it is a chlorofluorocarbon so almost none or any of it ends up in the atmosphere because it’s closed-cycle application or whatnot. But yeah, it could be a better chemical in what the long-term effects are. It’s tricky. But then it also means that you don’t have to dry. This stuff dries so quickly. And something like 80% of the energy used in a life cycle of a garment is in the dry cycle. It’s in the wash too but mostly the drying, especially if it’s electric, it’s just tons of energy to heat up this thing and spin it around really fast. So you get lots of give-and-take. But yeah, we try and make stuff that lasts longer and works longer.
Andy: Yeah, and then you avoid the obvious harm, you avoid the obvious human toxins and it sounds like a good approach.
End of part 1. Stay tuned for part 2 where we learn more about what makes the folks behind Outlier tick.