Softwear: How an Underground Fashion Label for Nerds Got Cool

It’s 12:21 pm on a Tuesday, and the new coat from Outlier is running live.

For the obsessed fans of this technically minded menswear house, Tuesday falls are always a big deal. This one is bigger than most. The Shelter From the Storm is Outlier’s first breathable waterproofed shell. That’s the various kinds of thing that, if you care about it, you care about it a lot.

The jacket, in Outlier parlance, is an “experiment, ” a limited-release garment that indulges every bit of the otaku flair for which Outlier has been known since Abe Burmeister and Tyler Clemens founded it in 2008.

Which entails: The textile isn’t anything so prosaic as GoreTex; it’s Neoshell, two various kinds of nylon sandwiching a polyurethane membrane that, as Outlier’s website puts it, isn’t “extruded like traditional garbage bag’ waterproofed breathable’ fabrics, but is instead electrospun utilizing a nonwoven process.” It’s black, unlined, and its seams are sealed with pale-colored tape, which dedicates the inside a sort of Mondrian look.

The pockets close with magnets. The flap that protects the upper part of the zipper( and hides a secret pocket) seals with a precise little snap sewed onto a smaller flap, so you can fit a finger behind it. The cuffs close with ratchets instead of velcro. If you undo the two-way side zips, the bottoms lock along with “block tapey, ” a nubbled rubber alternative to Velcro that grabs like Bristle Blocks.

High-tech fabric. Hidden pockets. Five different closures. And styling that attains the half-dozen Outlier employees modeling the jacket for Instagram look like a CIA cyberninja team from the year 2043. Or maybe a well-dressed tribe of antinationalist crytpocurrency cultists. This is Outlier, Outlying.

The company sent an email to its list telling people something big was coming this week, and earlier this morning the founders did an Instagram Live splitscreen chat with a novelist from the streetwear site Highsnobiety. So at 12:21, more than 100 people are already on the website, awaiting. “We’ll see what happens, ” Clemens says, watching Google Analytics on a monitor. “It’s a $750 coat, so–”

“–any time we push the cost envelope, it’s hard to predict, ” Burmeister says, finishing the gues. That price is comparable to other makers, but higher than Outlier &# x27; s main-line offerings.

At 12:25, 134 people are on the site. Forty-two of them have clicked Purchase.

By 1:58 pm, Outlier has sold more than 80 jackets. All the extra-smalls and smalls are gone. “So that’s pretty successful, ” Clemens says, relieved. “We only stimulated like 100, but that’s a sizable run for what it is. For pants, we do thousands.”

Burmeister kicks in: “They’ll probably be done by the end of the day, ” he says. “With the experimentations, we want it to be short and sweet, or we take too much risk.”

Scroll through the 60 or so Outlier “experiments” and you get the impression risk is the company’s shtick.( I point you here to the Alphacharge Poncho, with its anime face mask, sandwich of cloths including insulation used by the US military, and hidden pocket–a veritable bargain at $888 if it wasn’t sold out.( And, sure, look at that fucking poncho LOL. Fine. But I’m still kicking myself for missing out on another experiment, a broad-shouldered riff on a 1980 s Armani suit .) Even if your personal style doesn’t widen past a hoodie and jeans–or, I don’t know, custom shoes and haute couture–the weirdness and make-stuff-better preoccupations of Outlier in the last year have been wild to watch.

And describing an ever-growing mob. Pragmatic, textile-driven design, social media acumen, and supply-chain savvy induced Outlier a darling of nerdy, direct-to-consumer technical menswear and an I-see-you signifier among Silicon Valley types. Today Outlier has 22 employees–Burmeister and Clemens are still the sole owners. Fashion business publishings have reported its revenue as between$ 5 million and $15 million, “and we didn’t dispute the fact that, ” Burmeister says. Now, 10 years on, Outlier &# x27; s increasingly experimental experiments are evidence that Burmeister and Clemens aren’t even close to running out of ideas.

The limited-run Shelter-from-the-Storm sold out in days…

Chris Maggio for WIRED

…possibly because the cuffs close with nifty ratchets.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

In the mid 2 000 s, Manhattan-born Burmeister was a graphic designer working on data viz for a small investment firm; he’d also realized that he could do almost all of his work on a laptop or even a cell phone and was experimenting with living out of a carry-on. “That necessitated thinking really seriously about everything I owned, ” he says. And he started riding a bike everywhere. “That’s what started destroying my clothes.”

So Burmeister began working on a pair of gasps that would look good enough for an office, or even after work, but that were tough enough for cycling.

Meanwhile Clemens, who was raised outside Toronto, was working at a New York custom-shirts-and-suits company. He’d grown up reading his sister’s style magazines and gotten very interested in the business. One rainy day he walked into a coffee shop, soaking wet. The barista asked him why he didn’t have an umbrella, and Clemens explained that he was testing the water resistance of a prototype shirt.

The next day, Clemens strolled into the same coffee shop and the barista handed him a coffee-cup sleeve on which Burmeister, also a frequent customer, had written his email. The barista said: I think you should meet this guy.

Pants tough enough to deal with anything became Outlier’s signature play–trousers “for the end of the world, ” as the folks at GQ put it.( Like WIRED, GQ is owned by Conde Nast .) “We were trying to solve a specific cycling problem, ” Burmeister says. “How to not look like a cyclist but still perform.”

They started going to textile conferences–Outdoor Retailer, then in Utah, was a big one. They wanted to find out where big companies, which they assumed use the very best stuff, got their furnishes. But it turned out that the big companies of the world actually employed the best cheapest materials.

As for the actual best, well, “we found that there was all this stuff nobody was touching. We were stunned. Like , nobody is using this? Nobody is employing this? ” Burmeister says. Military fabrics, equestrian cloths, industrial fabrics–they were all for sale, or had been. They find, for example, a doubleweave with Cordura-grade nylon on one side and a softer nylon/ polyester blend on the other. It seemed like it would make really great pair of jeans.

Cofounder Abe Burmeister employs social media to keep Outlier fans engaged with otaku-level details.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

Burmeister and Clemens bought 3,000 meters from Schoeller, the company that made the textile. “Back then, it was nuts for us, ” Clemens says. But it actually did make a good pair of jeans–what Outlier now sells as Slim Dungarees ($ 198) became the core of the line. They’re light, durable, water-resistant, and stylish in a cyberpunkish, anonymized way–unless you’re hip enough to recognize subtle tells, like the jaunty cant of the change pocket. I’m wearing a pair of loaners as I type, in a bluish neutral I would call Megalopolis Stealth.

The two men had fallen in love with the idea of forget, unloved textiles with superpowers. “You merely spiral into this world, ” Clemens says.

Consider, for example, “paper nylon, ” a Japanese nylon that cracklings and crinkles like construction paper unless it gets wet, when it softens( and then dries back into stiffness ). They induced that into a tote bag with high-end Austrian mountaineering hardware for the buckles and a version of Ikea’s giant shopping bag with custom-made webbing for straps.

Then there was Dyneema, an ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene used in boat cables and body armour. “We’re doing it in denim, but it’s hard to cut, ” Burmeister says. “It’s strong and slippery.” So it’s lightweight and doesn’t stretch, which means it builds great knapsacks. But working with it is difficult because it slides between the blades of a shear, like when you’d try to cut paper with a dull scissors in kindergarten.

“And it has a cooling effect, ” Clemens says. “But we don’t know yet.”

“The jeans will probably last forever, ” Burmeister says.

Tyler Clemens, the other cofounder, hunted down the right mills in Manhattan’s garment district to launch the label.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

Or…look, I’m going to keep going with this, because the love Burmeister and Clemens have for these obscure fabrics is so genuine and therefore highly contagious. They light up when they start talking about GSM weight and nanotech coatings. So, or: injected linen, which somehow inserts a linen weft–the side-to-side part of a woven fabric–into a polyester knit warp. To the Japanese company that came up with it, it was a failing. “I think they said they sold 200 meters to somebody once, ” Burmeister says. “It took us a couple years to find a use example, but the opacity-to-openness ratio was radically different. It’s constructed like blinds, column of knit bent around the weft, and all the weft yarns are flat.”

Anyway, apparently it’s as opaque as fleece but feels like wearing linen. And the same machine that induces it also stimulates carbon-fiber reinforcements for concrete. Now it’s the basis for Outlier’s summer-weight shirts, gasps, and shorts.

And they were able to find an Italian mill that would deign to construct Super 140 fibers for shirting, which apparently most Italian mills feel is beneath them, because the real glory is in textiles for suits.

They &# x27; ll go on, of course. But now, as we talk, over Burmeister’s shoulder I can see the rack where I hung my commodity-skiwear green waterproof-membrane jacket with zip-in liner, and it is embarrassing me.

Clemens notices it, too–particularly the mirrored sheen of the inner lining. “Oh, it’s supposed to reflect hot back? ” he says.

“Yeah, but it isn’t breathable, ” I answer. “It got all sweaty last night.”

“Their contractor brought that to us first, ” Clemens says. He has nothing to add. God, I genuinely hate that coat now.

The pants are Outlier’s “Slim Dungarees, ” cycling-friendly jeans that are still part of the core line-up.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

Clemens walks west on 39 th Street, Blade-Runner lumens from Times Square lasering out at us every time we hustle across an avenue, hunched against the pre-Christmas cold and the pre-Christmas shoppers.

New York’s Garment District stretchings perhaps 10 blocks south from here, houses 100 years old or more, a dozen tales high, full of fashion design companies but also the factories that fabricate their stuff–fluorescent-lit rooms taking up half or a one-quarter of a floor with broad tables where people translate hand-drawn patterns onto newspaper, cut those patterns out of cloth, carry those bundles of cut components to places that sew them together, and so on.

When they started Outlier, Clemens says, you could walk around the garment district from factory to mill with pieces of textile and get something made. This is what “artisanal” are applied to mean, before hipsters–face-to-face social capitalism.

The label’s Brooklyn studio has an archive of everything Outlier has sold, and prototypes for weekly new releases. Please tell me this is not a cape.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

In one build he introduces me to a human sewing insulation into an Outlier coat, a “production sew-by” hanging next to his machine with a note written on tape inside it: “face of lining should be SHINY.”( Not as shiny as my coat; blerg .) Almost everyone at the machines is of Asian descent; a giant crock pot of noodles is bubbling fragrantly nearby, bowls stacked next to it. “To find all these places was fun for me, because I love the hunting, ” Clemens says.

To some extent, it &# x27; s still the case that if one place doesn’t have the right machines to stitch together that textile or to ultrasonically weld it and then tape the bond, the person in charge knows who does. But the garment district is changing. Earlier this year The New York Times reported that only 413 garment companies remain in the area, with 813,000 square feet of space( down from 1.1 million in 2009 ). In 1950, 323,669 people worked on textile products in New York. In 2016, that number was 22,626.

Many of the foyers are getting remodeled; Clemens loses his bearings and actually takes us upstairs in the wrong building at one point. Build owners would rather rent to architects, media companies, startups–firms that’ll pay more rent, have nicer offices, make less noise, and have fewer minimum-wage laborers going up and down the elevators. “Our gasps factory, their rent went up, so we lost them, ” Clemens says. That was thousands of divisions that have to go somewhere else, likely Portugal, where Outlier now sends a lot of its work.

The mood board in the studio reveals that Outlier’s coloring palette tends toward cyberpunk noir.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

That change away from small-batch manufacturing is more than just a problem of late-stage US capitalism. The whole reason Outlier could exist was that the company could set up an exacting, specialized supply chain and fabrication process without having to charge zillions of dollars, because internet. Retailing immediately to customers means you don’t have to give a cut to wholesalers, department stores, trucking companies, and all the other players involved in promotion and distribution.

“A young company like us could come along and run direct to the consumer, ” Clemens says once we’re back outside. “We could cut out an entire markup so we could bring better value to the market.” Which is business-speak for, that $888 poncho would cost a hell of a lot more at Nordstrom.

Comparable clothing can indeed cost a lot more from “the worlds biggest” companies operating in Outlier’s competitive space. Acr’teryx Veilance sells tailored, technical-fabric gasps and coats for twice what Outlier does. Other competitors–Mission Workshop, Acronym, Aether–tend to be almost completely online retailers, with maybe a pop-up or simply one or two brick-and-mortar outposts.( Technical textiles are quite a bit cheaper at a place like Uniqlo, of course, but the styling isn’t as idiosyncratic. And more on Uniqlo in a little bit .)

Outlier’s headquarters is in–I bet you guessed this–an industrial building in a gentrifying part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When they started out, Burmeister and Clemens could find their customers online, work in a subreddit, gain an Instagram following. Now the ads go through social media, and social media algorithms control who sees what. The cost of acquiring new customers keeps escalating. Outlier has more challengers, and the algorithm that control who sees what and when in a social media feed foreclose the various kinds of organic reach the company are dependent upon a decade ago.

Outlier relies on social media to find audience and customers for its “experiments, ” like this wool-blend fleece topcoat–it’s also sold out.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

Like pretty much everyone, Outlier now utilizes Facebook’s Lookalike audience tool to recruit eyeballs–you give Facebook your customer list, and Facebook generates a new listing for you of people who definitely sounds like it. It runs, but it doesn’t using the same immediacy or fanboyishness of the subreddit.

Menswear has always had to contend with a certain squeamishness about way among many of its clients; with exceptions like the dandyism of the 1960 s, the American Gigolo / Miami Vice hedonism of the 1980 s, and Mad Men ’s retro-fueled tie- and lapel-thinning, vanilla heteronormative masculinity tends not to acknowledge that aesthetics are enough of a reason to buy clothes.( Contrast that with women’s wear, which marketplaces almost entirely on seem and feel, even though it’s full of technological innovation–Spanx are genius, and if you like the Apollo space suits you should thank Christian Dior’s New Look and Playtex undergarments .)

Technical capabilities and a science fiction vibe can provide an excuse–maybe it’s a rationale–to become avid about style. Clothes that you can wear to bike to run, to sessions with bosses, and then out for dinner check off boxes for convenience and simplicity, sure, but they also give adherents a covert frisson of in-group coolness. “Mens manner is infinitely more interesting than women’s at the moment, ” says Kay Durand Spilker, dres and textiles curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and one of the people who put on an extraordinary menswear exhibit there in 2016.

The availability of interesting materials is one reason. Another is that culture spreads faster, thanks to digital media. And the stereotypical openness to way among gay humen has gained wider culture currency. “That kind of adventurousness in fashion has been more important in stimulating it more mainstream or acceptable to some guy who wouldn’t even consider wearing a jacket with a print.”

Thread 😛 TAGEND

Chris Maggio for WIRED

So someone starts get the Outlier emails and lurking in the subreddit, and pretty soon he has a personal investment in the label. Outlier loyalists are the kind of people who not only buy the experiments but don’t wear anything else. “I follow Outlier really closely, and I follow the fashion industry a little bit, but I’m not, like, a tech-gear guy, ” says Brian Michael Payne, who works in tech in New York and is active on the Outlier subreddit. “I’m more various kinds of minimal and trying not to have tons of stuff. Which may be a way of justifying Outlier stuff.”( By which he entails justifying the purchase of a $500 jacket .) Payne appreciates that the company’s return policy lets him buy weird stuff when it falls to try it out, which maybe he’ll send back and perhaps he won’t. He has three pairs of Outlier’s Strong Dungarees–“and I don’t actually require any more pants, ” he says.

Facebook Lookalikes, though, may not make the same loyalty. Now they know more about the person or persons looking at their products–their age( 25-32) and locatings( urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York )– but for actual feedback on what works and what doesn’t, Facebook is a black box. “We have this very direct connection to our customers[ through Facebook ], but it’s a mystery, ” Burmeister says. “Online, maybe there’s a million more clients, or maybe you’ve make the last one.”

“We have this very direct connection to our customers[ through Facebook ], but it’s a mystery, ” Burmeister says.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

“Online, maybe there’s a million more customers, or perhaps you’ve hit the last one.”

Chris Maggio for WIRED

That induces it tough to know where Outlier goes next. The mostly online retailer Everlane, which underscores its products’ technical qualities as well as its supply chain, reportedly attained $18 million in gains in 2014 and was on track to double that in 2015. Most of what Everlane sells is cheaper than equivalent products at Outlier, its aesthetic is simplified to the point of being an anti-aesthetic, and Everlane is expanding aggressively, backed by venture capital and opening brick-and-mortar stores.

On the giant, commodity side, Uniqlo has a strategic partnership with Toray, a manufacturer of synthetic textiles. It can do the data-driven stocking that an H& M or Zara might, too, because it turns over tremendous volume at brick-and-mortar stores around the world. Uniqlo’s parent company made $1.57 billion in earnings this year, most of that from Uniqlo stores outside Japan.

It’s not clear where Outlier fits. “We’re on the internet, right? ” Burmeister says of the difference between Outlier and, well, everyone. “We’re not in the same stores. We’re not showing at the same days. We’re not talking to the same reporters.”

In Silicon Valley, a company like Outlier would be ripe for acquisition. The logic of a Silicon Valley-style acquihire, to the extent there’s logic at all, is that the people in the smaller company are of value to the larger company. But manner is more like haute cuisine than high tech. Outlier does, improbably, hold a patent on a sleeve design that lets a wearer stretching more freely, but someplace like J. Crew doesn &# x27; t need to acquire Outlier as a prestige label-slash-R& D store. Outlier is, in a sense, already their R& D shop. If Banana Republic wants to start a technical-textile driven line, it merely … will. “That’s how the clothes business runs, ” Clemens says.

Expanding its scale might be one way forward. That’s part of what the experimentations are for–if a garment sells out not just the first time but the second, perhaps it picks up enough momentum( with changes born from the subreddit remarks) to make it into Outlier’s regular line. “We kind of saturated the amount our existing base could buy, ” Burmeister says. “In order for us to keep growing–we thought about whether to keep growing or not, but that’s a separate conversation–we can’t sell more Slim Dungarees or 60/30 Chinos.”

“Our products tend to last a long time, ” Clemens says.

It’s the opposite of fast fashion’s wear/ wear off/ dispose/ replace approach. “So they buy the pants, ” I say, “but then they have bought the pants.”

“And they’re good. For years and years, yeah. But if you want to use the best factories and textiles in the world–” Clemens says, and then Burmeister interjects: “–yeah, that’s another part of it. We need scale to get access to the type of factory that’s willing to go out and buy a machine that just came out a few months ago.”

“Our products tend to last a long time, ” Clemens says.

Chris Maggio for WIRED

It all makes a weekly product review at Outlier fraught. At today’s meeting they’re planning product after product, a lineup of weekly releases that widens for a year. There’s a blazer I covet and a pullover shirt I do not. A shirt with a cowl and a hidden pocket. Gasps with a slick side-panel stripe and piping. A Merino wool triangle meant to be a neck warmer, with a powerful magnetic close. Burmeister isn’t sure people want a powerful magnet right next to their brainstem. Another paper nylon product is in the works, made of the same stuff as Outlier’s Ikea shopping bag riff. They’d stimulated that bag open-topped, Burmeister says, because of the style the fabric loses structural integrity when it gets wet. “Then we were like, what else is open-topped? ” he says. So now Jasmine Plantin is showing off a newspaper nylon laundry bag–cylindrical and standalone, but with a drawstring liner. She’s going to add straps and hardware like the ones on the tote.

One problem: “The factory in China won’t make it, ” Burmeister says. “It’s not strong enough to move from the ultrasonic welding machine to the taping machine.” So they’ll do it in New York City first.

And if it turns out that paper nylon holds onto the odors of dirty laundry? Or nobody needs a several-hundred-dollar laundry bag? It is, Clemens acknowledges, kind of ridiculous.

Off to one side of the studio space, Burmeister and his squad have pieced together some huge chunks of yellowing closed-cell polyurethane foam, like the stuff in camera containers, each block the size of a bale of fodder. On the right they’ve built a blocky chair shape; on the left, something about the sizing and shape of a double bed. Both are draped with thick gray industrial felt.

It’s furniture. Outlier furniture, where a cyberninja might recline after a tough mission. You can see it in some of the photos on the website.

It’s not quite ready for lounging yet. The feel sheds, so this afternoon one of the crew is draping a big sheet of ultrasuede over the bed-couch thing, tucking it tight under the felt and then strapping it with metal bands bolt deep into the foam. Metal cables garroted inward on the chair. Maybe the bands will hold it all together without slicing it apart.

Clemens watches, and to me he appears somewhat worried. Now he has to figure out foam? And upholstery textile? Where do they construct that in Manhattan?

Maybe. For now, it’s simply an experiment.

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