Into the Outerknown

A Q&A with John Moore

How can I put this simply? Through my work I’m exposed to a lot of brands and there aren’t many that check all of the boxes. Outerknown is a rare exception that does it all. The product is great, the mission is critically important, the founders are inspirational and Outerknown is cool. When does it all come together like this? Not often.

Outerknown isn’t just a surf brand or a menswear (and womenswear) company. It’s not just Kelly Slater’s clothing sponsor or an environmentally focused start-up. It’s all of those things and then some. Outerknown is setting a new standard. I say this as a fan and a customer.

Everyday I become more worried about where fashion is going and how important it is for everyone to address climate change in bigger ways. I’m concerned about workers rights and the conditions in which my clothes are made. I don’t want to spend money with brands that aren’t going to take these issues seriously. I know as a consumer the most powerful thing I can do is vote with my wallet. So that’s what I am going to do with brands like Outerknown and the others that are doing things right.

Outerknown helping to set the tone and push sustainability forward. At the same time it is transforming the idea of what an athlete or celebrity brand is. In many ways it’s one of the most exciting entrants into the apparel space in a long time.

I chatted with Outerknown Co-Founder & Chief Creative John Moore about sustainability, surfing and what it takes to build a brand with Kelly Slater. I’ve known John through various brands he has done and have always respected him as a person and as a creative. What he’s doing with Outerknown is both perfectly timed and well-executed. The way the brand is pushing the apparel world forward is inspiring.

Our conversation is below.

ACL: What are you inspired by? Could be a brand, a person, a band, a place... 

John Moore: Only one thing Michael? Too hard, I’m easily inspired… given the last 12 months we’ve had, I’m currently feeling really inspired by the promise of a new year, a new beginning, and hopefully a world that’s going to be kinder and more thoughtful. Like most, I’ve been feeling a mix of so many emotions these days, so I’ll give you a blend of many things bringing a little joy and optimism into my life in these strange times. The fact that Outerknown’s community supported us during this global pandemic inspires me. The resilience and positivity coming from my children in this cuckoo year of doing school through a computer screen blows my mind. I’m sure it helps that they are older, and we’re all daydreaming of road trips again to the places we miss and love. And just generally spending more time with my family in close quarters without work travel is something I’m really cherishing. Might never happen again.

Been listening, watching and reading so much more.  A lot of Willy Nelson to calm the nerves, and the soundtracks to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film Series. I highly recommend watching  “Lovers Rock” by the way. So good. Getting lost in the pictures in T.Adler Books inspires me, and devouring all sorts of books at the moment which is new for me like James Baldwin and Tosh Berman’s memoir of his father Wallace Berman. Most importantly getting to start my day in the ocean every morning while we’re working from home inspires me. We’ve had an amazing run of waves in California over the last six weeks. The sunrises and the full moon lingering over the sea through the morning over the last week have inspired me greatly.  

And ACL being back also inspires me. Truly. I’ve always loved your point of view and the quality and craftsmanship you stand for. Good Podcasts fuel my zoom breaks, and I’ve been tearing through them so I was happy to discover some new ones from your newsletters that I really enjoy. And those Wim Wenders photographs from your email this morning were so good!  I want to see more.

And I don’t care what anyone says. Extreme comfort in what I’m wearing puts me in the right headspace working from home every day, and Outerknown’s Sur Sweats (Someone called them a “Creative Suit” for 2020) is what I’m living in. I’m sure this sweatsuit thing is sacrilege for many in your camp, but just keeping it honest. And I can’t have too many pairs of good socks too. I share all of mine with Hannah, and it’s a constant rotation. 

I’m also inspired by the great perspective this last year has given all of us. So many of us are lucky to even be working. And I’m very thankful and extremely inspired to be a small part of a great team that thinks about the wellbeing of our workers and the health of the planet every day. We need to slow down, do fewer things, and buy fewer things. The things that matter.

What does it mean to be a sustainable brand right now?

I ask myself this daily. We’re constantly evolving and challenging each other to be better internally as a team, but also modeling for the industry to inspire other brands. I’m proud that Outerknown is leading the way on so many fronts of the sustainable clothing movement, and everyday we’re constantly questioning how to do each step of the process better.

You wrote something in one of your newsletters about how easy it is to overlook where or how things are made because we’re so far removed from the process. Did I get this right? With Outerknown, we’ve just slowed it all down and gotten extremely intimate with every detail. When you understand the impact you are making, you can’t help but try to do better. So to know Outerknown’s story is to understand that sustainability is the foundation of our brand that everything is built upon. When we began, very few brands were part of this conversation – you could count them on one hand, and now there’s many. This is a good thing. More demand, more innovation.

And at the same time, I’m really struggling with how many boxes I received at home this holiday, and how many times I filled up the recycling bin. Outerknown plays a part in this, and buying online isn’t just because of the pandemic, it’s here to stay. And we can’t move quickly enough to alternative and reusable packaging to solve the waste onslaught. And then there’s the massive carbon impact of making the shipping part so easy. Free shipping and returns are easy on the customer, but hard on the planet. So you can lead the way on so many fronts, and still feel like there’s so much work to be done.

And like I said, all of this adds up to constantly learning and evolving as brands and customers. And hopefully through channels such as ACL, sustainability and responsible innovation will become benchmarks of good quality, along with great looks, function and durability. Hopefully we’re entering an era where the intent of the brand or maker, will be just as important as the desirability of the product itself.  

Where is sustainability going in the future? 

It’s already happening. You’re starting to see sustainable messaging showing up all over the branded landscape in the communications and advertising we’re looking at.  There are greatly varying degrees of what this all really means. For some brands, sustainability is simply marketing or damage control, and for others like us, it’s a full-on commitment.

But here’s the catch - just when you’re getting your head around sustainability, you realize it’s not enough. “Sustainability” needs to become “circularity” as soon as possible. Outerknown has committed to being 100% circular by 2030 which by definition means we’re committing to getting rid of 100% of the pollution and from design and development process. The goal is to only use materials that already exist while giving our customers a clear solution for what to do with their Outerknown items when they are done with them so we can keep them out of landfills and put them back in circulation. And just like our commitment is evolving from sustainability to circularity, I think this will take time for the industry to get there. But if most are taking the first steps towards sustainability now, that’s a cultural shift in the industry that will benefit all of us in the long run, and drive innovation!

What's it like working with Kelly?

Kelly’s always been a champion of the environment and lives his life in the cleanest way possible. The planet-friendly mission behind Outerknown wouldn’t exist without him, so that’s a good place to start. We started Outerknown when I still had the studio, and the mentality behind every client project was how quickly can an idea turn into a huge business and make a billion dollars. This way of working is brutal on the workforce, and forces a brand or business to cut corners to protect margin with zero regard for quality of life or the environment. Outerknown was the opposite. How do we smash the traditional formula of building clothing and do it in a completely new way?  How do we understand every touch-point and ingredient of the design and manufacturing process, so we can confidently stand by our claims. And it was paramount to Kelly that the wellbeing of the entire workforce was equally, if not more, important than our regard for the health of the environment.   Pretty good marching orders if you ask me!  

We were four people in those early days without any sustainable experience, just learning as we went. It hasn’t been easy, and so many doubted us, but hopefully I’ve been a decent wingman on the design and brand side always believing this was possible, and constantly applying our learnings and passion to drive us to be better. We have an amazing team these days - there’s now 50 of us learning new ways to build better every day. Do we wish we got more time with Kelly – hell yeah.  Who wouldn’t? But there’s something special about having him out there in the world, and that’s part of our design process. He constantly shares with us ideas, discoveries and conversations he’s having during his travels that are a constant source of inspiration. And hands down, he’s the best field-tester we could ask for because he’s always traveling and prefers to pack light. So whatever he packs in his bag, absolutely has to perform and look great regardless of the destination. Not just well built, but comfortable for the long haul too!

Do you guys ever surf together?

Yes. On a few different occasions including some memorable sessions in Japan. Kelly’s awesome to surf with because everyone in the water wants to be near him.  So I’m on the next peak over totally alone getting waves. Haha…

One of the best days I've had in a long time was at Surf Ranch. Talk to me about what that place means to both you and to Outerknown as a brand?

Yeah, that was such a fun day dude, and I’m really glad you decided to get in the water. Raimana is a legend and a great teacher, and you got a couple of fun ones!  That’s probably the best feeling we can have up there – watching others have these transcendent moments on the water. The pure stoke and joy on everyone’s face is what Surf Ranch is all about. How would you explain it?  I always prefer to hear about it from others, as I’ve been involved in bringing the experience to life up there and I’m so close to the project and I feel like I always sound silly when I try to explain it. The words soulful and magical comes to mind, and I always feel calm up there, even with all of the excitement. The team on the ground are truly what makes the place. They’re all so warm and excited to share the experience with all of the guests regardless if you are a seasoned surfer, beginner, or spectator. The waves are great, but it’s the entire experience across the property, and most importantly the incredible staff that truly make any day at Surf Ranch unforgettable. Outerknown has been the official partner for all the exclusive Surf Ranch merchandise and uniforms since the beginning as well, so we’ve got a retail presence on the property which we’re hoping to expand in 2021.  

It doesn't feel like a lot of people understand the materials aspect to sustainability. How does Outerknown work within the limitations of sustainable materials and where are things headed from a materials standpoint?

The only limitation is time. “Sustainability” and “quick” don’t mix well. Everything we do requires more R&D so patience is a prerequisite. But we’re building clothes for the long haul. Items you’ll have for years to come, so lasting quality and durability is more important than a constant search for newness in materials. For example, our signature Blanket Shirts are made from the same lofty organic cotton twill we’ve used since day one. This has not changed one stitch since the beginning. And we’ve been adding more styles and patterns in this same material over time. Now we’re trying to convert this into recycled cotton without compromising the softness or quality of the original. We know this will take time and that’s OK. Today more than 90% of textiles we source are made from preferred fibers (organic, recycled & regenerated) and, as I mentioned, we’re committed to complete circularity by 2030 which will means that all of our materials will need to be recycled and have the ability to be constantly regenerated. As it relates to sourcing and development, we’ll always make the right decision even if it’s the more challenging and expensive one. Overtime, we’ve been able to build a library of proven sustainable materials that our customers love.

The name Outerknown was meant to conjure up the furthest reaches of our understanding, or possibility. And we want to constantly lead and pioneer new innovation and this means that not everything will be successful, but you won’t know if you don’t try. In 2015 we launched ECONYL regenerated nylon into the market in our trunks and jackets made from discarded fishing nets, carpets and other nylon waste and we’re focused on pioneering new innovation like ECONYL multiple times a year moving forward. There are so many game changing ideas we’re looking at that still have a long way to go. Many are still in testing or laboratory phase, and sometimes we only see a little swatch, or even just a fiber. Getting yardage at a viable price and quantity could take another couple years. We understand this and so we parallel-path developments on multiple material, packaging and logistics concepts at the same time so we’ll always have enough to drive the business forward. We don’t need to make something for everybody, but what we do make must be the most ethical, functional, and best-looking in its class. Always designed to endure.