Kelly Slater is one of those transcendent figures, who participates in a relatively niche activity (surfing) but is recognized throughout the world. Sure, part of it has to do with dating Pamela Anderson for a stint and playing Jimmy Slade on Baywatch. But the main reason is that the 11-time world champion does things on a surfboard that no one else can. At 44 years old, Slater still pulls maneuvers in the water that guys 20 years his junior can’t fathom.
For much of his career, Slater was synonymous with Quiksilver in the same way that Michael Jordan is tied to Nike. If you saw Slater, you probably saw the brand’s mountain and wave logo, be it on a board, T-shirt, or hat. So when he announced that he was parting ways with the company a few years back, it was a big deal not just to surfing but to sports as a whole.
After the initial shock subsided, the next questions was what would Slater do next. The answer is Outerknown. With support from Kering, the French luxury goods company that owns Gucci and Puma, Slater was launching an apparel brand focused on creating sustainable clothing that looked good and could keep up with his globetrotting schedule. While Slater provided a lot of the inspiration for Outerknown, the task of designing the clothes was the responsibility of John Moore. A veteran menswear designer with a diverse background, Moore had worked everywhere from iconic 90s streetwear brand Freshjive to Hollister to Quiksilver, where he had previously collaborated with Slater.
While Moore knew how to make great looking pieces, having been named one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers In America in 2014 for his work with heritage surf brand M. Nii, creating garments that were made sustainably in fair conditions was new to him. The fall/winter 2016 collection will be Outerknown’s fourth and it reflects how far the brand has come. The pieces have an understated look that feels very pulled together. The idea is that you can throw just a few items in a bag when you travel and still pull together the perfect outfit for any occasion.
We spoke with Moore to find out about the challenges of making clothing sustainably, working with Slater, and how he picks his outfit each day.
You’re on your fourth season with Outerknown. How do you see this brand evolving?
I think we’re in this for the long run. Fashion can be very unforgiving. But as we started this journey we knew that sustainability wasn’t going to happen easily and we made sure that all of the people involved had this patient mentality. The one thing that we weren’t going to compromise was the sustainable piece of the puzzle. I look forward to the day when you and I are sitting down having this conversation and we’re saying we’re 100% sustainable. We’re not quite there yet. Probably 85% of our materials are sustainable and 100% of our manufacturing practices are FLA (Fair Labor Association) certified. That’s the backbone of everything that we’re doing. Style has always been something that I’ve been influenced by. But that’s the fun piece of the puzzle. The sustainable piece is really why we’re doing it.
Is it tricky to balance sustainability, performance and commerce? In many ways those things are in conflict. How do you reconcile all of that?
What’s that saying, “Cheap, fast, good. Pick two.” It’s been impossible. We’re doing it in strides. As a designer I always had a vision and you wouldn’t think about how you were making something. You’d just do it then try and fit it into a price point. With [Outerknown] we came out saying we didn’t want to compromise on sustainability. [With traditional] surf clothes you’re going to try to get them at the best value and the highest margin. We started from Day 1 not thinking about that stuff. When we launched there was a lot of pushback on that. It felt like the whole world was screaming at us. They were all cheerleading us along the way about how cool it was going to be that we were going to be sustainable. But then we launch with a $95 beanie and everyone freaked out. Three months after that beanie launched, we’re almost sold out of it.
Is it easier to do that from scratch as opposed to changing an existing process since you don’t have these entrenched ways of doing business?
You quickly realize there’s few resources that you can tap into. But once you find them, they’re there with you. They’re invested in these same values and way of building products. But a lot of those factories might be really well versed in sustainability don’t necessarily understand fashion. They might be used to making sportswear and it doesn’t have to fit that good, it just has to work. That’s been one of the big challenges is finding those few resources that can deliver on both sides. We have a woman named Shelly Gottschamer who is our Chief Sustainability Officer. She came to us from Patagonia. She’s really led the way with the supply chain. We’re working in seven different nations globally.
Why do you think surf lifestyle resonates so strongly with guys?
It’s so aspirational— the freedom of being in the ocean and living this amazing life chasing ways and everything that goes with it. I think everyone dreams of the ocean. There’s always been that gravitational pull. I’ve been a surfer my whole life but I think it’s a beautiful sport to watch. Kelly himself is the most stylish surfer of all time, and I don’t think you have to be a surfer to appreciate that. There’s an interesting parallel to his style in the water with style on land.
How involved is Kelly with the brand?
That would be a great question for him. From my perspective, this is an opportunity for Kelly to do everything he loves in a sustainable fashion. He’s there with me throughout the process as someone who’s traveling all over the world and sharing inspiration and different ideas he’s coming up with. He might be wearing one of our trunks somewhere and say it would be better if we did this. He’s on the ground when it matters. When we went to Slovenia in November of 2014 to figure out if Econyl [a nylon made from recycled fishing nets] was real, he was there. We’re planning another trip similar to that to visit our partners in Peru later this year. He’s our global ambassador.
It seems like menswear is in a state of flux right now, where do you see things heading going forward?
It’s interesting to hear you say that it’s in flux right now because you could argue too that there’s been the most energy in fashion over the last five to six years around menswear. I think the world is going virtual and that has it’s benefits. But I also feel like it’s lacking something real. It’s lacking that tactile touch and meaning that you can get by touching and feeling things. I’d like to think that brands that mean something, that have authenticity and can connect with a consumer on a different level are going to be the most interesting things in menswear going forward. Before you used to be able to just put on a really good show or be really great with fits, and that was enough. You have to have that other dimension today. I think it’s why there’s really great things happening in streetwear that aren’t necessarily the streetwear of the past. They’re more artistic, more fashionable. I think we’re trying to go down that same path. I just think menswear is moving in a place where it’s not about a singular idea. Heritage isn’t going to cut it anymore. Made in America isn’t going to cut it.
You once said, “Fonts tell lies.” With ”authenticity” being such a big buzz word, a lot of brands talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. How do you make sure you don’t fall into that trap?
I know how loaded that word “authenticity” is. I think the reality is that we’re just living our lives and building products that we want to wear. Besides these jeans, today I’m wearing Outerknown head to toe. When we started, I’ll be honest, that was harder for me to do because I was delivering on certain pieces of the puzzle but we weren’t able to get the quality and the fit right. I think now that all that’s coming together. The brand has the style piece of the puzzle and the authentic piece of the puzzle.
I’ve been branding business my whole career. I’ve done a lot of things that were just based on fantasy. How many different ways can people call bullshit on what you’re doing today? If we aren’t able to deliver on what we’re saying then there’s no substance to it. The meaning is in the name, the Outerknown is the furthest reaches of what we understand. We’re going to do this the best way we can. We’re going to make a million mistakes along the way because that’s the name of the game in fashion. It’s all about good intent. The day I’m not wearing this stuff is the day that this is bullshit.
How has the surf community embraced Outerknown? Who is the Outerknown guy?
We never built this for surfers. We just happen to be surfers and it informs a lot of our decisions. We launched this and the entire surf world screamed at us. Six months later what we found is that the people that do appreciate sustainability, great style, great fits, they’re probably a more grown-up mentality, but it’s still this youthful creative community of people that want to understand what’s behind the products they’re wearing. What we’re finding is [the Outerknown appeals to] a man who appreciates great quality and wants to know the backstory of everything he’s into. He probably feels the same way about the car he drives and the food he eats. I can’t take as much pride in living my life that way as Kelly can. He literally makes his own almond milk in the morning. He’s a great ambassador in that sense because he’s always led his life that way.
What is your routine for picking out an outfit in the morning?
I’m like most guys, I have a uniform. I always wear a T-shirt. I wear these shoes [Clarks Wallabees] just about every day because they work in a myriad of conditions. I hardly deter from that. Maybe it’s a California thing, but I’ll wear that same uniform all year round and I’ll just layer differently. I don’t think a whole lot about it.
What’s one garment that every guy should have a great version of?
A shirt jacket. I’m actually wearing one today in wool, but we do our Econyl evolution of it. To me, it’s a top layer in L.A., a mid-layer in New York. It has the styling of a button-down so it’s more refined, but it still has that street mentality so you don’t look like you’re trying too hard.