Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Last month, an Instagram fight broke out over some leggings. The retailer Bandier had released a new workout line, which some people interpreted as a rip-off of Outdoor Voices, an activewear brand founded in 2014. They did look alike: Outdoor Voices is known for its high-waisted leggings and crop tops, done in color-blocked earth tones and pastels, and that’s exactly what Bandier was selling. In fact, it’s what a lot of activewear brands are selling these days. Still, Outdoor Voices CEO Tyler Haney lashed out at Bandier in an Instagram story, and Bandier’s Instagram flooded with comments from irate Outdoor Voices fans.
The rash of outrage cooled and the commenters moved on, as they do, but the moment highlighted the fact that over the last four years, Outdoor Voices has done a bang-up job of searing its branding into shoppers’ brains. Right out of the gate, it had an unmistakable look (millennial-minimalist sets in fashionable hues) and an unconventional attitude toward exercise (it’s fun, casual, and playful; not a competition). The brand’s ascent is inextricable from the phenomenon that is athleisure, and today, this kind of stylish, sweat-optional sensibility is everywhere you look. But when Outdoor Voices launched, it was a novel concept — so different from the muscular, intense marketing imagery put forward by Nike and Adidas.
At the same time, the Bandier kerfuffle revealed the fallibility of brands relying on aesthetics as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Design is easy to knock off, but hard to protect.
Outdoor Voices is best known for its style, but as an activewear brand, it’s also concerned with designing for function. (The sans serif lettering on its now-famous tote bag reads “Technical Apparel for Recreation,” after all.) In the same way that Nike pours money into engineering new materials and constructions that supposedly make its athletes quicker and better-performing, the Outdoor Voices team has been leaning into the technical side of designing for recreation and sport.
Last spring, Outdoor Voices launched Tech Sweat, a fabric made for higher-intensity workouts in hotter environments, like taking a spin class or running in the summer. The nylon-heavy Tech Sweat is smoother, lighter, and stretchier than the brand’s original fabric, Textured Compression, which has a thicker feel that’s less optimal for sweating a ton. The company’s PR team recently gave me a crop top and leggings in both fabrications to test out for free, and though I’m far from an elite athlete (I call my twice-weekly-ish runs “going for a trundle”), it was obvious that Tech Sweat was the superior choice for cardio activity (more breathable and less restrictive, in part because it has fewer seam lines than the other leggings).
Tech Sweat was a big push for the brand: The design team worked with a mill to develop the yarn from scratch, and all told, it took a year to create. In a phone interview, Haney didn’t put a number on how much it cost to create compared to Textured Compression, but said that it was a significant resource investment “from a time perspective and a labor perspective, as well as a testing perspective.” This past year, sales of Tech Sweat products grew at a faster rate than sales of any other material.
In April, Outdoor Voices will release a running capsule collection, its first range designed for one specific sport. Previously, Outdoor Voices organized its products into a “kit” system broken down by intensity level: a “studio” kit for low-impact workouts, a “rec” kit for everyday activities like walking the dog, and the “tech” kit for more intense exercise. This shift may seem like a difference in marketing language — and it is — but it’s an important one. While it gives Outdoor Voices the potential to become the go-to for certain activities, helping it gain an edge on lookalike athleisure brands, it also opens the brand up to failure in a new way, if it doesn’t live up to being the best in a category.
If you explore the research and development (R&D) that goes into a Nike product, you’ll find motion-capture studies of how elite athletes move on the field and court. The brand registered nearly 700 patents in 2016. Under Armour’s revenue rose to hit $5 billion last year, and Adidas did $5.6 billion in sales in its most recent quarter alone. How can a startup keep up with that?
“Under Armour once was a new brand taking on Nike and Adidas. LuluLemon too took on the big boys,” writes NPD retail analyst Marshal Cohen in an email when I asked about how a young activewear brand can compete on R&D. “But not all challengers are able to make strides that put them on the map. More brands have tried and faded than have made it. Keep in mind the bevy of brands trying to emerge through online direct-to-consumer and private labels from stores.”
At the moment, Outdoor Voices’s biggest strength is the one thing money can’t buy: a fanbase so avid that it will ravage another brand’s comments section at the drop of a hat.
Running is the first Outdoor Voices collection that began with soliciting customer input on social media. It’s a strategy much like the one Glossier has perfected: inviting fans into the creative process to cultivate loyalty and then selling them exactly what they want.
“We said, ‘We’re building an assortment around jogging and running. Tell us what your preferences are, what kind of support you need,’ and we folded that back into our product development,” Haney says. “Now we’re launching what we consider to be the best six to eight pieces for OV’s customer.”
Haney now plans to begin all product development cycles this way. A call for input on athletic bras — a category that Outdoor Voices is building out this year — elicited close to 1,000 responses, complete with links to fans’ favorite bras on the market and thoughts on what materials, designs, and closures they prefer. Until this point, Outdoor Voices has designed its crop tops (which have built-in bras) for relatively flat-chested women, and the bras it has coming in late summer will offer medium and high support.
Crowdsourcing could make the design process more inclusive, but Outdoor Voices is also playing catch-up on that front. Fans of the brand have pointed out on social media that, in maxing out at XL (roughly a size 12-14, though some commenters say that it fits like a 10), Outdoor Voices ignores a huge segment of the population.
The brand is launching two new categories this spring and summer in addition to running apparel and bras, though a rep for the company stayed quiet on what they’ll be.
The Outdoor Voices approach to making and marketing technical apparel is a tough balance to strike. Haney says that while the new running collection will be good for three-mile joggers, you’ll also be able to run a marathon in its gear (the team got feedback from “real runners” while designing). But even as Outdoor Voices seeks to cater to those high-performance athletes, Haney is trying to keep the conversation about technical properties relatively low-key.
“We don’t want to over-techify it,” Haney says, of how to market technical apparel. “We want it to be like your best friend talking.”
In her view, performance technology is less about telling customers that they’ll be faster, stronger, whatever, and more about making them feel strong and confident. Function doesn’t just mean making leggings that you can do a brutally hard workout in, either, but adding a snack pocket in a piece of clothing intended for a more casual hike.
It’s a tricky line to walk, communicating that the brand is for recreational use as well as major athletic events, all while keeping things light. But if there’s one thing Outdoor Voices does well, it’s branding.