It’s 12:21 pm on a Tuesday, and the new coat from Outlier is going live.
For the obsessed fans of this technically minded menswear house, Tuesday drops are always a big deal. This one is bigger than most. The Shelter From the Storm is Outlier’s first breathable waterproof shell. That’s the kind 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 means: The textile isn’t anything so prosaic as GoreTex; it’s Neoshell, two kinds of nylon sandwiching a polyurethane membrane that, as Outlier’s website puts it, isn’t “extruded like traditional garbage bag ‘waterproof breathable’ fabrics, but is instead electrospun using a nonwoven process.” It’s black, unlined, and its seams are sealed with pale-colored tape, which gives the inside a sort of Mondrian look.
The pockets close with magnets. The flap that protects the top 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 together 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 makes 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 writer from the streetwear site Highsnobiety. So at 12:21, more than 100 people are already on the website, waiting. “We’ll see what happens,” Clemens says, watching Google Analytics on a monitor. “It’s a $750 jacket, so—”
“—any time we push the price envelope, it’s hard to predict,” Burmeister says, finishing the thought. That price is comparable to other makers, but higher than Outlier'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 made 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 experiments, 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 fabrics 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 1980s Armani suit.) Even if your personal style doesn’t extend past a hoodie and jeans—or, I don’t know, custom shoes and haute couture—the weirdness and make-stuff-better obsessions of Outlier in the last year have been wild to watch.
And drawing an ever-growing crowd. Pragmatic, textile-driven design, social media acumen, and supply-chain savvy made 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 publications have reported its revenue as between $5 million and $15 million, “and we didn’t dispute that,” Burmeister says. Now, 10 years on, Outlier's increasingly experimental experiments are evidence that Burmeister and Clemens aren’t even close to running out of ideas.
In the mid 2000s, 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 required 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 pants 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 fashion magazines and gotten 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 walked 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 Condé 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 used all the best stuff, got their supplies. But it turned out that the big companies of the world actually used 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 using this?” Burmeister says. Military fabrics, equestrian fabrics, industrial fabrics—they were all for sale, or had been. They found, 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.
Burmeister and Clemens bought 3,000 meters from Schoeller, the company that made the fabric. “Back then, it was nuts for us,” Clemens says. But it really 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 forgotten, unloved textiles with superpowers. “You just spiral into this world,” Clemens says.
Consider, for example, “paper nylon,” a Japanese nylon that crackles and crinkles like construction paper unless it gets wet, when it softens (and then dries back into stiffness). They made 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 armor. “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 makes great backpacks. 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.
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 failure. “I think they said they sold 200 meters to somebody once,” Burmeister says. “It took us a couple years to find a use case, but the opacity-to-openness ratio was radically different. It’s built like blinds, columns of knit bent around the weft, and all the weft yarns are flat.”
Anyway, apparently it’s as opaque as wool but feels like wearing linen. And the same machine that makes it also makes carbon-fiber reinforcements for concrete. Now it’s the basis for Outlier’s summer-weight shirts, pants, and shorts.
And they were able to find an Italian mill that would deign to make Super 140 fibers for shirting, which apparently most Italian mills feel is beneath them, because the real glory is in fabrics for suits.
They'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 heat 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 really hate that coat now.
Clemens walks west on 39th 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 stretches maybe 10 blocks south from here, buildings 100 years old or more, a dozen stories high, full of fashion design companies but also the factories that fabricate their stuff—fluorescent-lit rooms taking up half or a quarter of a floor with wide tables where people translate hand-drawn patterns onto paper, cut those patterns out of fabric, 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 factory with pieces of fabric and get something made. This is what “artisanal” used to mean, before hipsters—face-to-face social capitalism.
In one building he introduces me to a man 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 jacket; 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'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 just 413 clothing 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 lobbies are getting remodeled; Clemens loses his bearings and actually takes us upstairs in the wrong building at one point. Building 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 pants factory, their rent went up, so we lost them,” Clemens says. That was thousands of units that have to go somewhere else, likely Portugal, where Outlier now sends a lot of its work.
That shift 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 directly 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 go 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 bigger companies operating in Outlier’s competitive space. Acr’teryx Veilance sells tailored, technical-fabric pants 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 just one or two brick-and-mortar outposts. (Technical fabrics 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 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 competitors, and the algorithms that control who sees what and when in a social media feed foreclose the kind of organic reach the company relied on a decade ago.
Like pretty much everyone, Outlier now uses Facebook’s Lookalike audience tool to recruit eyeballs—you give Facebook your customer list, and Facebook generates a new list for you of people who look like it. It works, but it doesn’t have the same immediacy or fanboyishness of the subreddit.
Menswear has always had to contend with a certain squeamishness about fashion among many of its customers; with exceptions like the dandyism of the 1960s, the American Gigolo/Miami Vice hedonism of the 1980s, 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 markets almost entirely on look and feel, even though it’s full of technical 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 fashion. Clothes that you can wear to bike to work, to meetings 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 fashion is infinitely more interesting than women’s at the moment,” says Kay Durand Spilker, costume 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 fashion among gay men has gained wider cultural currency. “That kind of adventurousness in fashion has been more important in making it more mainstream or acceptable to some guy who wouldn’t even consider wearing a jacket with a print.”
So someone starts getting 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 kind of minimal and trying not to have tons of stuff. Which may be a way of justifying Outlier stuff.” (By which he means justifying the purchase of a $500 jacket.) Payne appreciates that the company’s return policy lets him buy weird stuff when it drops to try it out, which maybe he’ll send back and maybe he won’t. He has three pairs of Outlier’s Strong Dungarees—“and I don’t really need any more pants,” he says.
Facebook Lookalikes, though, may not create the same loyalty. Now they know more about the people looking at their products—their age (25–32) and locations (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 customers, or maybe you’ve hit the last one.”
That makes it tough to know where Outlier goes next. The mostly online retailer Everlane, which emphasizes its products’ technical qualities as well as its supply chain, reportedly made $18 million in profits 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 maker 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 profits 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 times. 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 fashion is more like haute cuisine than high tech. Outlier does, improbably, hold a patent on a sleeve design that lets a wearer stretch more freely, but someplace like J. Crew doesn't need to acquire Outlier as a prestige label-slash-R&D shop. Outlier is, in a sense, already their R&D shop. If Banana Republic wants to start a technical-textile driven line, it just … will. “That’s how the clothes business works,” Clemens says.
Expanding its scale might be one way forward. That’s part of what the experiments are for—if a garment sells out not just the first time but the second, maybe it picks up enough momentum (with changes born from the subreddit comments) 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 out/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.”
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 extends 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. Pants with a slick side-panel stripe and piping. A Merino wool triangle meant to be a neck warmer, with a powerful magnetic closure. 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 made that bag open-topped, Burmeister says, because of the way 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 paper 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 team have pieced together some huge chunks of yellowing closed-cell polyurethane foam, like the stuff in camera bags, each block the size of a bale of hay. On the right they’ve built a blocky chair shape; on the left, something about the size 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 felt 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 screwed 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 looks slightly worried. Now he has to figure out foam? And upholstery fabric? Where do they make that in Manhattan?
Maybe. For now, it’s just an experiment.