Abe Burmeister is back in a familiar state: excitement.
Outside it’s a wet, ugly afternoon in Brooklyn, and I’m sitting in a big renovated studio that in a past life was used to gild Bibles. Flanking me are Burmeister and Tyler Clemens, the two cofounders of the clothing brand Outlier, as lead designer Adrienne Mercante sits across the table tapping her fingers. Burmeister, who speaks with a soft lilt, is suddenly invigorated, geeking out hard about the molecular properties of a new fabric that 99% of people have never heard of. Clemens and Mercante, seemingly familiar with the spiel, look bored.
“We’re releasing a duffle bag tomorrow that uses ultra-high molecular-weight polyethylene,” says Burmeister, his voice in crescendo. The former graphic designer is swaddled in a deep blue hoodie-slash-shroud that sways beautifully whenever he stands up or takes a step. A thick tangle of beard emanates from his chin, and he looks like a futuristic wizard, or a character out of Assassin’s Creed.
“Polyethelene is a plastic, and this,” he says, as Clemens hands me the duffle bag, “is a very refined and expensive version of polyethylene. It’s crystalline, so the ultra-high molecular weight means it’s super dense.”
This was just one of the half dozen times our conversation veered into a granular discussion about the tensile properties of fabric. And that categorical nerding out over the details is instructive for explaining what makes Outlier, Outlier.
Since 2008, Outlier has been making tech-y clothes for city slickers who hate carrying umbrellas. Think: the rain-defying properties of a boxy Patagonia jacket, but packed into a trim J.Crew blazer. Instead of ordinary cotton khakis, Outlier’s New OG pants, for example, are made of something called Dryskin Extreme, a stretchy cloth by famed textile mill Schoeller. This material helps the pants breathe well, repel liquid and dust, and stretch in places that would otherwise shred your jeans in embarrassing ways. The clothes are on the pricey side. (The New OGs go for $240.) But they’re engineered to blur the line between what’s office appropriate and what you might want to pack for a long hike in the woods. Ideally, you’d wear the same thing to both.
To outsiders, the brand’s origin story might read like a Rom-Com: One morning in 2008, Clemens, then at a small French label, walked into his usual coffee shop about block away from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, wearing a crude homemade shirt cut from a material that repels water, akin to raindrops sliding off a leaf. “My barista Jenny was like, ‘Hey do you want an umbrella?’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s cool. I’m just testing this shirt,’” says Clemens. “And she was like, ‘That sounds like something Abe would be using. He comes into the coffee shop every day. You guys should meet. I’ll give you his email tomorrow.’”
Burmeister meanwhile was tinkering with water-repellant trousers that he could wear on his bike—something that would offset a change of clothes if he needed to head uptown for a meeting. The next morning, he wrote his email address down on a coffee sleeve.
Soon emails were sent. The two agreed to meet for coffee, and things took off from there. Together they made a pair of abrasion-resistant, anti-rain pants that wouldn’t look out of place in an office setting. A size run was ordered; a few samples were given to friends; and they started Outlier—a name they claim to have had before the Malcolm Gladwell book—in the hours after their day jobs, using Clemens’s living room as an office space and warehouse. A black swan would be their logo.
Crucially, they quickly scrapped together an attractive website to sell stuff on, and began collecting emails.
Today, the advantages of going online-only are well documented. No expensive mark-ups. Real-time data. Tight control of your brand narrative. That sort of thing. But in 2008 it was a different story. Warby Parker, launched in 2010, built what’s reported to be a $500 million business behind the top layer of nerdy-chic-altruism. Everlane that same year had the radical idea of rounding out your wardrobe with sturdy, classic staples.
Outlier falls very much within that web-only framework. Although the brand has no official marketing budget, it has built for itself a strong aspirational narrative—one that’s mostly contingent on visuals, which helped the brand percolate throughout the menswear blogosphere after the website went live.
“We showed up on this small blog that had a big readership,” recalls Burmeister. “It was Damon Way—[professional skateboarder] Danny Way’s brother—an executive at Incase who did the business-side of DC shoes.” From there, the reblog economy did its thing: Outlier showed up on PSFK, High Snobiety, Refinery 29, and more.
The company does not openly share sales figures or growth numbers. And it is hard to tell, from the outside, how profitable it is. It is 100% bootstrapped by Burmeister and Clemens, who say they are growing at a “target pace.”
“Outlier started out as this urban cycling brand, but it’s drifted apart from that,” says Jian DeLeon, deputy style editor at Complex, who has covered the brand since its inception. “I don’t think they were necessarily the first to do technical clothing, but they managed to build a successful brand riding the Made in USA wave.”
The brand’s formula goes something like this: Enlist crazy next-gen fabrics used by mills in Italy, Japan, and Switzerland; keep the design-talent in-house; stitch everything together in local factories; and push everything out over this newfangled thing called the Internet. Over the years, the idealized Outlier buyer has evolved from a trendy cycling urbanite, to cliff-scaling rock climber, to a sweatpants-wearing cozy ninja.
“I’d love to create an outfit that you could just travel the world in,” adds Burmeister, when I ask him what, ideally, he’d like to create. “Without a bag at all.”
It’s been a steady evolution. Instead of designing seasonal collections like a traditional fashion house, Outlier focuses instead on one product at a time. (Say, a polyethylene duffle bag.) Keeping the inventory runs limited, and combining that with sales data, allows the company to move quickly, experiment big, and discard whatever doesn’t work. “Bringing the whole sample making process in-house was huge,” says Mercante, who started on the product side before taking over design. “It allows us to control the speed of how things are made.”
On the third floor following a winding bike-littered hallway, about a dozen employees are staring into 27-inch Mac screens. Outlier’s main office space is tiny. Standing desks are standard issue. One designer is furiously cropping photos of that lightweight duffle bag. Another is eating soup on a small table littered with fabric samples. Almost everyone is wearing dirty Nikes.
The place is sort of a mess, as if a small tornado just ripped through the space. A shoe from a partnership with Vans sits aslant on a shelf. If you wanted to, you could read the clutter as a manifestation of the core beliefs woven into Outlier’s DNA: Move fast and keep your eyes on the future.
But while using a data-driven approach to inventory is attractive on paper, it is far from a perfect system. Missteps can be costly. “The second run [of product] is a very bad piece of data,” says Burmeister. A few years ago, Outlier ordered a large stock of a foldable jacket. The first two size runs had sold out quickly, so, logically, customers really, really wanted it.
Instead, the third run left them with a pile of leftover inventory that they couldn’t move. “We learned that if a product sells really well the first time, there is pent up demand for the second run,” says Burmeister. “The third run is where we can get a real sense of where a product is really headed.”
About three years ago, the brand won the online marketing lottery and randomly appeared on the front page of Reddit, which triggered a massive surge in traffic. They didn’t think much of it; for the most part, no one bought anything. But the brand started seeing repeat visits—at first a trickle, then a steady stream—from r/MaleFashionAdvice, where a following was budding. So they decided to try their own subReddit, r/Outlier, to see what would happen.
Today, that subReddit is a valuable petri dish. It’s here Outlier can introduce new products, announce restocks (thereby rewarding its fan base), and respond transparently to customer complaints. (Say, “Why do my buttons keep falling off?“) In return, customers provide feedback.
(“They are without question, the most comfortable pants and shorts I ever have or will wear,” wrote one loyal customer in r/MaleFashionAdvice. “This point seems small and maybe even a given, but it’s why I’m so happy to keep buying more stuff from them.”)
Reddit is a place where the brand can hold a real conversation—the holy grail of market research. “It allows you to have a long form answer,” Clemens admits. “On Twitter and Instagram you can’t really do that.”
Indeed, its customers appreciate the brand’s attention to small details. (There are even brands with a, shall we say, eerily similaraesthetic that have popped up in recent years.) But the thought behind each product, the visual story built around it, the way it’s presented online–that kind of cohesiveness has traditionally been reserved more for technology startups than a fashion company.
Outlier is in many ways both—a modern R&D lab that just so happens to do all its own advertising. They may not be gilding Bibles. But the brand is designing what’s looking to be one of the many diverging futures of online retail. Buy less, buy better, and stay dry, too. “We want to be clear to ourselves why we’re making something,” says Burmeister. “We want to distill what the product is so that we can talk about it ourselves.”
And if that product happens to be made of ultra-high molecular weight-polyethylene? Then so be it.