Outerknown Settles Into Sustainability

Outerknown

As of Thursday, February 15, 2018

When John Moore started a new gig at Outerknown, he didn’t think he was going to have to rethink all of his assumptions about design.

At the Culver City, Calif.–based menswear brand devoted to sustainable clothing, he couldn’t order just any fabric. He was limited to what was certified as eco-friendly. He couldn’t work with just any factory. He had to work with factories certified as paying their workers a fair wage.

After a career spent working with prominent labels such as Quik­silver and Abercrombie & Fitch, Moore had made a commitment to manufacturing clothes with a new set of rules.

“It takes time. You make mistakes. For me as a designer, it was learning how to design all over again,” said Moore, who has shoulder-length hair and a long beard. But Outerknown’s presence in the world of sustainability is growing.

It was three years ago that Moore started Outerknown with surfing star Kelly Slater. Luxe conglomerate Kering—which owns brands including Stella McCartney, Gucci and Puma—came on as a minority investor.

It is a brand trying to change the clothing business by leading by example.

In October, the board of directors of the Fair Labor Association voted to accredit Outerknown. The accreditation means the brand regularly assesses the working conditions of its vendors and works to improve them. The accreditation is an official stamp of approval and shows that Outerknown has been following FLA guidelines ever since it started making clothes in 2015.

Outerknown also works with Bluesign guidelines to eliminate harmful chemicals and substances from its supply chains. The work of manufacturing clothes with an extra set of guidelines can be complex, said Isaac Nichelson, the founder of S3, a Los Angeles–headquartered sustainability agency that has consulted with Outerknown.

“It is complicated to follow a GOTS [a certification group] certification through the spinning, through the knitting, the dyeing, the cut and sew and certifying at the brand level. Each of those steps requires a cost in order to audit at those levels,” he said.

In the past, the process of gaining certification has been criticized as being overly bureaucratic, but Nichelson said the certification organizations are taking steps to simplify the process.

Moore said it is worth the time to take the extra steps. “Everyone talks about the challenges, but we believe it’s important to turn sustainability into a positive. Sustainability is a building block. As designers, we have various building blocks we consider: materials, aesthetic, function, details and silhouette, to name a few,” he said. “As brands and businesses, we consider other building blocks like sourcing, price, positioning, margin and delivery. Imagine if both sides of your business just made sustainability a normal building block. You can’t actually work around it. It’s a part of your process.”

Yet Outerknown has had to make some concessions. “We also heard a lot of people saying that they loved what we were doing but they couldn’t afford it. The good news is that in 2.5 years we have been able to bring costs down because there’s more sustainable options and resources available and we’re getting smarter on how we buy our materials and build our products,” Moore said.

New styles recently released by Outerknown include S.E.A. legs and S.E.A. shorts, which feature Oceanworks buttons made from recycled ocean plastics. Outerknown also is releasing the Nomadic Picque polo. The hemp/cotton-blend polo shirts come in seven different colors.

In November, Outerknown released its capsule collection in collaboration with Levi Strauss, known as the Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown. The capsule mixes Outerknown’s design and Levi’s Wellthread denim, which uses the denim giant’s water-conserving Water < Less fabric. Moore said the collection will continue.

Later this spring, more garments will be released, including a linen-blend trucker jacket and 511 jeans.

Outerknown has been sold at leading stores including American Rag CIE, Ron Herman, Mr. Porter and Jack’s Surfboards.