Known for its use of innovative performance materials and online-only retail model, Outlier shares insights into paving a path for many direct-to-consumer apparel brands to come

In 2008, Outlier founders Abe Burmeister and Tyler Clemens were looking for a line of clothing that could perform like outdoor apparel and activewear, but stylistically function for the average urban millennial’s busy life. Not finding an existing solution on the market, the two teamed up to create a pair of pants made of weather-resistant material. That pant sold out online via word of mouth, support from blogs like Highsnobiety and internet message boards.

Ten years later, the brand continues to be dedicated to innovation in materials and product design, staying connected to its roots in ethical manufacturing and maintaining steady growth of its apparel offering and dedicated audience. To celebrate this major anniversary, Outlier teamed up with new retail real estate concept Wallplay to open a temporary installation in one of its On Canal storefronts, inviting friends and fans of the brand to come and interact in person. The brand remains solely direct to consumer, doing all sales on its official website with no physical store or wholesale partners.

PSFK spoke to co-founder Abe Burmeister for insight on the evolution of apparel retail and the future of the direct-to-consumer trend.

PSFK: What are some of the overall trends you’ve noticed in the current apparel retail landscape?

Abe Burmeister: Besides pure chaos?! The biggest is probably the shift in focus from world building to product building. Instead of selling a lifestyle or a cohesive seasonal vision it is all about trying to make hit products, items that stand out in the Instagram crowds and can be sold in infinite variations for as many seasons as possible. It’s most obvious in sneakers, but it applies across all categories and it’s a lot like what happened in music with the shift from albums to singles and playlists.

The world building stuff hasn’t gone away though, it’s just moved to the online DTC space. It’s far cheaper to build a cohesive brand vision online than in physical retail as most of the initial assets are just digital files.

How has DTC changed since you founded your business? Do you consider Outlier to be a pioneer of the model?

We certainly were not the first in the online DTC apparel space, but we were pretty damn early—and things have changed completely from when we started.

The biggest change is in the pricing model. When we started, DTC allowed for significant pricing advantages over traditional distribution. This advantage is almost (but not completely) gone, simply because the marketing costs have skyrocketed as more and more brands pile in. A brand launching today paying average marketing costs to acquire customers has very little pricing advantages versus more traditional retail channels. They still have significant pricing advantages on the brand building side though so that means there is still room and reason for the landscape to get even more competitive.

How do you define your brand within the current landscape?

We are the materialists and the innovators. We use better materials than anyone, are developing new materials that no one else has, and we have a process of constant experimentation, releasing new experimental products every week. We are also deeply direct-to-consumer and online which means we are in much closer contact with our customers than most brands.

Outlier is known for using innovative performance materials. Can you speak to your philosophy a bit in terms of supply chain and manufacturing? Is sustainability or transparency important to your company? How do you communicate that to consumers?

We try to get as deep into the supply chain as we possibly can, and use the best possible materials at every step of the way. We think of “best” in a holistic fashion, there are ecological, performance, and human factors to consider at every stage.

For instance, with wool we can actually trace the highest grades back to a single point of origin, where things like water quality and land use can both be monitored and certified. Which is super important both because of environmental reasons and because the best way to make really high quality wool is treating the sheep super well!

Unfortunately most other materials we work with don’t have as developed a traceability infrastructure as wool does, but we are always striving towards it. Whether you are working with cotton, nylon or a crazy fiber like Dyneema, working with the highest quality raw materials is essential to creating the highest quality final product.

Has it been a conscious choice to remain completely DTC, rather than sell via any wholesale partners?

Yes, an extremely conscious choice, we actually did some wholesale early on, at one point it was about 10% of our revenue. Cutting it out was a turning point of sorts, what it takes to run a great DTC business and great wholesale business are really at odds with each other, they operate on different times, scale, and with very different needs for inventory, photography and the like. Doing both at the same time was no fun, when we cut out the wholesale it was like a headache lifting and we could suddenly focus again.

Do you think your business has grown differently from other DTC brands, especially those that have arisen since the trend really took off several years ago?

Outlier has been totally bootstrapped from a very small ($15,000) initial investment, and our growth has been very much in line with that sort of business path. There are plenty of other DTC brands on that same path, but there are also a much louder set of brands launched and fueled by large amounts of capital. The high-capital path creates a very different growth dynamic then the bootstrapped path. This is especially true when the money comes from venture capital or private equity as those companies are looking for lots of fast growth to fuel a quick return on investment. That usually leads to spending tons on marketing as you can only get explosive growth in retail if lots of people know you exist and how to find you.

How will the retail business of the future operate, in your opinion? Will DTC become the only option for driving profit?

Direct-to-consumer has been on a takeover path long before the internet DTC movement came in. The speciality retailer, fast fashion, and shop-in-shop models are all essentially direct-to-consumer and they’ve been cutting into wholesale models for quite a while. In some ways the internet actually slowed down the transition as brands that had been phasing out wholesale relied on multi-brand internet stores to jumpstart their online sales.

That said I don’t think multi-brand stores will go away, even if the business models need to evolve a bit. There is tons of value on the consumer side in being able to see lots of differing products in a single space, and there is tons of selling value in artful curating and buying. These things come at considerable cost versus the direct sales model, but where there is value, creative ways to access that value almost certainly will emerge.

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In 2008, Outlier founders Abe Burmeister and Tyler Clemens were looking for a line of clothing that could perform like outdoor apparel and activewear, but stylistically function for the average urban millennial’s busy life. Not finding an existing solution on the market, the two teamed up to create a pair of pants made of weather-resistant material. That pant sold out online via word of mouth, support from blogs like Highsnobiety and internet message boards.

Ten years later, the brand continues to be dedicated to innovation in materials and product design, staying connected to its roots in ethical manufacturing and maintaining steady growth of its apparel offering and dedicated audience. To celebrate this major anniversary, Outlier teamed up with new retail real estate concept Wallplay to open a temporary installation in one of its On Canal storefronts, inviting friends and fans of the brand to come and interact in person. The brand remains solely direct to consumer, doing all sales on its official website with no physical store or wholesale partners.