In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
When I call Outdoor Voices founder Tyler Haney in Austin from New York City, I'm immediately disarmed by a warm, chatty voice that, for a moment, makes me think I dialed a friend by mistake. But I learn soon enough that's both Haney and Outdoor Voices's way — a manner of speaking she describes in her own words as "friendly and human and open and warm." Haney, now 27, launched Outdoor Voices in early 2014 while still a business student at Parsons after a lifetime of what she calls “casual activity." She grew up in Colorado, running track, where there was little differentiation between "your gym-life and your life-life." In the three short years since, Outdoor Voices has raised $22.5 million via venture capital, expanded into a slew of new categories for both men and women and, just recently, opened three stores across the U.S.
Which, yes, is impressive. But what's more is what Haney plans to do with Outdoor Voices next. When I ask her whether she hopes for the label to reach Nike or Under Armour's colossal scale, she doesn't skip a beat: "We're becoming the next great activewear brand." By empowering consumers to take control of their own recreation — and providing cool, technical apparel that shoppers genuinely want to wear — Outdoor Voices could do just that. It doesn't hurt that it's pretty cozy beneath the Outdoor Voices umbrella, either: "We talk a lot about OV being the hiking buddy that brought the snacks," she says.
If this branding sounds hokey, it's not — which is precisely how Outdoor Voices has carved out a plum niche within the fashion set as the activewear retailer of choice. But how was Haney able to get here, and what's next for Outdoor Voices as it continues its expansion? Read on for highlights from our conversation.
Were you always interested in fashion?
I've always been design-inclined, but I never thought I would get into apparel. I grew up in Boulder, Colo., which is important because the way of life there is very indicative of what Outdoor Voices has become — casual activity is integrated into everything you do. In high school, I was super-active — I ran hurdles, ran cross country and played basketball — and wore brands like Nike and Under Armour. I loved them and the harder-better-faster-stronger mentality. You felt like a superhuman wearing those clothes. But as soon as I stopped running track, I realized that wasn't the goal for me anymore. There was a powerful combination between being feminine and being athletic that wasn't really embodied in a brand.
At what point did you realize that you could actually translate that combination into a retail brand?
After high school, I took a year off, moved to New York and still had no idea I wanted to get into apparel; I went to Parsons for business. But sophomore year in college, I was leaving the gym wearing one of the traditional activewear brands and [didn't] feel like myself... [like] I [was] trying to be a triathlete when I'm not. There needed to be activewear that felt more in line with brands that I'm wearing, like A.P.C.
That year I became really obsessed with technical materials, so I flew to this convention called Outdoor Retailer in Utah, [which is] kind of the Mecca of synthetic yarns. I had no idea what I was doing, but I dove in and learned. I ended up working with a vendor from that convention who [helped] make all of our materials and developed textured compression, our core material to date. From that, I created the first OV kit, which was five classic, best-fitting silhouettes. I didn't study fashion, so I drew these silhouettes and [found] the people to help make [them]. I actually bought a bunk bed, took the bottom bunk out and had my first office in my apartment. I remember interviewing a designer in that room, which is quite funny to think about.
How was "Doing Things" born?
That came from Doing Things is better than not Doing Things — the kind of approachable, inclusive way of thinking about activity. We're not necessarily making your soccer uniform; we're instead providing you with pan-seasonal clothes. People have really rallied behind the notion of Doing Things, and it's been a catalyst for people to show us what activity means for them.
How does the recreational purpose of your gear factor into its design?
Everything is meant to sweat in. One of the things I like least is when people call us athleisure. That word absolutely kills me because at the start, the product is highly functional and it's high-quality.
From a design standpoint, how did you create OV's recognizable aesthetic?
I didn't want trendy activewear; I wanted classic silhouettes that were flattering on lots of body types. I started from the base, with the compression layers. The two pieces that I need if I'm going jogging are the crop top — that's absolutely become our signature silhouette — and the two-tone legging. I've always been really attracted to tonal uniforms and fascinated by texture materials, so that's become the foundation of the way we build out new product. The fabric needs to feel like you're discovering something new when you touch it, like it's very memorable and novel.
You've raised a total of $22.5 million dollars through Series A and B rounds. Why did you decide to fund-raise through venture capital, and how did you go about finding investors that were a good fit?
The simple reason I've gone through venture funding is that I want to have a big impact. For me, it's all about showing people that activity can be fun. There are so many people in this world who want to be more active, but the moment they go into a traditional activewear store, they don't see themselves in that triathlete uniform — it's intimidating. I want Outdoor Voices to [make] it easy and comfortable to participate and get started.
In terms of investors, we have a varied mix at this point. It's definitely strategic. General Catalyst has been an incredible partner — they're our largest funders and have brands in their portfolio like The Honest Company and Warby Parker that are comparable to us. You're betting that, no matter what, [the investors are] going to be persistent enough to see your concept through.
OV is part of a new generation of brands that play heavily into millennial brand loyalty, like Reformation, Glossier and Sweetgreen. How does that differentiate you from your activewear competitors?
We think a lot about being human, not superhuman. We talk about OV being 'the hiking buddy that brought the snacks.' It's friendly and human and open and warm, and that's the way we think about interacting with our customer or anybody who touches the brand. It's almost like interacting with your best friend.
Looking ahead, do you want to grow Outdoor Voices into a mega-brand like Under Armour or Nike?
We're becoming the next great activewear brand — that's my vision — and flipping performance on its head. Think about the mom who's jogging with her stroller on the trail every day for her daily recreation — how do we make that as aspirational as Steph Curry?
What's the first category to which you'd like to expand if you could today?
We want to create a platform for Doing Things. It's all about how we create tools to connect people through activity. We talk a lot about sparking bonds through activity, so I don't know that it's more product. It's definitely more connectedness.
Along with OV's flagship in Austin, you're now expanding your number of store locations. Why does brick-and-mortar make sense for you?
In addition to the new New York full-time store, we're opening a store on the Upper East Side, as well as in Dallas. We very much look at those physical spots as product and community activation points, so [expect] lots of dog jogs and jogger clubs and Pilates and yoga taking place to bring home this notion of community.
How did you decide on those locations?
Our new store is actually right below our office; there's a staircase that punches through. New York was a no-brainer because it's our home. Dallas has felt right because people have been asking for it. We're definitely looking at what our customers have said, and Dallas has screamed loudly.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.