Photo: Courtesy of Outerknown Photo: Courtesy of Outerknown Photo: Courtesy of Outerknown Photo: Courtesy of Outerknown Photo: Courtesy of Outerknown
Spending time in nature is almost guaranteed to get you thinking about the health of the planet. That’s something of an understatement for Kelly Slater, the 11-time world champion surfer who’s spent the better part of 40 years in the water. He’s become an outspoken environmental activist and supporter of sustainability in all forms, but it wasn’t just the fact that his career took place in the ocean—which is estimated to have a few million tons of plastic waste floating around—that inspired his latest project. It was the stuff he was wearing in it, too. “My biggest sponsorships have been for clothing—I was sponsored by Quiksilver for over 20 years,” he tells Vogue. “I realized after all of those years, I didn’t know as much as I probably should about something that’s provided so much for me. I became interested in how clothes are made, where textiles come from, the effects on the environment, social consciousness. . .I thought all those aspects could be put together in one company,” he continues. “And obviously with good, stylish clothes.”
When his contract ran out with Quiksilver, he decided to launch Outerknown. That was four years ago; since then, it’s evolved from a small capsule of organic, surf-inspired men’s clothes to a trusted resource for guys looking for basics and swimwear they can feel good about buying. There’s organic cotton T-shirts and sweaters; swim trunks made from Econyl (a fiber spun from recycled fishing nets); a line of organic cotton jeans; and the brand’s best-selling heavyweight cotton-twill “blanket shirts.” Buttons are made from recycled ocean plastic or corozo fruit, and Slater is interested in adding more high-tech advancements like pineapple leather and zero-waste dyes in the future. But the social aspect is what piqued his interest in the beginning; Outerknown’s website details how the clothes are made and who makes them.
“People in the First World who have access to buying clothes every day at cheap prices don’t understand the impacts of that: the low wages, the working conditions. . .I think it’s hard for the average person to even want to know all of that,” he says. “If someone wants a new shirt and only has $10 to pay for it, they want to buy it and not hear the story. I wanted to be part of something that could help change that. That’s the strongest belief I had in the start of this. I think it goes without saying that we’re using recycled, regenerated, and organic materials like cottons and hemps. It was a given that we’d implement that into the supply chain.”
Today, women with those same values can shop Slater’s first women’s collection, a mix of organic T-shirts, button-downs, and jeans along with more fashionable items like Indian block-printed dresses and wide-leg trousers. “We have a lot of women who shop our men’s line in smaller sizes or they shop for their husbands and boyfriends, so there was a demand,” he says.
In our interview, Slater was refreshingly candid about the struggles of expanding into womenswear and starting a label in general. “Originally, we wanted to launch men’s and women’s together, but with the challenges we were up against with the supply chain and getting the brand off the ground, we decide to focus on men’s first,” he explains. “We’re at a place now where I’m so proud of what we’re doing, but the day we launched was one of the tougher days of my life in terms of business. The surf world is not known for making great clothing and they don’t have high prices, so when we came out with really nice clothes at a higher price point, I got a lot of flack from people saying I’d sold out or just wanted to line my pockets. The ironic thing about that is, I took a gigantic pay cut to start a brand I believed in,” he continues. “If we do well in the long run, I could do well [financially] from it, but that’s a long way a way. For me, it’s the bigger picture. I would love to influence all of the biggest brands in the world to look at sustainability and work to take care of people, take care of the planet, and send a message. It’s a tricky thing, trying to brand and market yourself [in this space]. At the end the day, it has to be about whether people like the clothes or not. So, that’s what I’m trying to do: to just make good, high-quality clothes, and when people dig in, they feel proud about where they’re putting their money behind.”