Abe Burmeister is co-founder of Outlier, a web-based performance clothing company based in Brooklyn. He’s part of a crack team that made my favorite pants.
So, to start at the beginning, I’m interested to know what you were doing before you started Outlier, and the path you took to starting the company. So what’s that story?
I was an information designer making interfaces for real time stock networks. I was doing that freelance, but it was Wall Street, so there was money there. It was a great gig, basically. It was ten blocks from the garment district, so I would zip back and forth all the time. And, I could set my own hours because there’s basically nobody on Wall Street who knows anything about interaction design, or anything at all.
Did you already have the beginnings of the Outlier idea in your mind at that time? Or, did that come later?
There’s a lot of steps to it actually. I ran an animation company before this, in the early 2000’s. There was a certain point where my partners were in San Francisco, and I was here. My lease was expiring and I wasn’t able to renew it, so I had to leave my apartment. It was sort of a messy situation, but I realized I did all my work on a laptop and a cell phone, and I really didn’t need another apartment. I was going back and forth across the country all the time, so I was like, “I don’t need an apartment. I’m just going to get rid of everything I own and live out of a carry-on bag, no checked baggage.”
I did that for four years. The experience really educated me when it comes to clothing problems. I was already tuned to reduce my clothes. Half my bag was electronics, sometimes (those chargers were huge). So, it meant as little clothing as possible. I started really paying attention and figuring that stuff out. So that was the real seed for the idea. Then, there was actually a point for about a day when [Adam Greenfield](http://urbanscale.com), who is now more of an urban designer but was an interaction designer for a while, and has a bit of a name for himself, sat down with me and talked about starting a company to make clothes for business travelers. That went nowhere, but that was the initial stab, and then it was a long retreat.
How long ago was that, do you remember?
That was probably 2002, maybe.
So, what happened to get you across that gap?
I think it was cycling. I was cycling with jeans. When I started riding bikes all the time, I wasn’t wearing jeans. I was wearing much more durable pants, actually. Like, Army surplus. I wasn’t using it to get to meetings, I was just riding around the neighborhood in these Army pants that were actually really durable and an incredible fabric. Then I would go to a meeting and I would put on the meeting clothes. Then I started wearing jeans again, and they started falling apart constantly.
It’s weird to realize jeans are like 90% of our urban uniform.
Yeah. Jeans are some sort of pants that you don’t really care about. I think it’s shifting a bit right now, but in the middle of the 2000’s, forget about it. You wore jeans everywhere. Except when working with Wall Street clients, I couldn’t wear jeans there. It’s like, if you eat every day at the same place, you kind of figure out your routine, and your co-workers know “There’s the bike guy.” If you’re jumping from place to place and trying to figure out how you can walk into that door…
And change clothes?
Yeah, exactly. So, that was a huge part of it. This is a more subtle aspect, but when I was living out of a carry-on bag, I had a pair of these first Prada sports Gortex pants. There were one of three pairs of pants I had, or something. They were black Gortex. And they were really freaking loud, because Gortex is really loud. I would only wear them if I knew it was really raining, and then they started falling apart. I got them on sale, but I think the list price when I got them home was like $400. So, I decided to suck it up and replace them, but they didn’t make them anymore. They were totally gone. Not even a chance. I thought it was a core item and I’d just go get it. That really took it to the point where I had to figure out how to make something like them.
So, then, you mentioned that it’s rooted in your cycling. It sounds like you were addressing your own problem. Did you think about it as something that other cyclists were going to be into? Did you think about it as a cycling brand?
No. It was definitely not conceived as a cycling brand. I only briefly flirted with starting a company more for business travel. I knew that that was there, too. We didn’t think of it as a cycling brand, but we really wanted to keep the problems defined. As a designer, I wanted to think “This is the problem we’re trying to solve.” Bicycle commuting, for example. There’s a whole secondary market there. Really, anybody wearing clothes is almost like a secondary market. But, I very explicitly knew that people who were flying around and want to look good, and have to go to meetings or nice restaurants, that whole market was there, but we very explicitly didn’t want to lose the focus when we started. It was like, “Let’s just build these pants around urban cycling,” but we were very conscious from the get go that there was more to it. Then, as we went on, cycling started to feel more like a restriction, so we started moving away from it. But it’s still there.
It’s interesting because if clothing fits the requirements of riding a bike, it’s flexible, it’s lightweight, and it looks good. You can apply that to a lot of other things. It looks very good in photography, too.
The way we look at it is that nobody starts a clothing company with clothes you can’t wear on the subway, or in your car. It just doesn’t work. So why make clothes you can’t ride your bike in?
You look at photos of men in the 30’s, and everyone had a hat. Old photographs of Manhattan are just a sea of hats. Then all of a sudden everybody started driving, and you have to take off your hat and leave it in your car. You forget about it, and don’t know where you’re supposed to put it. Then, all of a sudden you just stop wearing hats. I can’t prove that that’s what happened, but as a designer, I like that story.
It sounds like you’re very much following your own path. As a designer, I’m interested if there are particular trends or products that of the past, or even present, that inspire you.
We stay aware of the market. There’s a whole world of technical clothing. These guys are making clothes so that you can go out into nature and basically be a loner with your crew of five people and it’s anti-social, essentially. We really took technical clothing, like what’s going on in the outdoor world, and allow another function there, which is the social function. That’s what fashion is. Sometimes it can seem extreme, but it’s a social function. We’re just trying to make clothes that are incredibly functional and that means not only functioning when you’re alone in the woods on a rock cliff, but also when you want to go eat and don’t want the hostess to look at you funny when you walk in the door. Part of comfort is feeling like you belong where you are, not to have everyone looking at you because you have Spandex on or whatever it happens to be.
Can you talk about where the desire to find new fabrics comes from, and how you go about it?
It was really rooted in the initial design problems. Can we make something that is more durable, moves better, and is water resistant? The first solution, all of that was in the fabric. So we had to figure that out. Then, what happened was that we rapidly discovered that there’s this whole world of unused fabrics. I had assumed when we started that companies like North Face or Patagonia are going to be using the best stuff, because those are the best outdoor brands. As soon as we got into it I found incredible fabric and thought “This is amazing. Why isn’t everybody using it?” It was a simple answer: it’s too expensive. Big brands are very price conscious. So they don’t use the best stuff. It’s crazy. There’s all this amazing fabric. They don’t get used. You have to hunt and find them. Like the fabric these pants are made of is an equestrian fabric. It’s what really special riding pants are made of. I don’t even really know who buys it, but that’s the market.
So, you found the best fabric for the job, and the found that the people out there were just not using it?
Yeah. We got really into it, because it’s incredible what the stuff can do, and how untapped it is. There’s technical brands that kind of shop by numbers, like “We need a fabric that passes this test, and this test, and this test,” and they forget about what it feels like, looks like, and sounds like. They think they have great numbers, and then they’ll test it with really extensive testing. “This stuff is amazing. It doesn’t snag on trees, and you can slide down rocks for twenty feet and get up, and it’s still waterproof.” For their use case, it’s great, but for our use case, it wasn’t relevant. The fabrics we’ve found was like finding a bag of gems and deciding “Okay. I’m going to learn about gems, and try to use them.”
What do you have to say about starting a company in a field that you weren’t already an expert in?
I’d never had a salary job in my life. I’ve always been a freelancer, or owned my own company. So, I had a natural inclination, there. But, I had a full-time freelance gig. For the first two years I was doing Outlier, and Tyler had a full-time job for the first year. We would run it at night. With the internet, nobody can check to see if you’re in the store. You can answer e-mails remotely. So, with Outlier, we were putting money into it, but it wasn’t that much. Just whatever we had kicking around. So I was working in the daytime and running the company at night.
So what was the path to finding customers?
Well the internet was important because we couldn’t sell the goods for a reasonable price with if we went to a traditional wholesale structure. That goes back to what I was saying about the reason why top outdoor brands aren’t using this stuff. When you wholesale it and it gets sold again, it ends up being $300, $400 dollars more. When we started out, we actually encountered a handful of people who said they were thinking about starting a company using these materials, but it seemed too expensive. So, the internet is key.
Luckily, I had experience building websites and hosting blogs. So, it was natural to me. I had actually built a site for a client that they never used, and it was literally a blog-driven store. They wanted a really rudimentary commerce, and I said to do it as a blog. That was a great site, and they never implemented it. So, I had that. And I said “Okay. We’re just going to take this product and put it on a blog, and then see what happens.” Sure enough, other people blogged about it, and all of a sudden there was an audience before we even had a product to sell. It’s very different than starting a business at almost any other time in history.
For a lot of this, when you design something that doesn’t exist on the market, it becomes a communication problem. You’re not really selling, you’re just communicating why it’s different. If it resonates with people, they’re going to pick up on it. If you’re solving a real problem, then you just have to communicate that you solved that problem, which is not necessarily easy.
Would you like to say anything about the direction the company is headed in?
We just keep trying to make better stuff, and that’s kind of it. We’ve learned a ton, and have people that know how to make clothes involved in the company now and things like that. We move quick. Actually, a lot of what we’ve been doing in the last three months is focusing on the design process. As we’ve gotten bigger, we need to go from just “I have a good idea. Let’s make it happen,” to “Let’s figure out how to make sure this works.” There are too many ideas in this world. Good ideas. Great ideas. The problem is figuring out which ones you want to execute. Which ones are actually distracting you from executing other things well.