Over the past 10 years, there’s been a fundamental shift in how Americans dress and norms associated with everyday fashion. In many workplaces, it’s now perfectly acceptable to show up at the office wearing jeans and a t-shirt, or a pair of sweatpants and a loose-fitting workout shirt.
This focus on casual and comfortable clothing has given rise to a number of different trends, but one that’s arguably the most popular is athleisure. While it is somewhat hard to define what makes up an entire fashion trend, athleisure is more or less a hybrid of business casual and exercise clothing. It combines the salient parts of these two styles and focuses on comfort, durability, and versatility.
Athleisure also taps into the larger and more cultural trend of healthy living. While a focus on health and fitness isn’t a new idea by any means, the market for products and services that are branded as such has increased tremendously in the past 50 years. Not only do people want to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but they also want to be seen as healthy and active by others. How better to do that than through your clothing?
While there’s some dispute about who first said, “Clothes make the man”—some accounts indicate a similar saying was popular among Ancient Greeks—there’s no denying it’s a sentiment that’s been around for a long time. The way that people perceive one another is largely tied to their appearance. Scientists have even coined the term enclothed cognition to explain the ways that clothing can have a direct impact on the perceptions and thought processes of an individual.
With all of this in mind, it’s not surprising that athleisure has become as popular as it is. As healthy living becomes a more and more popular trend, people want to wear clothing that indicates they are leading a healthy and active lifestyle. Outdoor Voices, founded in 2013, has emerged one of the dominant athleisure brands, even though founder Ty Haney hates the term. Their fashionable activewear can be seen everywhere, from New York City to Los Angeles, and their business continues to grow.
By creating a product that bridges the gap between activewear and everyday fashion, Outdoor Voices has unlocked a burgeoning new market and solidified their place in it. By differentiating their brand from other athleisure companies, marketing themselves as technical apparel, and building a cult following that preaches their message of #doingthings, Outdoor Voices has disrupted not only athleisure, but the fashion industry as a whole.
Bridging the gap between existing markets
Outdoor Voices creates technical apparel that is designed for their customers to move and sweat in. Haney was tired of the clothing options available for her daily workouts. She wanted activewear that fit not only her active lifestyle but also her fashion sense.
While attending Parsons School of Design for business, Haney started researching the types of fabric typically used for activewear and found a mill that would supply her with base materials. This led to the creation of her first product, the “Outdoor Voices Kit” for both men and women, a five-piece set of simple, classically designed workout clothes. The kit helped her land seed-round funding from General Catalyst in 2015, using the pitch to create a workout brand that wasn’t focused on just yoga, tennis, or jogging.
The broader focus on being active and doing things, instead of performing a specific kind of task, is what helped to shape the Outdoor Voices product line. Haney created a brand that appealed to a much wider market than other athleisure lines for two reasons. First, by targeting people interested in simply being active, rather than a specific activity, Outdoor Voices wasn’t pigeonholed as just “yoga clothes” (like, for example, Lululemon) or as performance tennis gear (as, for example, a specialty brand like Babolat). Second, by creating products that were durable, comfortable, and fashionable, Outdoor Voices reached a group of people looking for clothing that existed between straightforward activewear and everyday clothes. They also tapped into the millennial market, whose members, statistically, are more inclined to participate in fitness classes.
Outdoor Voices clothing is constructed from the same kind of material as other activewear, meaning it is odor-resistant and form-fitting, but is designed with an eye toward being fashionable enough to wear outside of fitness activities. Customers see their outfits as dual-purpose: They don’t need to bring a change of clothes to go for a lunchtime jog or an evening workout—they’re covered with one outfit.
Being situated between two existing and competitive markets is difficult. Outdoor Voices needs to have not only the functionality of activewear but the legitimacy of a fashion brand, as well. By collaborating with high-profile design houses like A.P.C., Haney and her team at Outdoor Voices found a way to give their brand that needed authority in the fashion world. Designer Jean Touitou, which whom Outdoor Voice works thought A.P.C., told The Business of Fashion, “We wanted to create product that functions in the same way as that of Nike and Lululemon, but more aesthetically aligned with what I wear day to day, like Acne and A.P.C.”
This partnership elevated the Outdoor Voices brand and differentiated their product as something more than just another piece of activewear.
Build a brand that unlocks new kinds of behavior
From the beginning, Outdoor Voices has predominantly been an eCommerce brand; their online business accounts for 70 percent of sales. This focus on digital is one aspect that differentiates Outdoor Voices from the competition; retail spaces are used more for brand building than anything else. With a significant chunk of revenue coming from online sales, Outdoor Voices can also use their brick-and-mortar locations as places to engage with their audience and make sure their experience matches the brand.
Using retail spaces in this way also helps Outdoor Voices amplify the idea that being active doesn’t always have to mean you’re an athlete. Whereas other activewear brands, like Nike or Under Armour, conjure up images of high-performance Olympians in shiny, neon mesh or spandex, Outdoor Voices focuses their imagery on everyday people being active in accessible ways. Here is an example of two different ads, one from Nike and the other from Outdoor Voices.
These two ads are strikingly different in terms of imagery, tone, and language. Outdoor Voices features models who are clothed in loose-fitting workout gear, with the tagline “Let’s get recreational.” The setting looks like a park and could be interpreted as two friends out for a casual hike or jog.
Nike, on the other hand, features a model who is mid sprint, with the tagline “Play fast. Train faster.” The background is constructed to give you a sense of the model’s motion while training.
Outdoor Voices gives its customers permission to wear their clothes without exerting the same kind of energy that is required from other athletics brands. People might think twice about wearing their Nike workout gear in a casual situation, which is not true for Outdoor Voices clothing. While they’re encouraging people to be fitter, happier, and more productive, it is not a requirement. In that way, Outdoor Voices is reinforcing the idea that their product bridges the gap between clothes for working out and clothes for everything else. These subtle differences help position the Outdoor Voices brand to disrupt customers’ expectations of an activewear brand.
Tap into a community that isn’t being represented
Bridging the gap between active and recreational apparel, Outdoor Voices has tapped into a community of people who would otherwise be ignored by most activewear brands. Instead of hosting 10K races or Spartan Runs from their retail locations, they opt for more social/casual events, like group dog runs or outdoor yoga. That gives their customers a way to engage with the brand at their own pace, instead of having to rise to the level of Nike and other activewear brands.
Outdoor Voices is positioned as a brand for people who like being active but aren’t defined by it. You can see this in the company’s ads and branding, and especially in their social media. With over 86K posts, hashtags like #doingthings give customers a way to show how they are using their Outdoor Voices gear in everyday activities. This not only acts as promotion for the brand but also helps customers feel like they’re a part of a larger community. Outdoor Voices can also use this user-generated content as social proof of the value their product provides.
The majority of the content for these posts is generated by users and highlights customers using Outdoor Voices products in their daily lives. They feature everything from yoga and hiking to weight-lifting and running. This shows not only the popularity of their products but also how passionate their customers are about the apparel.
With this kind of audience building up on social media, Outdoor Voices has gone directly to their customers for help with ideas. Recently, they’ve polled social media followers about an upcoming jogging and running line. Rolling this information into their product-development process gives Outdoor Voices a way to make sure that the products they create are in line with the customers’ expectations.
Outdoor Voices uses their branding and social media to build a company that straddles the line between fashion and activewear. In the past five years, they’ve grown into one of the major players in athleisure, and they continue to disrupt the market.
► Product market fit is key
Outdoor Voices found a place between two highly competitive markets and created a product that fit the exact need of customers in that niche. When you’re creating a product, you have to know exactly what kind of problems it solves for the customer and then show how it solves them. Outdoor Voices was able to identify a gap in the athleisure market–regular people who wanted day-to-night active wear and weren’t hardcore athletes–and built their brand to fill that need.
► Use branding to differentiate
Focus on an area of the market where you know you can stand out. By rejecting the athleisure moniker, Outdoor Voices has found a way to make a place in that market that is entirely their own. Their brand is just as important as the clothing they create.
► Quality can be its own marketing
Outdoor Voices’s first goal was to create a type of fabric that fulfilled a purpose—fabric that was stylish but had all of the features of great activewear. When you’re selling a physical product, and the quality is above and beyond the competition, people will promote it for you.
► Focus on digital
Outdoor Voices is in a market that typically depends on physical retail locations. They have physical locations, too, but they use them to help build the brand and connect with their customers, rather than sell. Their selling is focused almost completely online. This gives them a leg up on their competitors, who are not optimized for eCommerce customers.
► Encourage an active community
Outdoor Voices regularly engages with their customers via social media, in-person gatherings, and ads. They also promote their message of healthy living and activity. By encouraging their community to be active and use their products as intended, customers can make sure that they get the most value out of Outdoor Voices apparel.