Q&A with John Moore, Designer and Co-Founder of Sustainable Fashion Label Outerknown

Q&A with John Moore, Designer and Co-Founder of Sustainable Fashion Label Outerknown

Designer John Moore co-founded ethical clothing brand Outerknown with 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater. Outerknown’s creative director and lead designer opens up about the highlights and lowlights of running an apparel business, the sustainability thinkers that have influenced his journey and why he believes the slow approach to design is more sustainable.

EWP: Why did you launch Outerknown? 

John Moore: Outerknown was started, quite literally, to challenge the status quo of how clothing is produced and consumed. You’ve probably heard of our co-founding partner Kelly Slater who’s a world champion surfer. He’s always lived a very clean and healthy lifestyle which is why he’s still a top contender on the Championship Tour at almost 50-years-old. We started Outerknown because Kelly wanted to understand exactly what was going into the clothing we wear and how the people are treated that make our clothing.

As humans focused on a healthy lifestyle, we’re constantly thinking about the food we put into our bodies, so it just makes sense we would know exactly what we’re wearing, and the impact our clothes are making on the planet. We also thought there was a gaping hole in the market for quality and extremely versatile clothing made in a planet friendly way. At the time we started, ethically crafted clothing had a less than favorable reputation. Words like “crunchy” or “granola” come to mind.  A great fitting black tee shirt in a luxuriously-soft cotton without a logo was really hard to find  –  especially one that was made sustainably. So we set out to make the exact type of clothing we wanted to wear, with a manufacturing process we understood and believed in. 

Outerknown creates timeless, quality and low-key pieces.

EWP: Highlights of running the business – what are you most proud of?

JM: When we set out on this journey, many of our close friends and industry peers told us that our sustainable-vision was impossible. We spent more than two years building the right foundation, team and sustainable philosophy so Outerknown could truly deliver on our promise, and it’s great to see the brand getting so much traction with men and women right now. Very proud that we’re about to celebrate our fifth year of selling clothing this summer, we’ve launched our women’s collection last year, and the original team is still together, while our staff has grown to almost 50.

It’s also worth mentioning that almost all of our materials are organic, recycled or regenerated, and we’re also in the process of publishing our 2030 roadmap to circularity on Outerknown.com. This will be live in early April and it feels great to be part of an organization that can strive to hit a higher mark each year as we work towards a zero-waste ultimate goal.

EWP: What do you find the most difficult part of running the business?

JM: It takes a village and we have an incredible team. At this point, I’m always trying to focus on the opportunities and the wins. It’s easy to get frustrated as fashion is already an extremely challenging business with so many variables, so when you add on the fact that we make every decision with the highest regard for our workforce and the planet it adds so many more challenging variables. Responsible buying practices means working much further in advance, so we don’t need to put unnecessary stress and cut corners with our suppliers. When you cut corners, that’s when the mistakes happen, and you create more waste. So what I’m trying to say is that designing and developing sustainable clothing takes more time. If we can’t make it for Winter 2020, it might not happen until Winter 2021.  And we have to be OK with that. This is a very different mentality than the traditional need for newness every three months that fashion has always been predicated on. So we’re making timeless items in the most beautiful textiles that are built to last, which means we can launch them on our own calendar, when they are ready.

One of Outerknown’s bestsellers is the women’s S.E.A. Suit.

EWP: What makes your brand different?

JM: Timeless Sustainable Style. As I mentioned above – we design without an expiration date. As trends will come and go, Outerknown will always make your favorite pieces that you’ll feel great in today, but also wear for years to come.

EWP: Your fav sustainable lifestyle brands?

JM: There’s so many responsibly-minded brands that inspire me personally because of their ethical and sustainable approach. Industry of All Nations come to mind, and the streetwear brand from New York called Noah.  And of course, I’ll always have to tip my hat to Patagonia. They’re super cool. I just love to see that there are so many more sustainable options in the market today.

When we started this journey, sustainability in fashion was slim pickings, and it’s great to see responsible innovation catching on.  Coming out of this crisis, sustainability will become the dominant conversation in fashion. No other choice.  I heard a stat on a podcast yesterday that across the globe, we made more than 114 billion items of clothing last year (2019). 114 BILLION! How many items of clothing is that for every human alone… so crazy. This crisis is going to make the fashion industry really consider what’s important moving forward. It will for sure mean making less clothing, and making only making what matters. This all gives me hope.

EWP: Best business compliment you’ve ever received?

JM: I’m just thrilled every time I see someone wearing Outerknown on the street. Does that count? [EWP: Of course it does!!!!]

EWP: People/books/films that have influenced your sustainable thinking?

JM: Hard to look past Yvon Chouinard [Patagonia’s founder]. I heard him speak when I was just starting out in this business at a design conference in Vail Colorado. It was 1996, and the room was filled with outdoor and what was called “action sports” brands at the time. He told everyone in the room to use organic cotton, and you could hear this collective sigh across the room as we all knew organic cotton was expensive and hard to find. Little did we know how right he was, and I can only imagine if we had all jumped on that together back then what that could have meant.

Also Julie Gilhart has really influenced my approach to sustainability since her days at Barney’s, and she been one of my most trusted advisors throughout the growth of Outerknown working with us since the beginning. 

And Kelly too! His go-with-the-flow attitude around traveling and clean-living approach to life heavily influences our creative approach at Outerknown.

Outerknown co-founder Kelly Slater is committed to a clean and healthy lifestyle. Credit: Outerknown.

Too many books and films to mention, but this multimedia story from New York Times Magazine entitled “Losing Earth: The Decade we Almost Stopped Climate Change” from 2018 really moved me.  It was written by Nathaniel Rich with powerful visuals by George Steinmetz that stopped me in my tracks. It opens with, “Thirty years ago, we had a chance to save the planet” and you can imagine where it goes from there.

EWP: What are some things that you’d like customers to know that you rarely communicate on social media?

JM: Good question. Social media is such a precarious dance. On the one hand it’s a great communication tool and a place I find so much inspiration and connect with artists. On the other hand, I feel like we put a disproportionate weight on what our posts really mean. For me personally, I just try to keep things positive and inspiring. I find the engagement and conversations more important than the products and messages that we spend so much time thinking about. Throughout the growth of Outerknown, we’ve talked about an open-journal approach to sharing our mistakes and learnings in various forms. We tend to share our accomplishments, but I think there’s almost more meaning to sharing our intention even when we encounter hurdles, and our vision can’t be fully realized. I would love to see us communicate more of what’s happening at the supplier level working through early stage development on new innovation. I think that would be really inspiring to young designers and emerging brands heading down a similar responsible path.

EWP: Any quotes you live by?

JM: I collect quotes. The rights words are as powerful as any visual. Right now I’m very inspired by these words that one of our makers in Guatemala shared with us. I’m not exactly sure who wrote this, but during this global health crisis we’re currently faced with, this sentiment really moved me:

“Maybe we are beginning to comprehend that no one can be saved alone, that borders do not exist, that health is a universal right, that the economy can wait, that life is fragile and protecting it is a collective duty.”

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Cover image via Levi Strauss.

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