The 29-year-old CEO of Outdoor Voices is taking on Nike, one color block at a time
“Uh-oh. Shit,” says Tyler Haney, the 29-year-old CEO of apparel company Outdoor Voices, as her dog, Bowie, tucks his butt in the universal sign for bombs away. “Literal shit! I don’t have—will you hold him?” Haney hands me the pink leash and sprints for a nearby trash can, where she finds a baggie that she uses to scoop the poop from the middle of the trail. “Ahhh, gross!” she moans, discarding the twice-used piece of plastic and trotting back to reclaim her curly haired Havapoo. “I totally forgot a bag. See,” she gestures toward the back of her leggings, “I need a pocket!”
Her blonde hair still wet from the shower after her morning run, Haney is wearing her own design, a variation on the leggings that launched her brand in 2014, with color blocks contoured at flattering angles. She’s sporting new spring colors: blue with pale ballet pink. We’ve been walking one of her favorite trails, which crisscrosses the Colorado River’s path through downtown Austin, Texas, where Haney has lived full-time for about a year. We’re talking about her plans to release leggings with more generous pockets—the ultimate uniform for hiking and dog walking. Haney recently learned that employees at one large outdoor gear company refer to athletic dilettantes as “dog walkers,” a detail that tickles her, since Outdoor Voices considers dog owners its perfect demographic: They may not be marathoners, but they’ve made a commitment to getting out every day.
Haney has positioned Outdoor Voices as the approachable alternative to activewear titans such as Nike and Under Armour. Instead of exhorting athletes to “just do it,” Outdoor Voices asks fans to post on social about #DoingThings, which is “better than not Doing Things,” whether you’re off riding horses or just watering the plants. In place of performance, Haney talks about “moderation and ease and humor and delight,” and instead of marketing that hinges on winning, her brand emphasizes exercising in any capacity, “moving your body for your mind.”
It’s hard to imagine a better message for this moment in American culture, when fitness is trendy, and so is sportswear. Ensembles appropriate for doing sun salutations have become acceptable attire for doing almost anything. The rise of athleisure—a portmanteau Haney loathes because, she says, “it sounds lethargic…like I’m a lump on my couch”—has created a huge opening for activewear that looks like chic casual wear. Between 2011 and 2016, the market for athletic gear ballooned to almost a third of the entire clothing business, growing about seven times as fast as the overall apparel industry.
In this climate, Outdoor Voices’ first selling points were aesthetic: Its signature blues and grays are more versatile than Nike neon, and its minimalist crop tops work as well under a jean jacket as they do on a jog. In 2014, Haney was ahead of the curve with her oft-repeated message of collapsing the space between “your gym life and your life-life.” Four years later, everyone is talking about dressing for health and comfort at all times, and Outdoor Voices has grown to an 80-person business, raised $56.5 million in venture capital funding, and opened six brick-and-mortar stores, with ten more reportedly on the way this year, including Boston and Marin locations in summer 2018.
“Outdoor Voices is kind of the reason that athleisure has taken off and a pioneer of the notion of wearing athletic apparel when not engaged in athletic activity,” says Leandra Medine Cohen, founder of the fashion blog Man Repeller and an investor in Outdoor Voices. “This is a market they helped to create.” This is a strong—and somewhat debatable—statement. No attempt to trace the rise of athleisure should neglect the role of Lululemon, which was founded in 1998 and has done more to sell Americans on stretchy pants for all occasions than any other company. Fashion designers’ pursuit of sportswear collaborations has also been advancing the trend for more than a decade, since Stella McCartney first partnered with Adidas in 2005. But in a moment when activewear has cornered more of the market than ever, Outdoor Voices has come to epitomize the possibility of dressing for comfort in clothes that confer a nonchalant brand of cool.
The booming athleisure business is a mixed blessing, however. Haney has called the impossibility of escaping that label possibly the “biggest challenge” she’s faced so far. That might sound dramatic until you consider just how many brands are offering comfy leggings that are perfectly adequate for #DoingThings like lounging, working, or walking the dog. Even Outdoor Voices’ signature look isn’t as revelatory as it used to be: color blocking is now a trend, no small thanks to Haney. In January, Haney publicly accused fitness apparel company Bandier of knocking off her clothes, and angry Outdoor Voices fans flooded the competitor’s comments. Covering the dustup for fashion news site Racked, reporter Eliza Brooke pointed out “the fallibility of brands relying on aesthetics as a way to differentiate themselves” when a gray area is all that separates copycat from trend. Bandier CEO Neil Boyarsky was unrepentant, telling Racked, “No one owns color blocking.”
Haney has been wrestling with other pressures, too—namely how to shape her brand’s identity. Last spring, Outdoor Voices released a new material called Tech Sweat, developed by its designers and exclusive to the brand, for intense exercise too “high-sweat” for its original fabric, Textured Compression. Tech Sweat sales have quickly become the fastest-growing part of Outdoor Voices’ business, and the company is responding by designing more products with the lighter, stretchier fabric. In April, the brand started releasing clothing for specific activities, beginning with running; a tennis and golf line will follow in June. Is Outdoor Voices moving away from “ease” and “versatility” toward more focused excellence? Haney emphasizes that her definition of #DoingThings remains as broad as ever, but argues that by designing for single sports, she can serve the people doing them at the extreme end of the spectrum.
But Tech Sweat and the new running collection are also a way of “shifting from being known as athleisure to being known for technical apparel,” says Mariel O’Brien, director of product strategy at Outdoor Voices. The new direction points to an interesting conundrum for activewear brands in the age of athleisure. As sporty aesthetics become untethered from actual athletics, how do you prove to consumers that your brand is truly all about exercise? Is it wiser to cater to the broad market of casual wearers or to target devotedly active users—or, in an increasingly crowded field, does a company need both to survive?
Haney insists that Outdoor Voices is defined by how its clothes function more than how they look. “I hate fashion, really,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable, from a business perspective, building a fashion brand. Fashion doesn’t mean much for people anymore—experiences do, and activity is experience.” Every aesthetic eventually goes out of vogue, and Haney wants to stake her brand on more stable ground. “If Outdoor Voices is with you when you’re experiencing that runner’s high, that dopamine release, there’s a chemical bond there. That’s what I’m excited to build the business around.”
Outdoor Voices’ origin story is essentially Haney’s life story, a narrative so perfectly tailored to fit her product that respinning it feels a little like lifting ad copy. She grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where “activity is seamlessly part of what you do,” Haney says. Many childhood days included a hike up the Flatirons or a bike ride to get ice cream, and a good outfit left her free to move and sweat. Haney was an active child and a talented runner, the kind of irrepressible kid who never remembered to use her “indoor voice”—a parental refrain that produced the name of her brand (and one that appears in virtually every piece about her success). Haney rode horses, waking up at 5:00 a.m. to hit the barn before school, then headed to basketball and track practice after class. “She always wanted to beat the boys,” says her mom, Jenn Haney. Tyler loved wearing Nike, which made her feel, she says, “like the fastest, strongest, most-likely-to-win athlete out there.”
By the end of high school, Haney was hearing from coaches who wanted to recruit her to run collegiate hurdles, but something in her resisted the most obvious path. She had a creative side, which she worried would find little expression in her life as a track star. The Haney kids grew up “surrounded by color,” Jenn says; for a while, Tyler’s parents and an aunt and uncle teamed up in a clothing business, and she grew up dabbling in sewing and painting. “She was always someone that started and finished something,” Jenn says. “Nothing she did sat in a corner.” The family’s roots were in the west, but Tyler moved east after high school, to Boston, where she spent a gap year serving margaritas at the Border Café in Harvard Square—a job she credits with teaching her “to relate to all kinds of people”—and then to New York City, where she enrolled in a joint design and management program at Parsons School of Design.
In Manhattan, Haney’s athletic side had no outlet. Without teammates or coaches, she says, “I woke up in my senior year and thought, ‘I have no motivation to be active. What the hell?’” It was her first taste of a feeling she realized many people must have often. At the same time, Haney’s love affair with Nike was souring. Jogging on the West Side Highway, she’d glance down at herself in black spandex and muscle-mapping neon and wonder why she looked “straight out of a Transformers movie” when she was running nine-minute miles. The disconnect sapped her motivation—but it also got her thinking about other people who might feel excluded by the hardcore aesthetic of traditional fitness brands, “people who walk into Under Armour and see Steph Curry on walls and think, ‘That’s never going to be me.’” Haney saw an opening for a brand with a look and message that gave people permission to have fun jogging two miles instead of winning a race.
The product would be “human, not superhuman” and for “exercisers, not athletes,” but Haney would attack it with the mindset of a star competitor, not satisfied until she could play against the big brands that had shaped her own sense of self. She went deep on synthetic yarns, buying bolts of fabric that she stashed under her bunk bed, looking for the perfect balance of stretch, compression, and the quality to endure countless wears and washes. Haney found patternmakers to piece together her designs and sent the sample garments to family and friends with the directive to “take this and go do things,” and then give feedback on the function and fit.
She found early on that people, especially men, who listened to her talk about taking on Nike and Under Armour thought she was crazy. But women who tried the clothes had a different reaction. According to Haney, the compression fabric was designed to be flattering, no matter how you stretch and move, and women reported feeling good about the bodies they saw in the mirror when sporting her styles. They felt more confident than usual about working out in her clothes. “I would go into a lot of guy investors’ offices, and no one would get it,” Haney says, remembering that she was told no around 70 times. “But I started sending it to their wives ahead of the meetings, and that was really where the unlock came from.”
By 2014, Haney had five versatile pieces on sale in a handful of small boutiques. The company’s first big break came when a buyer for J.Crew noticed the brand’s understated, cool-girl silhouette—high-waisted leggings and a crop top—and suggested Outdoor Voices for the retailer’s first-ever foray into activewear. Later, Haney staged collaborations with other fashion heavyweights, including Man Repeller and the French minimalist brand A.P.C. “Tyler’s focus on fabric is what makes her a fashion player,” Jean Touitou, founder and creative director at A.P.C., told me in an email. (Touitou is friends with Haney and an investor in her brand via A.P.C. Holding.) He describes Outdoor Voices as an exception to the aesthetic affront that he often considers activewear. “There are two ways to wear a sweatshirt and sweatpants: the ugly and the beautiful, period,” Touitou told me. “The sweat gear thing shouldn’t be synonymous with laziness.”
“I don’t know why all this stuff is so ugly,” Haney says of her competition, laughing. “Like, hellooo. Use nice color palettes and textures. I guess that’s why Outdoor Voices has really resonated with the fashion crowd.” Outdoor Voices has been labeled “activewear for it girls” and “the fitness brand for the fashion set.” “It was a neat thing to be championed by the fashion crowd,” Haney says, though she makes sure to add, “It wasn’t my strategy.”
Of course, Outdoor Voices’ aesthetic doesn’t stand out from the field like it used to—fashionable activewear is increasingly easy to find. When I called fashion marketing consultant Judith Russell, she praised Haney’s business sense and style but judged her “no different than so many others playing in an extremely competitive marketplace.” The field is increasingly crowded because of entrepreneurs like Haney, Russell says. She understood Haney’s desire to emphasize performance in addition to style. “You’ve got plenty of girls ordering Fabletics”—Kate Hudson’s activewear line—“which is known for being cute, fashionable, and affordable.” Outdoor Voices, on the other hand, is “positioned as premium, so you need unique fabrics. You need the quality…It’s a great brand, but there are a lot of really great brands.”
In the past year, Haney has moved away from New York and the fashion world—1,700 miles away, to Austin, a city she calls “the most recreational place I’ve ever been.” Haney opened her first brick-and-mortar store there in 2014, in what the chairman of her board cheerfully calls “the worst retail location in the world,” on a peaceful residential street. Haney shifted the bulk of her operations southwest last year. Austin reminds her of Boulder, with hiking and biking trails threaded through downtown, but in Boulder, everyone you pass “is hauling ass,” whereas in Austin, “all ages and shapes and sizes of people are jogging with strollers and walking their dogs. It’s the epitome of the lifestyle Outdoor Voices is catering to.”
Located just off East Cesar Chavez Street in rapidly gentrifying East Austin (within walking range of not one but two café cum bike shops), Outdoor Voices’ offices are full of custom plywood furniture in the same minimalist mode as the rainbows of clothing hanging around the room. In Haney’s world, style is functional in every detail. The first time we sat down to talk, her attention flicked for a moment to her blue conference room table. “We need to relaminate this,” she commented. “It bothers me that fingerprints stick.”
The inner workings of Haney’s visual mind are evident all around her office: She collages mood boards for herself and her team to envision the direction of their designs. Images of high art—James Turrell installations; the paintings of Monica Garza, which depict curvy women of color in joyful motion—mingle with characters from pop culture, like Sailor Mars and the Energizer Bunny. Shots from the 1970s and ’80s are a recurring theme. Haney’s aesthetic isn’t retro, but she loves the era’s kitschy, colorful embrace of fitness.
She’s especially inspired by Jane Fonda’s workout attire. In Fonda’s era, embracing leggings and leotards as everyday fashion allowed people—especially women—to convey that they valued feeling good in their clothes over anyone else’s feelings about how they looked. Observers of fashion have been saying for years that athleisure is a form of revolt against a culture obsessed with policing women’s appearances. “It’s the quintessential ‘I’m going to dress for myself’ statement,” Véronique Hyland wrote for The Cut in 2014. Both Haney’s comfortable clothes and her deft branding suit the self-image that millennial women seem to be shopping for. She told me her goal is to “take you back to how you feel when you’re young, that fearlessness to try things you have as a kid.” The women in Outdoor Voices’ promotional images usually look like they’re having too much fun to feel self-conscious. Where a classic Nike ad might show an athlete in midstride, alone with her determination, Outdoor Voices is all about group shots of women practicing backbends or dribbling balls midlaugh. If Outdoor Voices’ success is any indication, women aren’t just buying leggings. They’re hoping to buy a better, more self-assured version of themselves.
It helps that Haney is an ideal avatar for the values attached to this mode of dress. Though Outdoor Voices has expanded into menswear, she cares most about designing “for women, by women.” As Outdoor Voices doubles down on performance, she wants the signature silhouettes to remain “feminine.” She says current projects include running skorts, exercise dresses, and high-support bras, since the original crop tops are tailored to the relatively flat-chested. Haney promotes the fact that her team is 78 percent female and prides herself on ad campaigns celebrating bodies of many shapes and sizes. She’s also, of course, a woman in business whose faith in her own ideas survived dozens of skeptical, mostly male investors, and a 29-year-old CEO whose team left the center of the fashion universe to follow her across the country. If athleisure has succeeded, in part, by offering women a small, consumer-friendly form of power, then it stands to reason that Haney, with her message about #DoingThings and her story about doing exactly what she sets her mind to, is herself a vital asset for her brand.
Haney has come up with her own term for what Outdoor Voices is making. From now on, it’s “rec wear,” which Haney hopes captures both the “escapism or joyfulness” of a weekend camping in the woods and the midday exhale of a yoga class or a run. She wants this new taxonomy to convey that “we are experts at technical product”—that Outdoor Voices, at its core, isn’t about fashion. In the end, of course, this is just more nimble branding. Whatever Haney calls her clothes, she still has to compete against the ever-strengthening field that her company helped to create. Luckily, she’s always loved a good race.