Store of the Future   //   October 20, 2023

From flooring to square feet, Outerknown is revamping its retail store playbook

The sustainable clothing brand Outerknown is rewriting its rules for retail stores as it opens new locations across the United States.

The brand, which was founded by longtime creative director John Moore and professional surfer Kelly Slater in 2015, has four owned locations — one in Boston, one in New York City and two in California (Malibu and El Segundo). It will double this count by spring 2024 with three more stores in California (Marin, Carlsbad and Palo Alto) and a store in Georgetown, D.C. The Marin location will be the first to open on October 27.

Outerknown began as an e-commerce business and has since inked wholesale deals with surf shops and apparel companies like Quicksilver and Billabong. While it will continue with these two channels, it’s become more interested in physical retail — and in approaching stores differently than it did in the past. While Outerknown’s earlier stores were larger and more traditional, its new stores are smaller and more focused on product curation, ties to the local community and sustainability in design.

Outerknown opened its first owned store in 2019 in El Segundo, California. The location was about 3,000 square feet, and “it was a little bit of everything,” Moore, the brand’s chief creative, told Modern Retail. “We didn’t go into it as aggressively trying to mirror what we were doing in our clothing.”

Outerknown regrouped last fall, and together with the design agency Starch Creative, set out on a trip to New York, Massachusetts and Vermont to do market research, Starch Creative CEO Brandon Ball told Modern Retail. Starch Creative had worked with Outerknown on its other stores at that point, and “that was really where we moved into the process of saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to work with you to scale retail, so we need to be mindful of what that looks like,'” Ball said.

It was on the plane ride back that everything came together, Ball said. The two groups settled on a strategy for stores going forward — one that involved smaller footprints and a more fine-tuned selection of merchandise, as well as fixtures, flooring and other components made from reclaimed materials or scrapped materials.

“We’re really trying to edit down and make sure that the shop experience is as sustainable as the clothing that we make,” Moore said. “We’re not trying to open up big, flashy corporate flagships. These are really soulful, smaller footprints, neighborhood shops that are really immersed in the culture of the communities that we’re going into.”

All of Outerknown’s new stores will share certain components, such as an emphasis on hero products like Outerknown’s Blanket Shirt and S.E.A. (Social and Environmental Accountability) Jeans. Outerknown wants 75% of each store to feel similar to other locations and 25% to be localized to the surrounding area. For example, right now, Outerknown’s East Coast stores have more warm-weather clothing, while its West Coast stores have more trunks and T-shirts.

Local collaborations are also a key part of the store strategy going forward, Moore said. For instance, Outerknown’s Marin store will have a 20-foot-wide salvage driftwood installation from the artist Dave Muller, who was born in San Francisco. For its existing Malibu location, Outerknown worked with photographer Steven Lippman, who takes photos of Los Angeles County beaches.

Today, more brands are adding in a local tie-in with store openings, whether that’s through murals or other art, Rebekah Kondrat, founder of the retail consultancy Rekon Retail, told Modern Retail. “I think that kind of signals to the community that even if it’s not a local brand, [the company is saying] ‘We still have paid attention. And we have studied you, the consumer and we’re going to put something here just for you that’s special for you.'”

This year, Outerknown refitted its Soho location to fit its new retail vision. Outerknown shut down the store for three months and added fixtures made out of denim scraps, which it then used to hang its S.E.A. Jeans, a product Outerknown says is “guaranteed for life” because of its durability. Outerknown also added re-milled wooden flooring from old barns and hung up a 60-foot Blanket Shirt wave installation that the environmental scientist Ethan Estess constructed using reclaimed maritime rope. The four new stores will encompass many of the changes made to the Soho location, which reopened earlier this month.

Outerknown decided on the locations of its four new stores because they are cities where its customers spend time, Moore said. “We’re always looking for communities and neighborhoods where we feel that there’s a lot of people that share our values, our deep connection to nature,” he said. It’s an approach that Ball said he’s seeing more of from his clients. “Retailers have traditionally been focused on key city implementations,” he said. “And we’re seeing a lot of divergence of that strategy.”

Many brands do see the largest sales from cities with larger populations, like Los Angeles and New York City, Kondrat pointed out. But, “for a few brands, that’s actually not the case,” she said. “They do benefit from going into these more specialized, niche markets… I think where brands can get hung up is, there’s sometimes a difference between who their customer is and who they want their customer to be.”

Outerknown is considering expanding to cities like Denver and Austin, but most importantly, “we want to be slow and meticulous and get it right,” Moore said.

“We’re not going to rush,” he said. “We’ve got some heat in retail. It’s doing well for us. And so we definitely have our sights set on other great markets out there.”