Q&A: Outerknown Surf Apparel Designer John Moore
Discussing travel, surfing, creativity with the celebrated American designer and Kelly Slater's partner in the surf apparel brand
Courtesy of Outerknown
It's unfair to equate any master of their field with the master of another unrelated field. Basketball and surfing have little in common, and yet it's widely said that Kelly Slater is the Michael Jordan of the sport. He's racked up enough trophies, established a reputation for sportsmanship, driven the technique of the sport forward, and made his mark on the industry itself. Mike has Jumpman, a subsidiary of the Swoosh, and for 20-odd years Kelly had a subsidiary brand of his own, too. Though just this past year Kelly decided to take a different route altogether—he split with his bluechip sponsor and struck out on his own.
Well, almost. He brought designer John Moore along with him.
Together the two run Outerknown, a new, laid-back but decidedly grownup apparel and outerwear line. An industry vet and surfer in his own right, Moore most recently penned designs for the retro surf-inspired label M.Nii, where in 2014 he was honored as one of the best new menswear designers in America by GQ.
At Outerknown, you won't find graphic tees or the type of brash mallrat prints that have become synonymous with kook-fueled surf-inspired brands. Moore and Slater are set on making clothes that you'll keep from season-to-season and year-to-year. But that's just part of their mission on sustainability. In addition to making items that last and will stand the sartorial test of time, Outerknown is examining the sustainability of its entire supply chain — from using recycled and organic materials to opting for equitable manufacturing.
We recently caught up with Moore to talk sustainable design, working with one of his heroes and designing for the future.
How did you find your way into fashion design?
I got my fine art degree at Westmont and didn’t go to fashion school, so fashion design was the ultimate expression of my approach to creating art. My exposure to fashion during art school was through magazines and I knew there was something deeper drawing me into the images I saw in print. Like most, I would tear out my favorite pages and pin them to the wall and daydream about the people, places and worlds depicted within them.
It wasn’t so much about the clothing, but my curiosity about the culture surrounding the clothing. That sent me down a path to discover what role I could play in the making of those images, which is probably why art direction plays such a large role in my process. It’s not just the products, but also the atmosphere we create around them. That’s how we communicate. I think, in a way, I’m still trying to create these perfect little visual worlds everyday, and the products we sell are just part of the environments.
So I guess I got into fashion design through images in magazines, haha…
"I’d much rather take a risk to create something and be wrong, than copy something that has already been done and works."
What's your relationship with surfing? The ocean?
I’ve spent my entire life surfing and have always felt most comfortable working on projects that are connected to the ocean. When I’m in the ocean frequently, everything else I’m doing falls into a good rhythm…
What influences you in your life and design?
That’s really hard to pin down because it’s always shifting. I could tell you about a lot of people who have influenced me over the years, but I’m greatly effected by my surroundings. A mix of family, work, surfing, traveling, art, architecture, textiles and music. There are fashion designers I really admire.
I’m not conscious of trends as much as I am aware of what’s happening around me. When I’m awake and aware, I can find inspiration anywhere. I’m not interested in following any particular “trend” and would much rather take a risk to create something and be wrong, than copy something that has already been done and works.
Can you tell me a bit about your creative process?
My creative process has always been a multi-dimensional discipline for me and my approach to designing clothing mirrors this. It’s equal parts imagination, art direction, story-telling and styling and I don’t really begin the journey until the inspiration is something that I can really feel deep down. Meaning, I have to hold the materials in my hands, or immerse my corner of our studio in the music that I’m currently influenced by. I need to see the entire story coming to life versus just seeing certain products take shape. I’m honestly not sure if I could ever comprehend a singular silhouette or style without developing the atmosphere that surrounds it.
I don’t really think of seasons, I think of four different stories a year and the “characters” that I’m most familiar with. A great tee or the perfect pair of pants will carry through each narrative because you can’t really improve upon them every season.
The beginning of each story starts with me foraging for great references from the past — books, letters, textiles, or photographs. It’s the photographs I cling to the most because I might be loosely inspired by the subject matter, but I’m able to form my own conclusions of what was happening when these images were taken. Then I get to imagine and invent a modern narrative that is generally a hybrid of so many ideas. My team also searches for references and we put it all together. The result is something that is 100 percent ours.
You're based in Venice. How do you balance outdoor time with city life?
You could argue that the ocean is really our backyard, but the pressures of work, family and school surround us. So how do we balance outdoor time with city life? Plants! Lots and lots of plants everywhere…
I moved to Venice originally because it was the most affordable place I could live by the ocean in LA. Every other establishment on Abbott Kinney was actually vacant and you couldn’t pay someone to move in. Can you believe that? Things have obviously changed quite a lot over the last 15 years. Our house is tiny, we share one bathroom, and with two kids there’s not a lot of room to breathe.
So I surf as often as possible — every Saturday and Sunday and weekday mornings when there are waves. But finding balance is really challenging, so we try to create natural environments to live and work in. When I think about our tiny home and my studio surroundings, we try to bring as much nature and light into our environment as possible. I owe most of this to my girlfriend.
Looking more at Outerknown, how has it been working with Kelly?
Real. Kelly’s no bullshit. He would rather have a candid conversation about what feels right versus following a blueprint. He’s an individual, a deep thinker, and he wants to understand where everything comes from. This is very different than most relationships I’ve had in in fashion.
Keep in mind I grew up with Kelly. Not as a friend, but as a fan. So I admired his clean-living approach to life and incredible style on a surfboard long before I knew him personally. So if you start there, it’s pretty surreal to think of drawing that connection from a lifetime of inspiration into a creative and business partnership.
And this idea of Kelly’s global nomadic lifestyle, traveling from one destination to the next, informs our approach to design. He’s feeding us inspiration constantly, which is one of the most valuable elements of our creative puzzle. We’re designing for real life, wherever your travels take you—city, sea, desert and mountains. Surfing is just one part of that. And we want you to be prepared for everything else that comes your way, and hopefully do it with a sense of style.
What sorts of challenges does working in a sustainable framework offer? What are the benefits?
The Challenges are plentiful... limited resources and limited supply to start with. Sustainability is a relatively new concept in fashion, but it’s the very essence of our brand and we make each decision with the highest regard for the environment and the people who make our products. Easier said than done. Simply put, sustainability takes more time.
The biggest challenges for us are finding partners that can deliver on our strict standards and the fact that it takes longer to build sustainable products. When we first set out to build a sustainable collection, we had a vision and sourced into that vision.
"We’re designing for real life, wherever your travels take you. Surfing is just one part of that."
I had pre-existing relationships to help with sourcing, materials and manufacturing, but I quickly realized they could not deliver what we needed. So along with our Global Sustainability Officer, Shelly Gottschamer, we have built Outerknown’s global supply chain from scratch working in regions such as China, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Slovenia. These are sustainably minded suppliers that can drive the innovation we’re looking for while delivering quality and style too.
The Benefits are long-term. We’re looking out for our future generations by protecting our environment and investing in our workforce so they have a better quality of life.
Does sustainability shape your designs?
Yes, it must. And this is probably the biggest difference between designing Outerknown versus other collections from my past. I used to lead with design, dreaming up an idea and then bringing it to life. But now we must lead with sustainability, start with the raw materials, and work with a defined supply chain we’ve built all over the world that can deliver on our strict social and environmental standards.
Seventy percent of a company’s environmental impact happens at a raw materials level and that’s where we’re making a difference. When you start here, at the source of it all, it elevates the entire process.
As a designer, this is challenging because there are so many limitations, but I’m enjoying the challenge. It feels like we’re solving a big problem.
Looking back on the past few months, what's your most positive memory with Outerknown so far?
Outerknown isn’t just another project, it’s my next 20 years and all of us are taking a long-term approach to building products we believe in. I look forward to a day when we deliver a collection that’s super inspiring, accessible at a variety of price points, and when we’re not even talking about sustainability because it’s ingrained into everything we do — a day in the future when responsible business practices have literally become business as normal for us and our contemporaries. That will be my most positive future-memory!