Outlier CEO Abe Burmeister: “Scale doesn’t make problems go away, it makes them bigger.”
Burmeister discusses why scale is a false benchmark, why Google has him obsessing over product quality, and the reasons behind his hot ‘n heavy Apple fetish. (950 words)
NEW YORK — At this point, Abe Burmeister might be just as identifiable for his founding role at Outlier — the experimental techwear upstart he started alongside Tyler Clemens in 2008 — as he is for his trademark beard, which, according to Google, seems to be in peak, playoff-ready condition all year round.
In the event that you don’t know much about Outlier, here’s the nutshell:
- Technical clothing brand with a stripped down, minimal aesthetic, and a sharply honed desire for fabric and product innovation.
- Burmeister’s and Clemens’ initial idea was to create a better pair of pants that could hold up to aggressive city biking.
- It’s grown into a cult favorite, and is a frequently-cited inspiration among the Lean Luxe subscriber base.
Abe recently spoke with fellow subscriber Colin Nagy to discuss fabric innovation, bootstrapping, and his points of reference from the design world. Below, the best talking points from that conversation, edited for brevity:
They’re basically mad scientists when it comes to fabric and materials:
“We’ve been pushing a bit further towards the extremes with our materials: heavier and tougher fabrics on one side, and then hyper lightweight and breathable on the other. No ‘Goldilocks-ing’ these days.
We’ve been working a lot with something we call ‘Injected Linen’, which uses a new knitting technique to create a fabric that is both very open, yet quite opaque. It makes pants that you can wear in the summer that feel like shorts.
We’re also working a lot with a fiber called ramie that might be the oldest fiber used by humans. It’s similar to linen but comes out of Southeast Asia. We like to think of it as the cheat code for hot and humid weather — expensive but magical.
Then of course there’s Dyneema, the world’s strongest fiber. We’ve been using it for bags for awhile now, but we’ve been playing around with less conventional uses too. It’s pretty remarkable stuff. They use it to make artificial ligaments and the like, [since] the body doesn’t reject it, which makes us think a lot about the inverse: What sort of reactions are different fabrics creating on the outside of the body?”
On Google and ‘Radical Quality’:
“We’re always trying to distill what we do down to simpler and purer forms. Right now, we’re really focused on the idea of ‘Radical Quality,’ a level of quality that goes all the way down to the roots of the product and resonates all the way through the supply chain.
The way I see it, we’re slowly emerging from an age where quality didn’t really matter. The way to succeed over the last half century was to have a good-enough product, and the best marketing and the right price. That era is over, Google killed it. A couple searches and suddenly you’ll find rarefied zones where products are dissected and analyzed in exacting detail. To win in that environment, you need to put quality first and foremost.”
For Outlier, Reddit acts as crowdsourced R&D with a direct feedback loop:
“Reddit is a funny place and our involvement is pretty accidental. We saw traffic coming from it, dug around a bit, did an AMA. Then [we] decided to start our own subreddit as an experiment, and people showed up. Now it’s like a secret comments section to our website, the party in the VIP room.
It attracts a very particular sort of person and it’s not really anything like what reddit uses get stereotyped as. It’s a place for very text-oriented people. It’s nearly image free, sort of odd for clothing. But I’m a reader and writer, so it’s good for me personally, and it attracts a very strong core set of people who want to read and write about clothing. That makes for a great place to talk to customers and both listen to their feedback and also explain what drives a lot of what we do.”
On scale being a false benchmark:
“Outlier started as a side project and evolved into sink or swim. It’s just a series of hypothesizes and tests really — me and Tyler trying to figure out just what we could make, sell, and get away with.
The hardest lesson I have to keep learning over and over is that you cannot grow your way out of problems. Scale doesn’t make problems go away, it makes them bigger. So you need to identify problems as soon as possible and confront them head on, otherwise they’ll expand and blow up in your face later.”
On his unabashed Apple fetish:
“We love the fierce independents, Giorgio Armani, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and Rick Owens to name a few. People who present really singular visions and can deliver them to the world.
Anyone who reads my Twitter [feed] knows I have a huge Apple fetish too. That’s really from an industrial design perspective. There’s no other company in the universe so devoted to solving tiny problems in big ways, and building the machines to execute their visions [as Apple is]. In the clothing world, probably the closest we get to that is Issey Miyake, Stone Island, [or] Arc’teryx.”
His only character flaw — he’s a Vetements fan:
“Finally, strictly for Lean Luxe — and because Paul utterly hates them — I’m happy to defend Vetements all day long. Their product-centric design model has really shaken up the fashion side of things in an important way, and it’s opening up some really interesting new pathways for the industry to evolve for the better.”