Kelly Slater leaving Quiksilver was a big moment for surfing and its two most recognisable names. Most legendary athletes are synonymous with a brand, and to deviate from that model risks stability and the sanctity of a 30-year relationship.
But he had bigger things to worry about.
With a life spent in the natural environment, the 11x world champion surfer was acutely aware of the ecological impact of the sport and it’s rigorous travel demands. In response to this increasingly urgent understanding of his own impact on the earth, he spent a significant portion of time (and money) into solving it—starting with a revolutionary wave pool that cuts the need to travel to the ocean, and progressing into an apparel company that is friendly to circular production.
John Moore had spent two lifetime in the ocean and in apparel design, at one point becoming part of president Barack Obama's fashion advisory board for sustainability. His relationship with Slater had always been between the two, and so it was only natural they would partner on something that challenged them equally. In 2017 after two years of research and development, Outerknown was born.
True circularity—the idea that a company’s goods are 100% regenerative and sustainable—is borderline impossible to achieve. It doesn’t just mean that fibres are recycled or grown with 0 environmental impact, but also means that employees have proper working condition, that distribution is carbon neutral, and that products find a new home even after they’re sold.
It requires equal buy in on behalf of the producer and the consumer. “The message that I have in my head is to buy things you really like and to feel more connected to them” says Slater, noting that while the pieces cost more, the idea is that you get significantly more wear out of them too.
“You have to just stop worrying about what's right in front of you and start playing a long game.”
Embracing these models manifests itself in increasingly innovative ways, unlocking open-source technology that can and should be utilised globally: fibres made from discarded fishnets; surf trunks made from recycled water bottles and merino wool; fair trade denim; public research reports and even an online marketplace for sustainable innovation.
"John and I were pretty transparent about the first year—it was tough, man” says Slater. “The prices that go into the initial build and creation and supply chain was labor intensive for ourselves and the people working with us.”
Adds John: “If you're playing the game and you're racing against the calendar then you're only as good as your last collection. We decided to do it our own way so we can build everything with the highest regard for the people that are making our products and to hit these incredibly strict environmental standards that we won't compromise on.”
After three years in-market, those results speak for themselves: 90% of Outerknown’s fibres are regenerated, 100% of its trunks are made with sustainable fibres, and they actively invest in positive work conditions for the over 5,000 individuals involved in their production. The clothes are damn comfy too.
“We design without an expiration date, and I think that is really important to who we are as a brand” says Moore.
Kelly’s involvement with the brand is in parallel to a still-up-in-the-air attempt at another world title, and that sense of competitiveness is now evenly split across his athletic and professional ventures. For Moore, his athletic journey is interlinked with the success of the brand.
"I can't imagine not having that idea of Kelly traveling light, running through an airport” says John. “He doesn't put that much thought into how he's you're packing because he's constantly travelling. And I love that. That's always been the driving force of lot of hard decision making, making easy clothes that can travel with you."
Slater, who recently took an extended stay in Australia, sat down with Semi Permanent director Murray Bell and beamed in John Moore to discuss creativity, design, the Outerknown story, competitive instincts and professional risk taking. They also talk about the next steps they’re taking to be completely circular by 2030—a design challenge neither are sure of how they will solve.
“If it's not a little scary, it's not really that interesting to me” says Slater. “You need that uneasiness to ultimately have that pay off in a real positive way.”