Kelly Slater and John Moore started their sustainable menswear brand Outerknown in 2015 with an original vision: to offer a complete wardrobe in an eco-conscious way. But at the outset, they'd planned to stay far, far away from one indispensable component of modern style. Denim.
"Kelly said in one of our first interviews that Outerknown wouldn't do denim because it's such a dirty business," Moore said. "I looked over, and he was wearing a pair of jeans and I was wearing my favorite Levi's trucker jacket. Denim is such a key part of our lifestyle, but he was right, jeans are a dirty business."
It's no secret that the apparel industry is notoriously bad for the environment. According to designer Eileen Fisher, it's the second worst industrial polluter, topped only by big oil. And while certain materials are more detrimental to the environment than others, denim is one of the worst offenders. The pesticides used to produce conventional cotton — which is spun, dyed and woven to make denim — account for 16 percent of global insecticide use. And according to a study by Levi's, a single pair of jeans can use over 3,700 liters of fresh water in its lifecycle.
So it's perhaps a little ironic that it took partnering with Levi's to help change Slater’s and Moore’s minds. In late 2017, Outerknown launched a collaboration with the denim giant's Wellthread program. The jeans and trucker jackets the collaboration produced were made with Levi's WaterLess dyeing technology, and the polyester in one of the truckers was designed to be fully recyclable.
While the collaboration with Levi's is ongoing, Moore felt it was important for Outerknown to develop its own line of jeans and thus bring its own innovation and personality to the category.
"Many of those around told us we should think twice," he said. "Mostly we heard that people buy denim from trusted denim brands and it's too hard to break in." So instead of conforming to industry standards, Outerknown decided to manufacture denim under its own guidelines. The brand's first line of denim — called S.E.A. Jeans (short for Social Environmental Accountability) — hit the market in August 2018.
"We are working with our own suppliers and fabric mills, and it is a completely different design approach," Moore said. "We're building them right, and it's working."
The S.E.A. Jeans come in three fits, ranging from classic and comfortable to stylish and slouchy: a slim fit called the Ambassador, a straight-leg style called the Local and a tapered jean called the Drifter. "If I'm going for something with a little more vibe, it's the Drifters," Moore said. "But if I am just looking for my daily drivers, it's the Local Selvedge." The jeans are available in eight colors — the Ambassador and the Local come in three indigo shades and black, and the Drifter comes in four earth-tone colors — and cost anywhere from $128 to $168.
The success of S.E.A. Jeans is due largely to the team's restraint in its first few seasons. "We talked about doing them early and I'm glad we didn't," Moore said. "We weren't ready. We've got a few years under our belt now and we know who we are, and what works for us as a brand."
Outerknown has grown in recent years, and it picked up employees uniquely qualified to tackle the project. "We've got denim experts in the building — like Josh [Weiner] and Bethany [Mallett] — and they were obsessed with getting the fit, the fabrics and the details right. We met weekly, if not daily, and the team visited Saitex multiple times during development. We worked with the absolute best denim mills in the world like Candiani and Isko, which was extremely important to us."
The resulting jeans have lasting style. They feel substantial. Made from organic cotton denim, they're manufactured at the LEED-certified Saitex factory in Vietnam. An industry leader, Saitex recycles 98 percent of water used in production, air dries 85 percent of its jeans to save energy, uses solar power and harvests rainwater. "The planet-positive process we took to build them feels good," Moore said, "but it was equally important that the denim needed to look just as good."
And then there's the guarantee. Outerknown stands behind the S.E.A. Jeans for life and will repair or replace them for free. While this type of commitment is unheard of for many larger manufacturers, it was a logical step for Outerknown. "Think about it. If you build great quality products in the first place, a lifetime guarantee shouldn't make anyone feel nervous," Moore said. "This was a holistic business decision, not just a responsible commitment.
"We're asking you to send us back your jeans when they need fixing, or honestly, when you are just sick of them," he said. "We're either gonna get them repaired by an expert and send them back to you, or we'll ship you a new pair and send your old jeans to the Renewal Workshop." Located about 50 miles east of Portland, Oregon, on the Columbia River, the facility repairs garments or upcycles them into house insulation or recycling feedstock. The workshop plays an integral part in closed-loop manufacturing, an increasingly important topic in sustainable apparel. For Moore, continuing to be responsible for a garment through its lifecycle is one of the most sustainable decisions a brand can make.
"Globally, there's so much being manufactured every day. And what happens when you are done with it?" he asked. "This idea of a disposable culture is gross. We need to design to regenerate or figure out how to turn our products into new materials or products when we are done with them."
As a leader in sustainable apparel, Moore has taken on a more proactive role to encourage companies large and small to adopt sustainable practices and to make sustainability more accessible and affordable. This fall, Outerknown put out a publication called the Blue Book, which explains its mission to lower taxes for importing items that contain benefit fibers — those that are organic, recycled and regenerated, for example. Lower materials costs will drive innovation, scale and demand for sustainable and affordable consumer goods. Moore considers this mission paramount. "Real change will come when responsibly produced clothing is available to everyone," he said.
And perhaps that's why Outerknown released the Blue Book shortly after the launch of S.E.A. Jeans. Denim transcends fashion cycles, social classes and national borders. Jeans are ubiquitous and much loved — precisely the type of product where sustainability will have a lasting impact.
"Clothing shouldn't be a complicated thing, and sustainability can be cool," Moore said. "Effortless style meets sustainability — that's our thing. That's S.E.A. Jeans."
- Fabric: 13.5-ounce denim, 12-ounce stretch denim
- Fits: Slim, straight, tapered
- Colorways: 8
Buy Now: $128+
This story is part of the GP100, Gear Patrol's annual index of the 100 best products of the year. To see the full list of products or read this story in print, check out Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Eight, available now at the Gear Patrol Store.