NEW YORK, United States — Emily, a 25-year-old journalist living in Long Island City, Queens, bought “The Exercise Dress” by Outdoor Voices for hiking in Maine, but ended up wearing it around New York City instead. Ellie Smith, a 25-year-old college student based in Washington, D.C., calls the dress her grocery shopping uniform. Environmental chemist Anne Agee, 23, owns four versions of The Exercise Dress and even convinced her mother to buy one.
“I run every day and they’re perfect for that, but I’ve also worn them out to bars with my friends,” said Agee, who lives near Outdoor Voices' headquarters in Austin, Texas. “They’re so comfortable and easy. I wish I was getting paid to say this, but I am not.”
First launched in May 2018 at a roller-skating rink in Los Angeles, the activewear brand’s $100 spaghetti-strapped slip has become a subject of mild internet obsession — from Twitter threads to editorial reviews — and hundreds of user-generated posts, many of which are hashtagged with the brand’s motto, “Doing Things”.
On August 15, Instagram came alive when more than 1,000 customers, influencers and freebie lovers gathered at the Lincoln Center fountain in New York for a dance party and giveaway. Many were invited via text message: “I’m not sure how Outdoor Voices got my number but, more importantly, should I go to this,” wrote Bloomberg technology reporter Gerrit De Vynck via Twitter.
Those first to arrive were gifted the latest version of the dress, which is lined with a short unitard and made of a lightweight nylon-spandex blend.
Free stuff aside, The Exercise Dress appears to be a legitimate success story for Outdoor Voices, the venture-backed label which describes its products as “technical apparel for recreation." It is the best-selling single item this year and has been restocked six times, according to the company.
I don’t know that I shop anywhere else that sells real, like, exercise dresses.
A newer version of the dress, lined with a short unitard instead of a bathing-suit like leotard, is far more popular than the original. (Sales doubled when the switch was made in September 2018.) But even Version 1.0 was a hit: it’s still recorded as Outdoor Voices’ most successful single-item launch ever, with more units sold during its first week online than any other product.
Of course, one hit does not make a billion-dollar brand. Dresses only make up 5 percent of OutdoorVoices.com’s overall product assortment, according to inventory tracking firm Edited, and dresses and skirts are outpacing the growth of other bottoms. That means Outdoor Voices will need to make more hits — and increase sales of its core product, leggings — in order to properly scale.
But it won’t be easy. The label has raised a significant amount of funding — close to $60 million — from investors including Google Ventures and Forerunner Ventures, which comes with certain expectations. (A representative declined to disclose revenue numbers.)
It has also experienced some notable changes in leadership. At a recent board meeting, former J.Crew head Mickey Drexler stepped down from his role as Chairman, although he is set to remain on the board, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter. (A representative for the company said that Drexler remains Chairman and an active member of the board "as of today.") President and Chief Operating Officer Pamela Catlett, a veteran of Nike, exited after less than a year in the position.
The Exercise Dress was a much-needed win for Outdoor Voices. But how did it become such a thing?
For Chief Executive Tyler Haney, The Exercise Dress was more than a lucky bet on a summer trend. It was a way of further distinguishing the brand from the pack of competitors hoping to capture a share of the still-growing global activewear market, set to hit $350 billion by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley.
When it first launched in 2014, Outdoor Voices made an impression through distinct design, with Memphis Group vibes, colour-blocking and a typography style favoured by Brooklyn Millennials. But all of that is easily copyable. In order to really compete against giants like Lululemon and Nike, the brand needs to deliver a singular message.
Enter the “Doing Things” mantra, which isn’t just about running errands or running sprints. It’s about hanging out. The Exercise Dress, while perfectly acceptable as workout gear or loungewear, can also be worn to a bar. That is progress in a market where exercising is cool and aspirational, whether or not you actually exercise.
“I don’t know that I shop anywhere else that sells real, like, exercise dresses,” said Smith, the college student. “I don’t exercise all that often...Outdoor Voices has done an excellent job of branding itself as exercise clothes that you can do regular things in.”
I had been working out in leggings so long, I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ I want an alternative.
Haney calls The Exercise Dress an “outfield opportunity,” something she and her team took their time to develop and test. “I had been working out in leggings so long, I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ I want an alternative,” she said. “I tasked the team with designing [something different].”
Workout dresses aren’t a particularly popular category for traditional activewear brands, even as tennis and its various accoutrements — from anklet bracelets to headbands — gain popularity among younger consumers. For Athleta, Fabletics and Lululemon, three of Outdoor Voices' biggest competitors, skorts, skirts and dresses generated 4.1 percent of online sales in the last 12 months, down from 5.7 percent during the same period a year earlier, despite the fact that sales on these sites increased by 15 percent overall, according to Rakuten Intelligence, which tracks credit card receipts.
However, The Exercise Dress’ 1990s-throwback design, combined with its ease of wear, has made it relevant beyond the court.
“Google Hayley Bieber and Kendall Jenner; that silhouette is definitely out there,” said Gabriella Santaniello, a retail analyst. “It gives Outdoor Voices an edge. It makes them different. They’re the only athleisure company really promoting something like this.”
This year, Outdoor Voices has also notably tightened up its overall brand message — from the diversity of its campaign casting to the specificity of its colour choices — while tweaking the cadence of its deliveries so that there is a more consistent stream of newness. The company also launched a dedicated editorial product, The Recreationalist, earlier this summer. Haney said to expect more unique-to-Outdoor Voices products that help further shape what the brand means to consumers.
“We have given this style and product to the customer, and they’ve shown us what to do with it,” said Haney, who added that she wears the dress “every single day,” as do many of her employees. “They brought the dress to life.”