Ty Haney Is the Queen of Athleisure
Nora Caplan-Bricker
Jun 5, 2018

The 29-year-old CEO of Outdoor Voices is taking on Nike, one color block at a time

“Uh-oh. ****,” says Tyler Haney, the 29-year-old CEO of apparel company Outdoor Voices, as her dog, Bowie, tucks his butt in the universal sign for bombs away. “Literal ****! I don’t have—will you hold him?” Haney hands me the pink leash and sprints for a nearby trash can, where she finds a baggie that she uses to scoop the poop from the middle of the trail. “Ahhh, gross!” she moans, discarding the twice-used piece of plastic and trotting back to reclaim her curly haired Havapoo. “I totally forgot a bag. See,” she gestures toward the back of her leggings, “I need a pocket!”

Her blonde hair still wet from the shower after her morning run, Haney is wearing her own design, a variation on the leggings that launched her brand in 2014, with color blocks contoured at flattering angles. She’s sporting new spring colors: blue with pale ballet pink. We’ve been walking one of her favorite trails, which crisscrosses the Colorado River’s path through downtown Austin, Texas, where Haney has lived full-time for about a year. We’re talking about her plans to release leggings with more generous pockets—the ultimate uniform for hiking and dog walking. Haney recently learned that employees at one large outdoor gear company refer to athletic dilettantes as “dog walkers,” a detail that tickles her, since Outdoor Voices considers dog owners its perfect demographic: They may not be marathoners, but they’ve made a commitment to getting out every day.

Haney has positioned Outdoor Voices as the approachable alternative to activewear titans such as Nike and Under Armour. Instead of exhorting athletes to “just do it,” Outdoor Voices asks fans to post on social about #DoingThings, which is “better than not Doing Things,” whether you’re off riding horses or just watering the plants. In place of performance, Haney talks about “moderation and ease and humor and delight,” and instead of marketing that hinges on winning, her brand emphasizes exercising in any capacity, “moving your body for your mind.”

It’s hard to imagine a better message for this moment in American culture, when fitness is trendy, and so is sportswear. Ensembles appropriate for doing sun salutations have become acceptable attire for doing almost anything. The rise of athleisure—a portmanteau Haney loathes because, she says, “it sounds lethargic…like I’m a lump on my couch”—has created a huge opening for activewear that looks like chic casual wear. Between 2011 and 2016, the market for athletic gear ballooned to almost a third of the entire clothing business, growing about seven times as fast as the overall apparel industry.

In this climate, Outdoor Voices’ first selling points were aesthetic: Its signature blues and grays are more versatile than Nike neon, and its minimalist crop tops work as well under a jean jacket as they do on a jog. In 2014, Haney was ahead of the curve with her oft-repeated message of collapsing the space between “your gym life and your life-life.” Four years later, everyone is talking about dressing for health and comfort at all times, and Outdoor Voices has grown to an 80-person business, raised $56.5 million in venture capital funding, and opened six brick-and-mortar stores, with ten more reportedly on the way this year, including Boston and Marin locations in summer 2018.

“Outdoor Voices is kind of the reason that athleisure has taken off and a pioneer of the notion of wearing athletic apparel when not engaged in athletic activity,” says Leandra Medine Cohen, founder of the fashion blog Man Repeller and an investor in Outdoor Voices. “This is a market they helped to create.” This is a strong—and somewhat debatable—statement. No attempt to trace the rise of athleisure should neglect the role of Lululemon, which was founded in 1998 and has done more to sell Americans on stretchy pants for all occasions than any other company. Fashion designers’ pursuit of sportswear collaborations has also been advancing the trend for more than a decade, since Stella McCartney first partnered with Adidas in 2005. But in a moment when activewear has cornered more of the market than ever, Outdoor Voices has come to epitomize the possibility of dressing for comfort in clothes that confer a nonchalant brand of cool.

The booming athleisure business is a mixed blessing, however. Haney has called the impossibility of escaping that label possibly the “biggest challenge” she’s faced so far. That might sound dramatic until you consider just how many brands are offering comfy leggings that are perfectly adequate for #DoingThings like lounging, working, or walking the dog. Even Outdoor Voices’ signature look isn’t as revelatory as it used to be: color blocking is now a trend, no small thanks to Haney. In January, Haney publicly accused fitness apparel company Bandier of knocking off her clothes, and angry Outdoor Voices fans flooded the competitor’s comments. Covering the dustup for fashion news site Racked, reporter Eliza Brooke pointed out “the fallibility of brands relying on aesthetics as a way to differentiate themselves” when a gray area is all that separates copycat from trend. Bandier CEO Neil Boyarsky was unrepentant, telling Racked, “No one owns color blocking.”
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