Stories from Athleisure Wear

Outdoor Voices is building a movement to move—and proving you can have fun doing it

Ali Finney

Ali FinneyDecember 27, 2019

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Photo: Outdoor Voices

For some, it’s the exercise dress that made them converts. For others, the MegaFleece. And for the JOMO crowd, it’s softer-than-a-dream CloudKnit from head-to-toe that had them hooked. Piece after piece of instantly-sold-out releases prove that Tyler Haney’s cool-to-be-active brand Outdoor Voices has become a cult-fave factory. And while OV has been hard at work to become the sweat-positive brand of the past decade, these days, Haney (who is one of Well+Good’s 2020 Changemakers) is on a much more ambitious mission: She wants to change the way America moves.

Five years ago, Haney founded OV to simplify the fitness uniform. The OG two-toned kits, which included a crop top and leggings, created a visual identity without needing to slap logos on clothing left, right, and center. Today, as legging imports soar well above those for blue jeans, it’s easy to forget that at the beginning of the decade, Haney’s tweaks to seaming (her brand’s leggings are sewn together with a signature diagonal paneling that helps them move with the body better), design (for all intents and purposes, she made the color-block cool), and cut (the high-rise legging paired with a crop top gave new ath-life to a silhouette that’s been beloved since the ’90s) created a new genre of activewear that wasn’t focused on sweat-wicking or compression, it aimed to “free fitness from the pressure of performance,” to borrow a phrase from Haney.

“Our belief is that the future of athletics isn’t any longer about being first or fastest, it’s about frequency and consistency.” —Tyler Haney, Outdoor Voices founder

While color-blocked leggings proved copyable by other brands that were paying close attention, the ethos of OV—helping you more easily move through your life, however you choose—continues to be what sets it apart. “There are so many companies coming into this space that are like, ‘I want to make a better legging,'” says Haney. “For us, we want to make happier people. So there’s real boldness to our ambition here.” Peek behind the brand’s #doingthings hashtag, and you’ll find that the way people use OV’s activewear (climbing mountains, plié-ing at barre class, going to work, running, playing with their dogs) is as wide-ranging and diverse as the bodies wearing the pieces, something that I personally find endlessly inspiring and motivating when workout burnout gets the better of me.

This redefinition of what it means to sweat (and who has the right to) couldn’t be coming at a more salient time. While people are flocking to wellness at astonishing rates (the latest tallies estimate the global industry is worth $4.5 trillion), Americans’ activity rates aren’t budging. By the CDC’s count, only one in four Americans is meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity, and while there are certainly many reasons why this is happening, two stand out—and Haney is working to remedy both.

The first is that Americans tend to view exercise as separate from their everyday lives, toggling between “fitness time” and “everything else.” But if you look at the Blue Zones (the areas in the world where people live the longest), movement and physical activity are pillars of daily life. Eighty-four percent of the United States population lives in urban areas, which are built to be walkable, bikeable, and livable. But by and large, in the U.S., cities sprawl, commutes happen by car, and as burnout culture peaks, exhausted people cross gym time off their never-ending to-do lists.

We’ve lost the joy that comes from activity that turns our cheeks pink and sends our endorphins rushing. We feel we have to push ourselves to the max for it to count towards our fitness goals. But in reality, research suggests that small steps add up to miles. And that’s the way Haney sees it, too: “For us, we very much view movement and a commitment to daily movement as the antidote to a lot of negativity in the world,” she says.

“[Outdoor Voices] isn’t up against the Nikes and the Lulus of the world, we’re up against people’s negative perceptions of themselves.” —Haney

Another key reason many people think of exercise as work that needs to be done rather than fun to be had is that most kids first encounter activity through participation in sports, where they’re labeled either “good” at them or “bad.” We’re creating entire generations of people who believe they’re not cut out for physical activity unless they get a Division I college scholarship. Haney is done with this way of thinking. “Our belief is that the future of athletics isn’t any longer about being first or fastest, it’s about frequency and consistency,” she says. “[Outdoor Voices] isn’t up against the Nikes and the Lulus of the world, we’re up against people’s negative perceptions of themselves.”

Haney doesn’t think she’s going to change hearts and minds by simply creating the best leggings: Outdoor Voices is also fostering community through IRL events (think: everyone-can-do-it dance parties and fun runs) and the brand’s online publication, The Recreationalist. “That’s the stickiness of the brand,” she says. “We make a really nice product, but it really binds our community when we bring it to life together.”

In a perfect feedback loop, OV’s tight-knit community of tastemakers is in turn making the apparel better. For example, the exercise dress launched in May 2018 with a swimsuit-style brief liner, but Haney heard from wearers that they wanted something more substantial. In September of the same year, OV changed the lining into a pair of shorts that has a phone pocket. For a brand that’s competing in a category that’s been seemingly “done” over and over again, these sparks of innovation keep the activewear industry on its toes.

As for what’s next: Expect to see the community widen and deepen as Haney doubles down on recreational activism. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously and have fun; but underlying it all, there’s a real purpose here,” she says. By dreaming of a world in which everyone can experience how good it feels to move, Haney is showing that the mission behind a leggings company can stretch far past what we’ve come to expect. Yesterday, the two-toned kit; today, the exercise dress; tomorrow, reclaiming the joy that movement can bring.

Cool, cool, cool: Speaking of fitness trends, Blue Zones thinking is coming for your workouts and this is why Megaformer-inspired workouts are going to be mega popular next year.

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