When 11 x World Champ Kelly Slater’s long relationship with Quiksilver came to a conclusion in 2014, he embarked on an entirely different venture, aiming to offer not just a brand with cultural relevance but one that would hold up under the ever-increasing scrutiny towards sustainability.
With fast fashion being identified as a major baddie in terms of environmental damage as well as social issues, it felt like the right time to start clean, in all sorts of ways. Surfing, like so many other things, was beginning to take a look at itself in a whole new light, and for a sport used to being delighted with its own reflection, it all made for rather uncomfortable viewing.
Whilst wave riding has long regarded its deep and meaningful relationship with mother nature as a key part of its exceptionalism, turns out it was as much a part of the ills of throwaway society as anything else. So with all this in mind, starting with a blank sheet of (recycled) paper, and the resources and connections to get things moving, Slater teamed up with designer John Moore to build Outerknown as a brand taking an entirely different, sustainability-focused approach.
“I’m a super competitive person” admits Slater, “If someone says something can’t be done, I want to prove them wrong.” As it turns out, doubts about the feasibility of Kelly’s concept were widespread. “Close friends and industry peers told us that our sustainable vision was impossible,” echoes Moore. Thus with a clear vision of what they wanted OK to be, the friction from industry insiders provided the motivation required to bring it all to life; challenge accepted.
“The surf world is not known for making great clothing and they don’t have high prices, so when we came out with really nice clothes at a higher price point, I got a lot of flack from people saying I’d sold out or just wanted to line my pockets. The ironic thing about that is, I took a gigantic pay cut to start a brand I believed in,” says Kelly.
Now, before you start a whip round at your local for poor ol’ Slats, don’t. He’s doing OK, if you’ll excuse the pun.
But the higher price point of OK’s focus on better built products did mean the brand would need to disrupt the market in more ways than one. Changing the public’s perception and buying habits is never easy, but the brand ethos was in tune with broader consumer habits. In any case, global domination has never been part of the plan, having OK concept stores on every ringroad retail park not the goal. The goal was to get surfers in better kit. Much better.
That’s how it all started. So how’s it going?
“We started wanting to create great clothes, with a full commitment to sustainability. 5 years later, we’re proving you don’t have to compromise on either” said Kelly in 2020. And whilst he would say that, it’s a fair assessment to say OK is sticking by its principles. A women’s range has been launched, adding pro surfer Sage Erickson to the team. All the while, functional, comfortable gear made the best possible way has been winning admirers steadily. OK’s headline accomplishments include sourcing 90% of their fabrics from organic, recycled or regenerated materials, like their trunks using textiles spun from recovered ocean plastics, and investing in the livelihoods of over 5 thousand workers through Fair Trade USA.
Recently, using Aquafil’s ECONYL® yarn has been a breakthrough, stepping beyond recycling and into regeneration; Aquafil describes their process as regeneration as opposed to recycling because it’s a closed-loop system, there’s an infinite number of times the nylon can be broken down and re-born into new yarn without any loss of quality.
Of course, lots of brands stocked on Surfdome have cool origin stories for sustainable materials, but OK have gone beyond merely the production process with their SEA denim, by guaranteeing the jeans for life: they’ll repair, replace or recycle the organic cotton denim, meaning they never have to end up in landfill. They’re ridiculously comfy, too.
The aim at OK is to go ‘fully circular by 2030’. Now, 2030 tends to be a promise used a lot, for everything, far enough into the long-ish enough grass to kick a promise, often by leaders who know they won’t be in power then. But in the case of OK, going off their mighty impressive track record so far, it feels like a promise that stands up.
There’s lots of talk of journeys these days; everything’s a journey. But OK even seem to have a relatively fresh take on that; the brand journey is based on a philosophy of never actually arriving. “We look at our sustainability commitment like the North Star” they say by way of celestial-themed mantra. “We will never actually get there, but the North Star is always reminding us what direction we should be going.”