Abe Burmeister

Founder of Outlier Tailored Performance Clothing
Abe Burmeister, founder of Outlier Tailored Performance clothing, on designing better clothes for urban environments.

Interview transcript: Abe Burmeister

For Outlier—probably 98% of the time—our work is about designing to maximize mobility. Over the past 40 years or so, there's been a real shift in clothing design, with it becoming an almost purely visual design process. You have somebody who's a designer just drawing out a sketch and then sending it off to someone who will turn it into a technical drawing. There are always samples made, and sometimes they fit on real people—though sometimes they just fit on a form. But a lot of garments are designed not to look good when you wear them, but to look good when they're hanging in the store.

We try to put the motion back into the clothes. We put it on a model, and instead of just asking, "How does it look standing?" or "How does it look on a mannequin?" We say, "Move your legs. Squat. Run." We have bicycle rollers in one of our factories, where we do fittings, and we'll put somebody on the bike to see what happens when you pedal.

We use a lot of woven, four-way stretch fabric, and we work with a mill in Switzerland that is without any doubt the best mill doing this. My guess is there are under ten mills in the world that have the capability of producing true, four-way stretch, woven fabric. Wearing a four-way stretch fabric is pretty remarkable, because you're not used to wearing fabrics that respond to your body in that way. The fabric has the ability to stretch in every direction.

We looked through a lot of historical references—basically at extremes of tailoring, like motorcycle jackets and military garments. The Burberry trench coat is actually a fascinating piece, because it was an army garment from WWI. It was a coat to be worn in the trenches. When you look back through those things, you see it was an era of pattern-making where motion and mobility was much more important for the design. And there are contemporary examples, of course; you have to move your arms a lot when you're climbing, for instance, so we look at how a climbing jacket is patterned. What we do is look at how a button-down shirt is made and we stick it next to a climbing garment and we ask what's going on here and how can open up the movement, and where does the movement fail?

So we're taking those fabrics—fabrics that were only found in extreme outdoor enthusiasts' garments—and making classically cut clothes.

In terms of a particular garment, the holy grail is to do a proper sport coat and to really liberate it. That's because the sport coat was actually a military garment; it is literally a descendant from armor. The history goes back to knights in armor, but it evolved to make officers look professional—which meant rigid and stiff. There are a lot of archaic pieces and a lot of structure inside a sport coat that purposefully make it very restrictive. It prevents your arms from moving around and it prevents you from bending in certain positions. It restricts you in ways that you may not think about, but that you're definitely aware of when you're wearing it. If you ever have on a sport coat and you try to ride a bicycle, for instance, especially in an aggressive riding stance, you'll realize that something's got to give—and it's probably going to be your jacket.

One of the things we learned early on—sort of accidentally—is that menswear pattern makers are really resistant to change. You can go to a traditional pattern maker who's really talented and who can make an excellent garment for you, but they're not going to want to experiment with new arm holes and new motions. They've been trained how to do a job—and when they're good, they're really good. But womenswear pattern makers, because of the nature of how quickly women's fashion changes, are much more open. If you want to change the arm, then it's no problem: it's the nature of what they're doing. So we always work with womenswear pattern makers first.

We're always trying to cross those barriers and find different technologies for the clothes. Sometimes, when we're trying to solve a real design challenge, we'll work with a womenswear pattern maker until there's a certain point where it goes back to the social challenge of the clothing, and that's where the menswear pattern maker will come back in. In other words, we'll go to womenswear to innovate and then back to menswear to do cuffs, collars, or buttons, to communicate the subtle language of menswear.

As far as the company goes, our original garment was just one pair of pants. They were very cycling-driven. It was just me wanting a pair of pants that I could wear everyday, and ride my bike around in, and not worry if I got caught in the rain. It was about being able to do whatever I wanted.

When you look at cities today, bicycling is an amazing tool for a city; it's a better means of transportation in a lot of circumstances. But most clothes don't work for cycling—whereas nobody makes clothes that don't work on the subway or in the car! Actually, the car is interesting. When you look back at photos of a city in the 1930s or 40s, everyone's wearing hats—until there's a point, all of a sudden, within 10 to 15 years, where all the hats are gone. Where did the hats go? It happened to be this period where the automobile took over and the hat just didn't work anymore. You had to take it off, or it would get knocked off your head when you got into a car, and so, in just a few year, people got rid of their hats. But there's still hat infrastructure built around us, if you look at older places—like hat rooms in restaurants or hooks to hang your hats in bars. Even on the train, if you look at the Metro North, the luggage compartments are designed for the size of a hat. You get on the train and take off your hat and you put it up above.

So if everyone's going to be riding bikes, then the clothes we make have to work well on bikes. It opens up that possibility for more people. On the other hand, we don't think of ourselves as a cycling company! We make clothes you can wear in the city.