Outlier, Nau, Levi's: Designing for the Ride
Credit: Emiliano Granado

Six years ago, Abe Burmeister was cycling daily from his Brooklyn home across the river to his job as a graphic designer in Manhattan, when irritation forged inspiration. "I was getting really frustrated," he says, "because I had to look presentable for corporate clients. I was destroying my jeans – and I was buying pretty nice jeans – and if I wore a nice pair of pants, I had to worry about destroying them, too. And then there was the rain. . . ."

Burmeister spent a year scouring outdoor stores and high-end activewear lines for that magic combination of presentability, comfort, and durability, before giving up and having the damn things made himself. One day he marched up to an information booth in Manhattan's garment district and asked where he could find someone to make him a pair of good-looking pants that could stand up to his daily commute. After months of trial and error, he had them: pants made from a technical fabric he found on some ski clothing.

About a year later, he met Tyler Clemens at a local coffee shop. Clemens had been working for a bespoke shirt- and suitmaker, doing virtually the same commute and pondering a similar question: Why were we still making clothing out of the same materials we've been using for 100 years? They joined forces, and within months the pair had a signature design, the 4Season OG (Original Garment) Pant, which stretched in every direction. It was durable and functional enough to withstand an Ironman and handsome enough to wear out on the town. Almost instantly, they had 200 orders; four years later, their company, Outlier, a 10-employee operation housed in a former wedding-dress factory in Brooklyn, is grossing $1.8 million annually – and doubled in size last year.

Outlier isn't the only brand bridging the gap between function and style in bike clothes: In the past few years, a handful of bootstrapping companies – and at least one apparel giant – have set out to merge the two concepts. Nau, in Portland, Oregon, has been producing well-designed technical garments made for cycling, running, climbing, hiking, and running a meeting since 2005. Nearly a decade ago, English cycling-apparel outfit Rapha kicked off an aesthetic revolution in bikewear, with retro-cycled, high-tech bibs and jerseys; it expanded two years ago with its City Riding line, which offers casual clothing for off-bike pursuits. Designers like Conroy Nachtigall, who developed the Veilance line for activewear standout Arc'teryx, want to reinvent the very notion of free movement in clothing that's just a half-step removed from the runway. Even San Francisco–based Levi's has formed a capsule collection that aims to remake its signature pieces in fabrics and cuts specifically built for cyclists, with a slightly higher rise in back, reinforced seams in the crotch, and a tighter fit near the ankle. The Commuter Series, launched a year ago with a few key pieces – 511 jeans, the Trucker jacket, a trouser, and a work shirt – also features flexible fabrics with waterproof finishes and reflective tape on the interior cuff inseams. (Everything in the line is also given a special treatment to ensure that the garments don't harbor smelly bacteria.)

Levi's senior designer, JeWon Yu, who oversees Commuter, says it was created so the urban cyclist can ride, live, and work in the same pair of jeans. "People ride their bikes every­where here in San Francisco, and it's not just 'cyclists' – it's everybody," she says. That "everybody," of course, includes herself as well as a good number of her co-workers. "It's a way of living and getting around that appeals to everybody – much like our jeans – so we decided early on that we wanted the line to look just like our five-pocket jeans." Yu and her team talked to people from all walks of life and degrees of cycling intensity, from hardcore bike messengers to Sunday cruisers, and then set about modifying the classic Levi's looks with fabrics that stretch and hold up to rain, oil, and abrasion. With the line's enthusiastic reception, more pieces are being added to the collection every season.

Like Yu and the Commuter line, the Outlier founders have embraced a manifesto of sorts for the value of free-movement clothing. Among other things, it reads "Clothing should be liberating. What you put on in the morning should never restrict what you do with your day." While Burmeister and Clem­ens are avid cyclists with a very specific and finely tuned sense of minimal and functional design, the vibe they give off is distinctly mad scientist: Both can go on at great length about microfibers, nanotechnology, the history of Arctic-exploration apparel, the origins of Nike's use of the color teal. Their geekiness is tempered by a mania for clean design and a deep respect for the kind of old-school garmento practices that lead them to choose their fabrics first by feel and look, before checking the specs.

"A lot of companies want to make clothes like we make," Burmeister says, "but there's always an extra zipper or a logo somewhere, or something too shiny in the material. I can't wear that. Obviously, we have technical specs for a high level of functionality, but if you can't wear it, it's no use."

Like any creators, though, they're defined by the raw materials they use to sculpt their masterworks, and it's in the medium of fabric that Outlier is most revolutionary. "There are plenty of fabrics out there that'll stretch left to right," Burmeister says, "but it's really hard to engineer something that also stretches up and down. It's how the loom is set up. That adds an incredible amount to the cost of the fabric" – Outlier's fabric can cost up to 15 times as much as its competitors' – "but we also use fabric with a double-weave structure, which gives one face to the inside of the fabric and another to the outside, with both of them woven together. So while the outside might have Cordura-grade nylon for toughness and feel, the inside can be soft, almost microfiber polyester with a 3D structure that creates less contact with your skin and makes everything more breathable and comfortable."

While the competition may have gotten a little more robust since Outlier started out, the bedrock question behind this expanding market remains. "After riding and beating the hell out of your clothes," Burmeister asks, "are you able to walk into an office or a restaurant and not feel out of place?"

While the duo are expanding their portfolio of activewear to include an unstructured blazer in the near future, they will admit to a kind of ultimate challenge: a structured suit. "It's almost like we know too much about how complicated that is," Burmeister says. "And you're not usually putting on a suit and going on an adventure. Still, at some point we'll have to tackle it. That's the holy grail."