In 2014, one year after a young Parsons grad named Tyler Haney launched a line of colorful, covetable workout kits, the Outdoor Voices boom officially began. Her company took off after being featured as part of pop-up shops in J.Crew stores across the country, and in 2015 she opened her first store in Austin, Texas. Haney’s approach to athletic apparel was unlike any other that existed at the time. Her sporty but stylish, minimally-minded soft pink and gray and heather green leggings and bra tops were the anti-Lululemon. In OV you were “Doing Things,” which became the company’s tagline, promoted in every “rec kit” (sets of matching leggings and bra tops). Haney’s brand wasn’t about working out hard, but rather about moving, getting out, doing things with purpose.
Outdoor Voices’s peak came at the height of the athleisure phenomenon in the fashion industry, when workout clothes were being integrated into everyone’s wardrobe and not just saved for the bottom of a gym bag. Former J.Crew and Gap CEO Mickey Drexler joined the company as chairman of the board and investor, and in 2018 the privately held Outdoor Voices was valued at $110 million, with the backing of some of highly respected VC firms.
By last year, however, that valuation had dropped to around $40 million. Executives came and went. There were reports of a rift between Drexler and Haney, as well as Haney and the rest of the mostly male board of directors. She stepped away from the company earlier this year, but quietly remained on the board. A New York Times article from early March detailed the controversy surrounding the brand’s internal operations with the headline “How Outdoor Voices, a Start-Up Darling Imploded.” But despite a grim-looking future for a company that once led the charge in athletic gear for a new generation of millennial “recreationalists,” there is now new hope on the horizon.
Haney is officially returning to her company as an active board member. Also starting on the board is Lunya founder Ashley Merrill, who launched her minimal sleepwear label in 2014. Drexler is leaving the company and so is the interim CEO Cliff Moskowitz.
Details of the structural rehaul of Outdoor Voices are still slim, but the idea, according to Haney, is to recalibrate the leadership so that it is made up primarily of women. Haney, who is a new mom to a baby girl, has not spoken out about the departure and internal riffs publicly, save for an Instagram post in which she wrote, “Staying quiet at the moment. Heartbreaking narrative of an individual trying to cause harm. That said, excited to focus on what I love - creative, brand, customer more soon…” But she is speaking out now, along with her new partner on the board. Says Merrill: “I read everything that came out about OV recently and I felt defensive of what I perceived to be an attack on another female founder and I wanted to help.” She adds, “I didn’t know Ty personally before this, but I’ve always felt an unstated kinship with a lot of female founders because I see us as part of a shared common mission of breaking gender boundaries and living the change we hope to see in the world.”
Indeed, from the outside Haney has always seemed to put female empowerment and dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the forefront of her brand. Her campaigns and events have included a range of women and men of color, as well as a focus on size-inclusivity. She may have thrived during the era of the now beleaguered “girlboss,” but that title, outmoded even in its nascence, didn’t really fit her. Lately, some female founders of Haney’s generation have come under fire for racial discrimination or troublesome management ethics. They’ve stepped away either permanently or temporarily from their businesses. Haney, for her part, seems to want very deeply to reshape what The Atlantic in an article about the complicated and problematic generation of girlboss entrepreneurs recently called “the end of the corporate feminist vision of the future”
To start, she’s happy to admit she made mistakes early on. “We needed the right operational leader a lot sooner, I think the company was always missing alignment on how to grow at the highest level and on the board,” she says, adding, “I have appreciated taking some time to step away from the day to day operations of the company. I have been able to really look at what I am great at, what energizes me, and where I can add the most value to the company. I’m excited to be in a position where I can be successful and help the company be successful.”
Haney, Merrill, and the board are still in search of a new CEO and the focus is on hiring women and BIPOC. “I believe a diverse team is most important to the success and growth of Outdoor Voices, and that means having women in leadership positions,” Haney says. “We have work to do. We will be very focused in our recruiting and building a more diverse team. The next chapter is all about execution.” Merrill echoes that outlook on the future of the company. “Outdoor Voices raised financial capital when the mantra was growth at all costs. That has yielded a business model that doesn’t have the same rigor that a less well-capitalized business would have been compelled to develop. The macro-financing climate, meaning the way capital is raised for startup companies, has shifted and Outdoor Voices is going to transition right along with it.”
On top of restructuring, Haney is also developing new and different products to add to the OV roster. “The vision for OV is the same as it always was: to build the number one recreation company and get the world moving,” she notes. “But ‘how’ we get there has significantly changed, and for the better. I’m very excited to have Ashley on team OV and a reset board that I believe will be very successful together.”