The Future is EveryWear: an interview with the team behind ONU, a digital-native apparel brand that thinks changing clothes is overrated
Since the dawn of the “Space Race” thrust fabric research into the public consciousness, our societal vision of the future has always included high-tech clothes. From Starfleet jumpsuits to Bond’s gadget-packed suit suits, the pop culture of the time reflected one simple sartorial idea: with the right technology, your clothes could passively improve your life. To a world that was still getting over Tupperware, these dreams of lifestyle-augmenting apparel were, well, a moonshot.
In 1969, the moonshot landed. That year, the father-son team of Wilbert Lee Gore and Bob Gore heated some plastic rods, got frustrated with how slowly they were stretching, and ushered in the future. The Gore family’s invention – a waterproof membrane that could be cut and sewn as readily as a textile – laid the groundwork for some of the world’s first truly-durable waterproof garments. Now, with high-tech fabric alone, simply wearing the right clothes could improve your life. While another, arguably more famous, moonshot also landed that same year, for the world of technical apparel, the invention of GORE-TEX wasn’t just one small step – it was a leap towards the future.
Nearly five decades later, technical apparel has transformed from curiosity to expectation: “athleisure” dominates sales charts, leggings have usurped denim jeans, and running shoes carved from autonomously-woven yarns cost less than a month’s worth of your afternoon coffee breaks. Our pop culture has eagerly reflected this acceptance of high-tech clothing: from the invisible camo bodysuits of “Ghost in the Shell” to the hidden armors of “Deus Ex”, our decades-old vision of the clothes we wear granting us benefits past just avoiding a “public indecency” charge is now moving faster than ever. Last July, Thomas Moon and Paul Lee decided they could move even faster.
Through a closed-list soirée on New York’s Lower East Side, Moon and Lee launched ONU – “Clothing For People Who Do Everything.” With no official pronunciation (“It’s meant to be pronounced in any particular way that you like using sounds that are native to multiple languages”) and a devotion to making technical clothing that’s as streamlined as it is stylish, ONU is seeking what it means to be truly “adaptable.” While GORE-TEX redefined technical apparel as a genre, with ONU, Moon and Lee want to carve out a whole new category: “EveryWear,” or, high-tech clothing designed for performance, well, everywhere.
Last month, we sat down with Moon, Lee, and Justin Kim – the ONU team – to discuss their vision, their research, and why the future of apparel means not running home to change.
AR: How did you get the concept for the ONU brand? How did the three of you even get together in the first place?
JK: It’s been in existence since June of last year. We launched with a small event in New York City but we have no physical location, so that event was a place for us to have an introduction to the brand.
But, it’s funny that you pronounced us as “oh-new.” [The brand] isn’t pronounced in any particular way – it’s meant to be pronounced in any particular way that you like using sounds that are native to multiple languages and cultures around the world. We are really emphasizing being a global brand that’s as international as possible.
The only way this brand could even happen is through the internet. Paul is working in conjunction with people over in Taiwan, traveling all the time, while Thomas and I are working remotely as well. We’re a “tech startup” in so many ways in addition to being a product company.
TM: When you look at a lot of brands, there’s so much “strategy” in terms of rules you have to follow that at a certain point, it’s almost redactive, right? It defeats the brand and the purpose of it. That’s one of the reasons behind that particular element with the name – we allow people to say it however they want. When we do collaborations with people who do video or photography work with us, we want to bank on their expertise. Otherwise, what’s the point in hiring someone who’s really good at their craft if you’re just going to make them do it the way you want it done. That’s not really a collaboration.
JK: Every single collection is a collaboration and a capsule collection that’s presented as such. The first one we launched in New York, with a launch event in New York, by a designer – Diana Eng - who’s based in New York. We collaborated with her on everything from the bare ideas to the final product. Then the second collection, which was launched just end of January, was launched in Shanghai, by a designer – Christina Liao – who is based in Shanghai. It’s a very international collaboration on all levels.
Could you tell me a little bit more about your vision for ONU? That phrase you guys use – “Clothing For People Who Do Everything” – is pretty ambitious. How can technical clothing really improve our everyday lives?
JK: *laughs* Well, Paul’s wardrobe has vastly improved since we got started on this. Right, Paul?
PL: Yeah, the company was really built more out of necessity than anything. I’m a creature of comfort, and all of a sudden moved from LA (where the weather is an immaculate 72 degrees all the time) to Taiwan, where it’s not just hotter but also 90%+ humidity. The three lifestyles Justin, Thomas, and I all lead are very different, so we wanted to be able to create clothes that could fit all of our lives without being defined by them.
JK: We really consider ourselves “performers” in the sense of not only how much we travel and move around, but what we demand from our clothes. What we were looking for is something that fit everything. That includes commuting to work, living your life, and then also play afterwards.
We started by saying “work, play, and live” as the three parts of our lives where one, we need to be clothed, and two, we don’t want to change our clothes just to move within those three. If I dress in clothes that make playing basketball easier because I’m going to go shoot hoops later, then everyone is going to associate me with a certain “b-ball” look. I don’t necessarily want to be associated with a certain activity and have to plan out my day so far in advance.
Basically, we started to see clothes as a limiting factor.
Thomas’ story is very interesting in particular because he comes from the perspective of being an athlete and someone who’s like an extreme performance athlete in all regards – but he started making these clothes himself, and that’s how he fell into the fashion design space actually.
TM: Yeah! *laughs* So I used to freelance in New York for a lot of ad agencies, living every year as “hustle for six months, make my year’s salary, then leave for six months.” I would travel and run races or go rock climbing, and through that I realized I didn’t want to carry so much crap because you have so much gear as it is. I wore a lot of merino, but performance cuts aren’t the most flattering. So, I decided to take it into my own hands.
I found a place here in New York that was willing to make patterns and samples for me, and then I would contact different merino vendors from different parts of the world and ask them if they would send me fabric samples. Then, I would make stuff and test it out.
*laughs* Some of the stuff worked, and some of the stuff did NOT work. It’s a little disheartening when you’re in the middle of the jungle and your shirt starts to fall apart. But it’s your shirt, you made it!
Eventually, it got to the point where the clothes I was actually making for myself were good enough that people started asking me for them. It’s interesting – I remember talking to Ricky, the owner of Isaora [another technical apparel brand], and he was like “dude, you should get into business for yourself,” and I told him that I never would. He then told me: “This is how it always starts.”
When we talk about “Clothing For People Who Do Everything,” a lot of the brands that produce clothing that is in our space promise things from their clothing that is simply unrealistic. When people say that it’s “the best t-shirt ever,” I mean, let’s be real: there’s no such thing as “the best t-shirt ever.” All we wanted to do with ONU was apply good design to innovative materials so that when you wear your garments, regardless of what you do, they almost become invisible.
I think that alone provides an opportunity to open doors for people to do more than what they were originally thinking they were capable of. If you know your jacket is waterproof, you’re less hesitant to go out in the rain – but if you have a cotton hoodie, you know you’re gonna get soaked. It’s not just the versatility of the garments and what they’re capable of, it’s that these garments almost allow you to be versatile along with it.
JK: That doesn’t just mean “sports” either. Re-envisioning and redefining performance in everyday contexts is something that hasn’t been explored really well, and that’s a big part of what we do with each of our products.
TM: We want to make sure that our clothing is a benefit to people. If you have a jacket on and it starts to rain and your jacket is waterproof, that’s a benefit in itself because now you don’t get wet and you show up fresh to wherever you’re going. That now gives you the capacity to pack lighter and still look good. You now have one garment that can handle a variety of situations.
Returning to your point about “opening doors”, did you ever think you were going to be on the “creator” side within fashion? Were you artistic when you were younger, or was your foray into design pure necessity from which you never looked back?
TM: I guess art kinda runs in my family. We’re either artists or doctors. *laughs*
I was a designer for a long time for many ad agencies, so I guess designing apparel was never really something I thought of myself doing. But, after you get to a certain point in your design journey, [your design fundamentals are strong enough that] sure you won’t understand the nuances of a new subject, but you can self-teach yourself anything.
PL: While none of us are formally-trained in fashion, we bank on the expertise of fashion designers and fashion production houses because we do know our limitations. We look to buttress our capabilities by working every season with experts in their fields and truly collaborating with them.
And that’s how you end up with incredible pieces like the Laser Lace Shorts, for example.
TM: Exactly. I think it’s also because we have a huge capacity in terms of the technologies we have access to. A lot of the time, designers don’t get access to some of these because of the minimum orders they have to create that give larger brands those same materials. Since we’re doing smaller runs, we don’t have to worry about creating hundreds of thousands of garments, we just have to worry about creating one hundred, so let’s push it.
Tell me about some of those innovative technologies you have access to. What really goes into ONU clothing?
TM: Right off the bat, I think one of the biggest things is that we actually have our own R&D to make our own tech. For that first collection, we created a fabric called “Synthmere” that came exclusively from our research and development. It’s a synthetic-based cashmere which has a cashmere core wrapped around with nylon and tencel to protect the cashmere.
In the second collection, we developed the fabric that goes on the Baselayer and the Qipao dress. It’s a N66 nylon facing coated with C6 DWR, with merino wool underneath [editor’s note: this is a BFD].
Then, in the third collection, we have something very special coming out which I can tell you has microscopic jade particles in it that we’re actually developing right now. For each collection, we try to create some sort of new and innovative fabric. It’s not just about innovation in terms of the design: we want to look at the design the designers come up with and think about what’s going to be the best application in terms of the material.
Our whole process is a little bit backwards in terms of how fashion designers normally work. Typically, they’ll pick the fabrics first then create a design based on that, but we’re doing it the opposite. We want to be first be mindful of the design, then choose fabrics that make sense for it.
That sounds so exciting - you get to push boundaries with your apparel, from both sides of the design/production equation. What energizes you the most about being in this new, young “technical apparel” segment?
TM: I think a lot of people are trying to put us in the athleisure market, but we’re more of an “innovation” company which happens to make clothing and I think that’s something that’s important for us. Down the line, hopefully those initial technologies will have been fleshed out, but we have also been contacted by our manufacturers and they are very happy to develop new technologies for us and with us based on requests that we have. It’s pretty crazy.
PL: Just seeing the eagerness of a lot of these big huge companies wanting to innovate, hitching their wagon to our vision of moving clothing forward is really exciting. I never expected it this early on.
Question for Paul and Justin: being e-commerce only, I’m getting some almost “Ghost in the Shell” vibes from all of this. There’s a connected network, international reach, and then all of a sudden, ONU will materialize for events. How did you even think up this concept for the business?
JK: We took a very intentional approach to staying out of the reseller/wholesale stockists market because we really wanted to make sure that, in the end, we could provide the best value for our customers. In the end, that’s all that keeps you coming back to a brand, right? A style can change every season for different brands, but we’re not trying to make a brand signature style. We’re creating a brand with longevity that hopefully people will keep coming back to.
*laughs* The “Ghost in the Shell” reference… that’s pretty esoteric. But also really eerie and coincidental considering how this brand came to be.
It’s the whole “Deus Ex Machina” idea of it all, right? We’ve played upon those themes quite a lot in the lifestyle photography and the writing, copy, and most recently, our second collection is very technical in nature and therefore tech-inspired. But wow – I think that’s a really good metaphor for what we’re doing.
I don’t want to push this a direction it may not be, but would you classify ONU as “techwear”? Or is it technical apparel that’s bordering that space? I know “techwear” has a certain connotation in fashion as a whole.
JK: That’s why we’re working to create our own category of “EveryWear.” Hopefully, as time progresses, that will become a coined term. You know, “athleisure” had to come from somewhere, right? It’s not just about the certain demographics that already exist – we’d rather create one.
For example, women don’t have their own techwear space really. There are a couple little pockets here and there, but we wanted to really grow that out for women with Collection 2. So, we made their stuff as dope as possible.
The Qipao dress? It’s insane.
TM: Right?! Every piece is thoughtfully designed, conceived, and has just so much going on that it’s really difficult to encapsulate the whole collection into a simple theme. I think that’s why the techwear community has been latching on to us We’ve designed things in a way that it can reference certain styles – we reference “Blade Runner” in a lot of our photography, for instance, with the neon and neo-noir themes – but it can also fit normally with someone who’s just at work.
In that way, we are trying to be versatile, truly, in the clothes themselves from a utilitarian point of view, but also versatile in style. So yeah, the visual part [of techwear] isn’t nearly as important to us.
Who – or what brands - would you say are your real contemporaries in the space? Some pieces immediately take me to Arc’teryx Veilance, then there are others like the Membrane Pullover that are perhaps more on the Stone Island side.
TM: I think we’re talking about brands that are mostly menswear. I don’t think there’s really a competitive brand on the women’s side – Lululemon Lab does some cool stuff, definitely. They do have some interesting pieces, but the composition of their textiles isn’t really anything new.
JK: We don’t see many brands really innovating with any experimental technologies as much as they are experimenting with shapes and patterns. For us, we don’t really have other brands that are precisely in our space.
For instance, you mentioned Stone Island. There’s relevance there. Of course, there’s ACRONYM, and ACG, and there’s a lot of reference there. And then there’s NikeLab, which is definitely very relevant to us. Outlier is a huge one on the men’s side. And [Arc’teryx Veilance] is close to us – Snowpeak, as well.
So, I guess it’s more like other brands that are working with some of the same technology that we’re close within the space. But style-wise? That’s a tough one, man.
PL: From the very beginning, we noticed that there was not another brand that incorporated all three as very strong pillars of their company and of their vision. We knew from the get-go that there wasn’t anyone going to be like us, particularly in the space that we wanted to create.
We pick and choose what we like in other companies, whether that’s the performance here or the aesthetic value there, and we really amalgamate that into something that’s truly our own and unique. That’s kind of been the goal.
That’s a good place to be in.
JK: But also, this is not the endgame for us. There are going to be a couple “next steps” for the company, and this [the current state of ONU apparel] is just one component of a larger company we want to build out.
So where do you see ONU in the Year 2020?
TM: (without hesitation) I see us working with KAAREM.
We’ve got our calendar pretty tight up until then. KAAREM will be working with us in 2020 – they’re an amazing brand, I mean the way they go about creating their garments is just incredible.
JK: There’s not much we can go into about it, but it is a collaboration with another brand as opposed to a single designer. That’s the future of where we’re going. We will be expanding our business along more of the business-to-business side as well. For instance, the technologies that we develop – those fabrics like Synthmere – we’ll be able to have those available for other companies to use. We want to be able to do this R&D and not just hoard it for ourselves, but eventually be able to open it up and to share this knowledge with other brands that get into this space.
TM: Right. Because somebody might be able to do something amazing with something we created that we would never think about. It’s far from us to stop somebody from doing something super dope for people to have.
JK: I mean, that’s how we started with a lot of our stuff, too. Like those laser lace shorts that you mentioned were a great example of this: why not have the mesh pattern and it be a lace, and have that have some sort of utility to it? And then why not have it be like a skort instead of just a skirt? Taking something that already exists, flipping it, adding a unique perspective to it.
But of course, ONU’s going to push that boundary first.
TM: This is almost like our test for the people that we want to eventually release it to.
Almost like Arc’teryx and GORE-TEX Pro Shell?
JK: Exactly. We’re lucky because we don’t have to deal with the crazy minimum order quantities that big brands do – they can’t even make decisions or have access to the libraries that we do just because it’s cost-prohibitive.
TM: Yeah, it’s really cool. Sometimes, you see the stuff made and get it in hand and it’s like “oh my god, we made this!”
I know the brand is still young, but to wrap it up, what’s your favorite piece that ONU has ever created?
JK: The men’s stretch shorts. I wore them all summer, literally all summer long almost every day, and they’re the best pair of shorts I’ve ever owned. The shorts are all bonded around the leg-holes so you don’t have the extra weight of the seams weighing you down. All summer, my friends were like, “are you still wearing those same shorts?”
TM: My favorite is the Merino T-Shirt from the first collection. I think that piece in itself is incredibly versatile. Being a traveler, you really can take that with you and go run through the jungle, go climbing in it, but then you can also go out to dinner because of the Bemis that’s on it. It makes it look really premium. Paul, what’s your favorite piece?
PL: It would have to be is the latest jacket we just released, both the men’s and women’s. For me, it’s a testament to where this company is going. Each collection, each item we go for is going to try to one-up the last, and the jacket really was a big step because I never expected to be able to make something so amazing, so soon in ONU’s lifetime. Being able to push that boundary – not the way that it looks, but the energy, the love that went into it – that’s what really makes it my favorite piece right now.
Finally: unrelated, but I ask this to everyone I interview. What is your all-time favorite pair of sneakers?
TM: Nike Gyakusou Lunarspider LT 2’s, 2010. Done. That is my hands-down, favorite pair of sneakers that Gyakusou has ever produced. And they don’t even carry the Lunarspider LT 2’s anymore! They were kicked out by Nike in 2012, and it’s so annoying.
JK: *laughing* Which one of us is the designer? Take your guess.
PL: I have mine – the adidas Stan Smiths that were made with Primeknit. These were the very first sneakers I had that used that knitted woven material, and that just blew my mind. They were so much better than any other sneaker I had owned in terms of comfort, and to me, that was just an evolution of the material.
JK: And mine is really similar. Mine is the Nike Flyknit Racer. They have just been the most revolutionary shoe for me over the years. I’m a bit of a sneakerhead, and these just completely changed the game for me. I like the Oreo’s the best – they’re just super pretty. They go with everything.