July 25, 2021

‘We’re on the brink of an experience economy’

9 min read

So far, Duer has made a name for itself with its functional jeans that are meant to be worn not only in the city, but also during hiking, biking and exploring: “Denim made for Movement” is the motto of the label founded in 2013, which also claims to produce with sustainable materials.

Now the denim brand with Canadian roots will be opening its second US brick-and-mortar location (the fifth store in total) in fall 2021 in Los Angeles, California on La Brea Avenue.

We took the upcoming store opening as an opportunity to ask co-founder Gary Lenett how things are going overall at Duer.

You will open your second brick-and-mortar store in the US this fall. Isn’t that a risky business, especially since Covid made most of us online shoppers?
I don’t consider a brick-and-mortar strategy risky if you are running an omnichannel business and see your physical stores as brand hubs and not just revenue drivers. Then the measure of success is not just the top line revenue from the store but the overall success of the brand in all channels in the geographic area that the store is located.

I also think there is going to be an increasing appetite for physical, tactile shopping experiences. In fact, there’s a lot of literature suggesting we’re on the brink of an experience economy which ties into my belief that true experiential retail is about to have its moment–far beyond what we’ve seen in past years where often experiential retail looked like adding a coffee bar.

There’s a strong counter perspective in the market that the adoption of online means brick and mortar no longer has a place. I see it quite differently. Rather than it being an endpoint, retail is being forced to evolve. For a true omnichannel business like ours, the puzzle is to determine how the physical space works in conjunction with digital and wholesale channels. Retail will still play a critical role in our ability to service our customers where, when and how they want to shop.

Why did you choose Los Angeles?
We make lifestyle performance clothing that combines performance and style not necessarily for the hardcore outdoorsperson but for the modern, urban consumer where “outdoors is simply outside.” Based on this factor alone, the California culture is a perfect fit for our brand. Our apparel is lightweight, wicks moisture and is temperature regulating, yet can be worn to a nice restaurant or work, so we feel our product is already custom built for the Southern California lifestyle.

Aside from a strong gut feeling, we also work off of data from our e-commerce and wholesale businesses. What both of these channels are able to provide is a sense of how large of a fan base we already have in the LA market. For any of the new regions we’re planning to open stores in, the data is what ultimately makes the decision.

Rendering of Duer's LA store that will open this fall

Rendering of Duer’s LA store that will open this fall

How about opening stores in Europe?
We have a strong presence in retailers across Europe, so although it’s not on the horizon this year, we are in initial conversations about storefronts in Zurich and Berlin, two of our largest markets in Northern Europe. This level of International expansion comes with a great deal of planning. We don’t yet have European e-commerce set up so there are a few relatively large pieces that need to be in place before we can get excited about storefronts. I have no doubt we’ll get there; it’s just more than a year out.

The LA store is said to “feature tactile and interactive elements” and an “immersive shopping experience.” What is this about?
The experiential element of Duer has been in the brand DNA since opening up our first flagship in Vancouver featuring a performance playground complete with a treehouse, monkey bars, swings and bikes. Experimental retail has always had my attention and perhaps it’s the way I enjoy being introduced to new brands. True (and effective) experiential components telegraph how a product fits into a lifestyle or in our case, how well a product can perform.

Our approach to retail design is to create a sensory adventure. A key focal point is our fabric signage that’s a 3-D visual with plants, recycled plastic bottles and wood chips all within reach. Other aspects of the design will include a floor-to-ceiling bike map local to LA, a playground featuring swings and a monkey bar and RAD Power Bikes (stationary) on the grass turf.

The idea behind interactive design is in part driven by the assumption that we’re all desperate to return to dynamic and social environments. Beyond experiential, we also see our retail spaces as brand hubs so while our customers are testing out Duer pants, they’re introduced to RAD bikes or other brands that share a brand ethos similar to ours. Convenience, brand exploration, and fun–we plan to have it all.

Is the interior including sustainable materials?
Wherever possible, yes. We’re hoping to use the original concrete flooring from 1930. Our fabric signage is built from recycled plastic bottles, wood chips and greenery. Our turf (grass) is made from recycled polyester. Beyond this our performance playground is a wood structure that will ideally be refurbished.

Duer was founded as a denim brand that put performance, activity but also sustainability in the focus. What was the trigger back then to say, “We do it differently”?
When I launched Duer, I had already been in the fashion business for more than two decades. By that time, I was getting tired of the race to the bottom, where everyone buys the same trend reports and tries to create the same products faster and cheaper than anyone else. At the same time, I started riding my bike everywhere, and realized there was nothing on the market that I could wear on my bike and straight into the boardroom.

Duer has made a name for itself with its functional and sustainably produced jeans.

Duer has made a name for itself with its functional and sustainably produced jeans.

At the time, athleisure had taken off and people were attempting to wear synthetic fiber rich (polyester/nylon) clothes outside of the gym. This category of après-gym was well established but limited when it came to styling up as you’d be dealing with fabric sheen and visible athletic logos. We came at the problem not from the technical side but the jeanswear side–meaning we took normal jeans and pants and added technical features and fibers to them. What emerged was performance apparel with total versatility. With style, comfort and performance combined, people no longer had the need to change their clothes throughout the day.

In terms of our sustainable story, it’s woven into our brand philosophy. We believe people should be able to do more with less. We want to inspire people to own fewer, higher-quality things. On the product level, I knew from the start I wanted to find a way to use as little synthetic as possible because these fibers end up sitting in landfills or the poly filaments end up in the oceans after home washing. It was an incredible challenge to get the perfect blend of fibers and weave. Most of our fabrics are made out of cotton and Tencel rich blends although we do include a minimal amount of polyester or nylon for strength. With too much cotton or Tencel, you end up with something less durable and thus more likely to end up in a landfill more quickly.

In the meantime, sustainability is on everyone’s lips and a constant topic in the media. Is this a curse or blessing?
Definitely a blessing and the only shadow is that it takes time to understand what is real and how to best prioritize. You need to determine where to begin without putting anything off that has the greatest negative impact.

In our industry where a lot of denim manufacturers put a focus on water savings, I challenge our team to consider not what will capture the attention of the consumer but what will ultimately have the smallest environmental footprint. For example do you integrate processes that save water or do you first eliminate toxic dyes so that any water in the process is left safe to drink? Ultimately, the only answer is to do it all.

How seriously do you take the sustainable approaches of large suppliers?
Without being in the inner workings of these organizations it’s hard to comment. What I know from running many businesses throughout my life is that the larger the organization, the harder it is to be agile and integrate new practices easily.

My best guess is these companies are well intentioned but perhaps have much bigger ships that are unwieldy and hard to turn quickly.

That said, over the course of the past year, we’ve all realized how much we can evolve when it’s absolutely necessary. The unimaginable happens, and with that comes innovation. We may be surprised by these bigger suppliers in the future.

Women's outfit by Duer

Women’s outfit by Duer

Since Corona, there has been much discussion about whether consumer behavior will change and thus become more sustainable. Is this wishful thinking or is there really a change happening?
I think we’re seeing a big shift that will stick around. We’re looking at a generation where experience is the currency and not money. David Foster Wallace said “If you worship money and things–if they are where you tap real meaning in life–then you will never have enough.” This generation seems to understand this notion putting more significance on their sustainable value system and life experiences over money.

This isn’t to say self expression through clothing won’t still happen, it’s more that consumer preference seems to be shifting towards having a few really good things that are well made that suit any lifestyle. You could say we’re reverting a bit back to an old world artesian philosophy where the focus was on having a few fine and well made pieces that lasted a lifetime. If we go back even further in time, pre-sewing machines, a person only had one garment. I’m not suggesting we’re going to land there but I do sense a growing appreciation for ownership of fewer things and a departure from fast fashion where amounts are mass-produced.

Look by Duer

Look by Duer

What’s the latest on the Duer product side?
We’ve expanded our fits to include new looser styles to cater to the transition from sweatpants back into street clothes. The new fits offer style, comfort and performance attributes that’s at the core of everything we develop. As well, we’re introducing a new smart stretch fabric that offers a more sophisticated style. This collection is developed for the hybrid workwear trend that combines the need to dress up with the desire to be comfortable.

What’s in the pipeline in the next two to three years?
Our LA store kicks off a year of retail expansion across the US market. We’re hoping to open at least a few more stores in addition to LA.

On the product side, we’re rounding out our collection of tops to include woven shirts and fleece. All of our pieces are designed to complement one another. This makes it easy for our customer to leave with a few pieces and also several outfits which ties into our larger brand promise to simplify getting dressed (so you can spend time on more important things). We’re also putting focus and energy into our women’s business which is rooted in bottoms while mirroring the same extension into tops and accessories as the men’s business.

For the business as a whole, we’re looking at integrating new technology to drive sustainable manufacturing solutions. This is a big initiative but an important one as we look to scale in a responsible way.

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