Anchored by premium quality designs built on the backbone of style, comfort, and luxury, Oyster Holdings’ finds itself currently navigating a terrain of sportswear previously unchartered, and doing it in a way that transcends fashion, sport, and the art of simply executing an idea.
Gaining traction through a string of notable releases, including this year’s standout pigskin resurrection of the classic adidas Samoa, the Los Angeles-based brand is making waves in an industry rooted in all corners of the globe, but inspired by an unlikely source.
On a perfect 72 and sunny afternoon, I caught up with brand founder, seasoned apparel veteran and experienced globetrotter Woodie White for a conversation spanning his time at LRG and Just Don, the complexities and strategies of running an apparel business, and the places in time that sparked his concept that traveling is a sport.
Upon discovering Oyster, I was instantly intrigued that an apparel brand was driven by the act of traveling, rather than the actual destination. What sparked the idea for your company and why do you consider traveling to be a sport?
My traveling really started in the early 2000s with some consulting projects I was doing with my company out of Chicago. That really laid the foundation for signing up for advantage programs, collecting miles, and really getting into what I believe to be the early sport of traveling. Everything about it – miles, points, being on time, upgrades – all this stuff. Then when I moved out to Los Angeles to work with LRG, traveling was a big part of my job as well.
There was one particular time where I remember the design group came with a collection that featured an elevated version of a blazer and sweat pant, made out of fleece. Jonas [Bevacqua] and the team were always ahead of the curve and it was something that really identified with me. I remember being so excited at that sales meeting. I had a conversation with Jonas, Robert [Wright] and Milhouse [Jeremy Po] and they told me, “Go ahead and get with Milhouse and you guys can work on something to create this little capsule.” I went to talk to the sales manager and brand president and brought them what I thought was an idea that was sort of already there, from an apparel side. There was no link to travel, but there was a link to comfort and style, besides your normal sweat pant.
Fast forward, I leave LRG and have an idea of developing my own thing. I always liked sweat pants, I always liked comfort, I always liked style. I remember when Kanye did the Louis [Vuitton] collection, I felt like the only thing I could wear with my Jaspers were my J. Crew sweat pants. So I would put on those Louis’ Jaspers, with the pink bottoms, grey sweat pants and a button-up oxford shirt and I would just run it. There was a mixture of comfort, style and lux with the shoes that just looked fresh.
Moving on to developing Oyster, the initial thoughts didn’t have anything to do with travel. It had more to do with sports that I was a fan of. Tennis, cycling, soccer. World sports, sports that were not only played on US soil, but also all over the globe, unlike [domestic] leagues like the NBA and NFL. The NFL does not mean the same thing when you go to China or when you go to Europe, the word Football is a totally different sport over there.
When we started developing Oyster, it was just T-shirts and a couple of sweat pants. It took me about a year to flush out what we really wanted to do, so we scrapped everything that was T-shirt, every logo that we developed and everything. It was really my time to develop my idea, but you know, ideas don’t really all come at the same time. I bet if you look back at a lot of cases, there’s been updates to brand identities, rebranding over the years, where now you think something’s been around for a hundred years, but that things changed a few several times over a period of time.
Flushing out an idea takes time.
The beginning of Oyster was just flushing out the idea of it all and I can’t really remember the moment, but I remember wanting to develop a next level to sportswear. Ultimate comfort, but with style.
So I started thinking… look at the guy who’s traveling first class, going from JFK to London, or JFK to LAX. Most of the people, when I would get an upgrade and travel in first class, wore suits, so I would get all fancy when I was flying and then I would spill red wine on myself, or I’d get up and my shirt was all wrinkly and I had somewhere to be straight off the plane.
I’d look at the college kids, the families, the football players and all these people had on sweat pants, they were sleeping on the floor with pillows, but when you board the plane they’re separated. The people with the sweat suits went to the back, the people with the suits went to the front and then there were one or two of us, who infiltrated first class with a sweat suit on, or a hoodie. My thought then became bridging the gap between those two worlds, with Oyster.
I remember one of the things that brought me into LRG, and Just Don later on, was that both brands had a distinct vision and message. Something that they stood for. The missing element for Oyster was, “Man, we have to mean more than the things we’re just making.” Anybody can make a hoody, a full-zip hoodie, but we need to change the fabrications, use better hardware, use better trims. Create the opposite of what’s happening right now with the flash of things. Everything is pretty much basic in the form of it, but the message was something that could carry the brand forever.
I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember thinking about the traveling that I was doing and merging the comfort and flushing ideas like sportswear for travel. I remember going through the idea, “Sportswear for travel” and thinking of the phrase and saying, “Well then the obvious would be that traveling is the sport,” like that was sort of the role. Somebody can say, “I make luxury sportswear, I make golf sportswear,” but when you say sportswear for travel and you just flip it, what would that mean? It would mean that traveling is a sport because that’s what you’re identifying your category as and then it was like, “Oh, boom, here we go!”
When you come up with ideas that are ahead of their time, they’re often meant with skepticism. How was the thought of creating sportswear for traveling met amongst your peers?
I called a couple of people and asked them what they thought. I got some feedback. Most people loved it, so then we got on all of our legal work to make sure that before we made an announcement, that this was the direction [we wanted to go in]. Once we did that, we rolled the brand out with an identity. It took a really long time to get it together, but I remember a couple of people telling me that I needed to drop it, that this brand was heating up and I needed drops. But I didn’t think it was ready yet, the idea wasn’t finished. Yea, you’re looking at stuff, but the idea isn’t polished, I need to have a polished idea because I just think of where I’ve come from.
“Underground inventive, overground effective”… that’s what drew people into LRG, that was a huge draw. That mission statement meant a lot to people. I don’t have a mission statement for Oyster, but I need to have an emotional connection to people and for myself, I have 1,600,000 miles flown. One airline. There’s people like me who’ve done more than that. They’re thinking the same thing, it’s the call to action. How do you just gather everything that everybody’s doing and put it into a statement? That’s what traveling is a sport means to me, and probably to a bunch of other people who move around like that. Missed flights, connecting flights, upgrades, sleepless nights… even all the tourist stuff – restaurant to restaurant, museum to museum, shop to shop, that’s all part of the thrill.
There’s just so much that you can tap into when it comes to something broad like travel.
For me, the opportunities are endless if people understand and connect with what we’re doing. As a brand we’re still only in a couple of stores. RSVP Gallery in Chicago has been the main focus for me and where I’ve wanted to drive everything, because that’s home, that’s where I’m from and that’s where I developed my skills. Even though I’ve been here [in Los Angeles], for 12 years, that’s still home. I still have a Chicago driver’s license and that’ll probably never change.
Expanding this year to Patron of the New in Tribeca, opening up with Concepts in their Dubai location, opening with United Arrows & Son in Japan next year and working with them on a joint collection, more work with adidas, these are all things that we’re really excited about. Our goal is for us to be set up where people are moving around, being in the main hubs where travelers are. We still need to be in Miami, we still need to be in London and Paris, there’s so many other places that the brand can grow. We want to connect with those people who are travelers, that’s the goal. Eventually we want to grow into markets that I may not even be thinking of right now.
Looking back on your days at LRG and working with Just Don, it seems like you’ve been seasoned for a long time when it comes to apparel, even if you’re not a designer by trade, per se. What’s the key to success?
I don’t have any formal design background or anything like that. I came up in Chicago doing parties, consulting for companies and having a marketing business of my own, before coming here for LRG. So there’s really no design background, but I’ve always had a love for clothes, I’ve always had a love for creating things, and I’ve always had a love for executing. Its funny, I probably developed three or four things on my own, with the help of friends, before really rolling out Oyster, but in order to really see the ideas all the way out I had to bring people aboard. This is not a one man show at all. Its impossible to do anything by yourself, so I’m lucky because I feel like I had years of training.
When I worked at LRG, I started in marketing and I eventually moved on to designing a collection that was World Cup-inspired. I designed all of the G-Shock watches, but I also worked with a designer there, who could help execute the ideas, so the second or third thing that I realized working on Oyster was that I had to have someone who could help see my ideas out, add on to my ideas, and bring ideas, full circle. I might have something completely thought out, but I’ll also go source everything that we’re making. I oversee all of our production, I oversee ordering all of our trim, everything to do with the brand. So designing it, like literally on the computer, or making the pattern, is one piece of a whole scope of things that you need to do to see something come to life. I’m just as much a part of the design session as the person designing technically on the computer.
The lines nowadays are completely blurred, and that’s not to take anything away from somebody who’s going to school for anything, but now I think its about having a good idea, knowing your resources and executing. Those three things are key, but the last one is the most essential because we don’t need anymore good ideas, we need execution. For me, the years that I spent working with design, seeing what they were doing, becoming friends with them, and bringing on people who I worked with before to help me with this here, was some of the best decision making that I could have made for Oyster.
I have a design director, I’m the creative director, and I have an art director. One guy takes care of the art, one guy takes care of the technical stuff, I do the creative direction, the sourcing, the manufacturing and production, and together we’re a team. That to me is the way that brands grow.
When making product at the level you are, what are some of the difficulties associated with putting all of the pieces together?
Eventually there comes a time where you need to utilize everything that you’ve experience your whole career, all of the relationships. All of this wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for me going back and tapping old resources, calling old production people and asking old designers for help.
I’ve literally done all of that to make sure that what we’re doing with Oyster is of a certain level. People appreciate it, they see the effort. Both brands I worked at put a lot of effort, a lot of detail, a lot of time into things, so that’s kind of all I know. Maybe things would be different if I was brought up through a different system and we were just cranking out tupperware or something. Oyster might not even exist. Because of those experiences however, I feel like I’m approaching this at the right time in life, not when I would just blow it all with bad decision making.
When we opened with RSVP Gallery – because of the level of store they are – other people called. “Hey, we want to get Oyster too.” Its all cool and awesome, but you have to be ready for somebody when they place an order, so you can’t always look at the pot of gold, like “Man, they’re ready to give me X amount of dollars if I can get this made.” Now you have this worry of getting it all made, delivering it within the window of time they need to have it, worrying about them canceling it, all this other stuff that you don’t really think about before jumping in.
The main thing is I have to be ready and have the capabilities on the production side to be able to fill this order. We can make samples all day long, but what happens when its time to make eight of these things around the same time? The level of work it takes, the focus, the time, ordering all the materials, knowing the yield of the fabric, making sure you’re grading is right, making sure your markers are right, making sure that everything is lined up. Your plastic bags, your labels, your hang tags. If you’re not ready, these are things that can take you down. “Oh man! we forgot about the snaps, how long are they going to take?” Eight weeks. “Oh, the factory is closed, they’re on vacation.” I’m telling you, the craziest thing, developing your brand, you’ll find out about holidays all over the world. You need to know this when you’re developing something.
That’s just another level of making sure you can grow properly. We wanted to make sure we had all that stuff lined up before opening up other doors. Now that we have a better grasp on that, we feel more comfortable in taking on other partners and markets and expanding the brand, plus it’s exciting and we feel like we’re creating really good stuff, so we just want more people to see it. Touch it, feel it, try it on. Experience the details that we put into it. That’s the most exciting thing out of any, is that, and also people connecting with the message. That’s why we wanted to make sure when you buy an item, every item comes with a luggage tag. You buy it through the website, you get a chance to customize your luggage tag. We want you to feel that experience. If you go to a door Oyster is carried in, like Patron of the New or RSVP, there isn’t a customized tag, but when you buy the Malpensa hoodie, it comes with the Malpensa stamp from the airport and that’s your luggage tag, so every detail is really important to us, but in order to expand we have to have the capabilities.
I’m curious as to how you came up the name, Oyster Holdings?
It’s interesting, my family would go down to St. Martin every year and in St. Martin there’s an area called Oyster Bay and that’s where’d we’d stay, every holiday. So the name came from a vacation spot we used to go to when I was really flushing out names and ideas, but it wasn’t necessarily for a brand. I wasn’t at LRG anymore and now I was ready to do my own thing. I wanted to consult and help some people build their brands, but always build Oyster, so before being able to do any of that, I was like, “Man, I need to have a name.” Its funny because as I was sitting there, I was like “No way, there’s not a brand called Oyster, its impossible.” I thought it was a good name, so you know, I thought somebody had to have it out there. But it worked out. Holdings to me just sounded cool and represented the big picture. So when we started to develop AirFloat [technology], that’s under Oyster Holdings. Everything we do is under Oyster Holdings, and we have all these other things we may develop, like our phone charger.
You mentioned Oyster Bay, and traveling all over the globe during your time with LRG. What are some of the destinations that have inspired you over the years, both creatively and personally?
Going to Mumbai, India was an eye opener. A different way of life, people living the total opposite of what happens in the states. I don’t think there’s just one, they’re all sort of combined. I grab a little something from everywhere – some idea, some thoughts, some color story.
Most of my trips have been for work, like 95% of my traveling has been work. I’ve never been anywhere, besides the islands, for vacation. All my trips in Paris, all of London, from Japan to the Middle East. Its weird because I actually like that. When you’re traveling – working in fashion – you’re seeing a bunch of stuff because there’s always an itinerary, so you end up seeing all this stuff in like three days. Going back to Japan, its vacation and work, because there’s a lot of work to be done but I’m also doing a lot of tourist stuff at the same time. Each experience has its own amazing place in time.
Being out of your normal, everyday environment is what’s most inspiring though. So if you came here and asked me if I wanted to do this interview in Palm Springs… “Hell yea!” [laughs] I’m gonna pack something up, maybe two fits, and I’ll be inspired. Maybe I’d be out there and say, “Hey, I want to do a hoodie the color of that cactus!” Who knows, you know? I think anything that breaks the norm is important.
Head over to the travelingisasport.com to shop Oyster’s latest collection.
In other fashion news, here’s more post-Soviet street style from Ukrainian Fashion Week SS17.
- Photographer: Luis Ruano