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How This Pro Surfer Is Making Waves in the Fashion Industry

This story appears in the December 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

This article is part of our Trends 2016 coverage.

Brian Higbee

A quarter-century into a celebrated pro career that has carried him to exotic locales across the globe, is still stepping into uncharted waters. This past summer, the record-setting 11-time World Surf League champion realized a long-held aspiration to helm a designer surfwear startup with the launch of Outerknown, which joins a growing wave of apparel brands and retailers embracing sustainable philosophies.

Founded after the dissolution of Slater's 24-year sponsorship deal with extreme-sports apparel giant Quiksilver, Outerknown stands apart from other surf labels by eschewing the category's signature bright colors and in-your-face designs in favor of understated, decidedly adult attire.

But Outerknown's ethics are just as important as its aesthetics. The Los Angeles-based 's Evolution Series jackets and board shorts are produced from Econyl, a fiber manufactured from 100 percent regenerated nylon waste materials, including so-called "ghost nets" -- lost or abandoned fishing nets that jeopardize dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life. After years of research, manufacturer Aquafil introduced Econyl in 2011, and the fiber is now integrated into a range of products from carpeting to swimwear.

Outerknown also is partnering with Swiss startup Bluesign Technologies, whose proprietary system evaluates and reduces resource consumption across the textile supply chain and helps manufacturers manage their use of chemicals, dyes and finishes. In addition, Outerknown gear is produced in adherence with the Fair Labor Association's code of conduct.

"Being a pro athlete, it's so much easier to have a sponsor, have their support, get paid and just do your job," says Slater, 43. "But I wanted more involvement in the creative process and a deeper understanding of what goes into a company."

Slater began formulating plans for an apparel line in his early 20s, but the idea gained momentum in 2012 when he teamed with design guru John Moore on VSTR, a collection of modern travel essentials marketed under the Quiksilver aegis. Moore now serves as Outerknown's creative director.

"There are so many options for in today's market, but nothing that addresses that modern nomadic lifestyle that Kelly leads and we all aspire to," says Moore, a lifelong surfer. "[Outerknown] is an opportunity to do things our way. We can build it sustainably, with a sense of style."

Outerknown isn't the only brand marrying style and . Nike, Adidas, Levi Strauss and Patagonia are all develop- ing apparel from recycled materials, and retailers like The North Face, American Eagle Outfitters, Forever 21 and Skunkfunk have aligned with I:CO, a Swiss company that transforms used and unsold clothing into textiles for manufacturing apparel and industrial materials.

Another I:CO partner, H&M, weathered controversy in 2010 after a Manhattan outlet was discovered destroying and discarding unsold clothing. The company responded by rolling out the Garment Collecting Initiative, awarding vouchers to customers for bringing unwanted clothing to H&M stores. Earlier this year, H&M unveiled Close the Loop, a denim line produced in part from recycled cotton gathered via the Garment Collecting Initiative.

An H&M spokesperson says the initiative has collected more than 17,000 tons of textiles globally since its launch in spring 2013. "This year our target is to increase the number of pieces made with at least 20 percent recycled fabric from collected garments by more than 300 percent compared to 2014," the rep adds.

Look for other established brands to enter the recycled apparel segment in the years ahead, making it more difficult for fledgling labels like Outerknown to compete. But Slater says surfing has taught him how to keep his head above water.

"I'm used to having pressure put on me. I'm used to being in situations that test me," he says. "I see everything in my life as cohesive, and affecting all the other things. I try to learn from all of it and bring that to the table."

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