Through her work at Outlier and Willie Norris Workshop, the designer navigates creativity, practicality and marketability, putting out some of the most directional propositions on the market right now.
Willie Norris loves solving problems. The Brooklyn-based designer and artist is currently the design director of cult workwear-inspired menswear brand Outlier and the mastermind behind the now iconic (and often duped) "Promote Homosexuality" tees under her Willie Norris Workshop label. Problem-solving has become the core pillar and ethos behind her approach to fashion design, and her laser-focused technical eye mixed with a pragmatic view of the industry has made her a fan favorite in the different and intersecting communities that follow her work.
"My career has been a process of trying to find where my voice best coincides with the making and selling of clothing," she tells Fashionista over Zoom from her studio in a loft in Greenpoint. This is perhaps the main problem that Norris is continuously solving through her work: How can designer and industry meet somewhere in between?
Her approach to design is rooted in a "deep discomfort with clothing," she says — "things I bought and wore just never felt right." She would see these pieces as a starting point; again, a problem that needed solving. "I was always trying to hack clothing design: wearing things backward, playing with the fit, doing anything to make clothes make me feel the way I wanted them to."
One of Norris' first jobs in fashion was working for Isaac Mizrahi's QVC line, a job she credits as helping shape her pragmatic approach to fashion. "It wasn't the most glamorous job, but designing the collections and then seeing them sell out live… it really sparked something in me and informed the way I release and sell products now," she says.
"I want to be designing clothing for the rest of my life, and to do that you need to be pragmatic," Norris continues. "I understand the realities of this business, and to do that you have to make product that sells. I used to be afraid of that, of being this sort of capitalist designer, but money must be made, and I decided to embrace it rather than scare me away."
"I wear a Willie Norris piece pretty much every day of my life," says photographer Hunter Abrams, a close friend, collaborator and customer of Norris who first became aware of her through Willie Norris Workshop. "She's brilliant already, but a lot of what she's done at Outlier is incredibly utilitarian, which makes the clothes amazing and well received because they fit into your life so seamlessly."
Abrams not only wears Outlier often, but has also collaborated with Norris on custom pieces to wear to two Met Galas and one Oscars ceremony. These exist in the more experimental space of her range, where she plays with proportions, volume, unconventional color blocks and cutouts in a way that allows her to be more niche but directional. These looks, Abrams says, are the portion of Norris' work they gravitate the most towards.
In fact, at Outlier, Norris works on two different kinds of collections. The first is the core product, the brand's bread and butter that sells continuously on the site (think an ultra-fine merino wool tee or injected linen trousers) — pieces that have been vetted internally and are "more lived in." The second is presented as "IDEAS," which she describes as the "experimental stuff" released in smaller quantities, which also provides Outlier with a seasonal element.
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IDEAS 3, launched in March on Discord and Instagram, featured the likes of designer Christopher John Rogers, actor Bowen Yang and comedian Hasan Minhaj in its lookbook. It was Norris' most astute proposition yet, as she explored the balance between utility, workwear and a bit of drama. IDEAS 4 will premiere this October, and will include a preview of Outlier's first womenswear proposition, set to debut next spring.
Whether it's for Outlier's core product, for the latest IDEAS installment or for Willie Norris Workshop, Norris says that seeing fashion as product first is fundamental.
"I always come at things from a product design perspective first rather than from a fashion-y ambivalent 'mood and vibe' perspective," she says about her process. "I make sure my arsenal is built with solved problems, and then I add narrative into that."
Norris goes on: "I consider myself a deeply creative person, and because of that I want to get my hands into everything. But that can be very overwhelming." Hence the fixation on identifying a problem that needs solving — after all, how do you create the perfect jacket or pants? By identifying what makes the rest imperfect.
"This is also how you build trust, because you identified a problem and solved it, and that strikes a really quiet cord with your customer," she says of Outlier's devoted fan base. "They're impossibly detail oriented and have a deep appreciation for the product." That very engaged customer is keen on studying her pieces and discussing them on platforms like Reddit and Discord: "They like to see proof of thought and design."
Outlier first started its Reddit account in 2013. Today, it has around 17,000 members who will create threads to discuss new launches, share styling tips, review products and ask questions to veteran customers. Outlier also interacts with its shopper here, answering questions and communicating about launches and updates on the brand and its operations. A core community from the Reddit space also created its own Discord group, in which Norris is quite involved.
"I love seeing what they're talking about, and I love answering their questions about design intentions or anything, really," she says. It's also an excellent way of making sure her customers are satisfied: "I mean, it's invaluable market research. They literally go in and talk about their ideal products, how much they would pay for them, what they'd like them to be made in… it would be silly for me not to go in there!"
This constant conversation across platforms with the Outlier customer "keeps me honest," says Norris."They notice everything from the website descriptions to the way we photograph things and, of course, the product. It's a two-way street: I help them dress better, and they help me be better at my job."
Willie Norris Workshop, meanwhile, is wildly known for its tees and socks with different messages, like the aforementioned "Promote Homosexuality" and "Body Provisional." Norris describes Workshop as a "container for creative projects," and says it's a brand "the same way an influencer is a brand" — i.e. it's less of a traditional label and more of a publisher of products and projects that come out with no set timeline.
She's aware that her tees are popular, but her approach is not to make attention-grabbing statements. It's just to say things that she believes in.
"I believe in 'Promoting Homosexuality' as much as I believe in promoting a variety of other things," she says, half-joking. "These words are deeply unspecial to me, but what they do is provide an awareness to the wearer and perhaps create discomfort to the observer; when you're wearing something like this, it's hard to forget that you are."
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The contrast between her work at Outlier and Workshop is where Norris thrives and flexes her range as a designer and creative. "Sometimes you want to be unaware of what you're wearing, and sometimes you want to wear something you're aware of." Coincidentally, that's the perfect space to contextualize her work: "It's like, Outlier is the day-to-day — no internal debate, just good clothes. Workshop is for the function! [laughs] It's conversational." After all, you don't always want to feel aware of what you're wearing. Sometimes you just want a great tee and a perfect pair of pants, which is where Outlier exists; for the days in which you want to make a statement (literally), Workshop probably has the perfect message. Another problem solved.
"Problem-solving is the route to pleasure, and what it boils down to is knowing who you are and what you want, and navigating the world in a way that lets you get there," Norris, who is a trans woman, says about how this approach is at the core of her way of living. "I felt an underlying problem, a heaviness and a lack of joy moving through the world that was related to my external person. The core, in my mind, of being trans is approaching the world with a problem-solving perspective in order to get the most valuable life for the short amount of time we're here. I just happened to be a fashion designer while doing it, so problem-solving carries into that, too."