Benje Williams and Ken Bernard are one of those odd pairs that just work well together. Williams is discreet in his demeanor, with a laid-back California vibe, offering the odd smile or nod of acknowledgement. He is the ice to Bernard’s fire. Bernard, who is Brooklyn-born and raised, speaks in a swift New York staccato, and is always at the ready with a pithy quote or story. Together they’ve broken new ground, starting Outlandish, one of only four Black-owned stores for outdoor and hiking gear (there are 4,300 such stores across the country). In an industry that has long centered on white hikers, this is a significant step.
The idea for Outlandish was born when Williams began backpacking with his father. “I wanted other people to have that experience and I wanted to have that experience myself with other people,” said Williams, “A lot of nonprofits are already organizing hikes here in the city and across the country, so we didn’t want to necessarily go that route, but rather wanted to support those organizations and see if we could be a kind of connective tissue.”
While shopping for one of his backpacking trips, Williams walked into the REI store in Soho, where he met Bernard, who helped him as a sales rep. Bernard said that he rarely had people of color coming into the store, so he was excited to support Williams. But it was the fact that Williams returned after his trip to thank Bernard for his suggestions that sparked a friendship between the two that eventually led to a business partnership.
They realized that a brick-and-mortar space would be needed if they wanted to run a retail business. They decided on Crown Heights in Brooklyn because of the lived experience that Bernard brought to the table, having grown up there. He shares how a variety of people he knows, including one of his middle school teachers and a local UPS driver, a friend from school, walked into their store and were pleasantly surprised to see that he had started a business in their neighborhood.
Their reasoning for starting Outlandish was clear, “You have to pay the bills, you have to pay the rent,” said Williams, “So, products felt like an exciting opportunity to make it sustainable as a business. Also to curate products that people of color are excited about, for someone who likes to look good, even if they’re on the Appalachian Trail. There’s a lot of granola, stiff-legged products, in terms of pants, products that aren’t exactly meant or designed for people of color.”
Although Outlandish opened its doors back in January of 2023, they had their grand opening on September 22. In the last 10 months they have had their share of challenges, a $0 day (the day of the Canadian wildfires that caused an air-pollution spike) and another in which all they sold was a pair of socks. The pair were candid about the challenges they faced starting and running a small business in New York City.
“I think the challenge is partly encouraging people to buy their products locally and not online or at a big box retailer,” said Williams. “I don’t feel like people need to be preached to. But in the last nine months we realized that people do need to be reminded and encouraged a little bit. I don’t think people realize how delicate a small business is, how easily it could disappear.”
This makes Outlandish all the more important, given that they serve a historically underserved community in the outdoors industry. This is a sentiment echoed by Brittany Leavitt, the executive director of Brown Girls Climb, an organization that focuses on facilitating “mentorship and leadership” amongst women and non-binary folks in the climbing and outdoor industry across the nation. Leavitt was at the store to plan an event to celebrate the seventh anniversary of Brown Girls Climb. In addition to being a retail store, Outlandish is also used as a community event space.
“I think it’s important to have a space where you can see yourself represented when it comes to thinking outdoor gear,” said Leavitt, adding that it was important “to bring community together around education in the outdoors and focusing on Black, indigenous and POC history, because as we all know, we all have a connection to the outdoors.”
For Bernard, it’s important for “people of color to have access to these outdoor spaces because we live in a society where there’s a stigma of access in these spaces. I know just from being raised here in Brooklyn that there was no exposure to the outdoor space at all. I was never once offered a chance to hike before the age of 18.”
It’s this sense of community that drives the Outlandish credo.
“Community building is a huge part of what we’re doing,” Bernard said. “These are connective tissues that didn’t exist before, but connecting communities that did exist before. So it feels more just like strengthening an existing community, which is exciting.”
As part of their collaborative efforts, Outlandish both prioritizes selling products from local brands in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and also organizes hikes for people from the community.
“We try to preach support,” added Bernard. “Supporting local businesses is how we truly connect with the community and keep this space alive. When folks see such cool designs come from a community that they live in, they are more inclined to support and take it to the next level.”
They aim to provide a real-life retail platform for partners like Hikerkind, a women-led hiking brand based out of Bushwick, or William Ellery that designs small-batch gear. Outlandish has also been designing gear in collaboration with large companies like Salomon and Ciele Athletics. When Epicenter visited the store, they were in the midst of a product meeting with outdoor giant North Face. Outlandish stocks and sells backpacks, hiking shoes, and a variety of outdoor gear including jackets, waterproof pants, socks and hats and a selection of curated books.
Their net may be cast wide but they seek out each collaboration with an intentionality. And like many small businesses, they are very clear that profit margins aren’t their only motivation. “We serve as a storyteller and a salesman,” said Williams, “we’re still just trying to figure out what the community wants in terms of product, in terms of events. This is a call to action to people who are reading or listening. When you are ready to gear up, come to us. We have a lot of great support that we can provide in terms of getting you fitted for the right shoes, giving you technical advice about what products you might want to wear. And we discourage people from buying stuff that they don’t need.”
Bernard chimed in, adding, “I want to know what this space can continue to become.”
BIPOC hiking and outdoors groups
Bernard and Williams favorite hiking spots