Clothing by OWL is Here for the Right Reasons

There’s nothing wrong with being basic. Yeah, you might buy hand-sewn day planners on Etsy, dress your tiny dog in seasonally appropriate attire, take selfies with the pig-eared Snapchat filter because your eyes look awesome then caption the pic something self-effacing like, “Can’t believe it’s raining today. #Haircut.” 

So what?

And yes, you probably drink an entire glass … err, half a bottle… of cheap red wine with the girls every Monday; you’re watching Bachelorette in yoga pants, outwardly making fun of the hapless early-2000s reality TV anachronism that is a penguin-suited guy attempting to woo a chick with his mammalian knowledge, but secretly wishing that chick was you.

Again, so what?

Is it really that bad to be basic? To love puppies and wine and romance so cheesy it melts faster than a tube of imitation Kylie Jenner Lip Kit gloss left out on a Duffy boat in Newport Harbor on the Fourth of July?

A perfect case study on the indisputable allure of basic-osity is OWL, the apparel line that catapulted to fame three years ago when former Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe posted a photo wearing her OWL tank—“Wine Bachelor & Yoga Pants.” Overnight, founders (and best friends) Nika and Mika received thousands of orders. A basic brand was born.

Today, OWL designs are sported by some of the biggest Insta-celebs around, the company is dutifully followed by nearly 50K fans across social media, they’ve shipped products to every continent minus Antarctica, uber-popular media company Betches is about to post about their clothes and ABC tagged ‘em in a promo for last season of The Bachelorette. Nika and Mika are even spreading their wings into new business ventures, most recently launching LeisureLetics—high-quality athletic wear—with Bachelorette season 12 fan favorites, Chase McNary and Robby Hayes.

On a warmish Thursday in December, I caught up with Nika at a cozy, outdoor coffee spot in Newport Beach, to (what else?) talk about his Newport Beach-based business, OWL. Though the t-shirt version of our meet-up might simply read, “Lattes, Laptops & Lap Dogs” (yes, I brought my pup), the conversation was far from simple; we talked about everything from the power of strategic influencer marketing and the study of viticulture, to what life was really like back in the early days of OWL, when things weren’t exactly coming up roses … or rosé.

Clothing by Owl
Image via
WEST OCEANFRONT: I need the scoop. How did Clothing by OWL get started?

NIKA: OWL began as a vegan, organic wine brand called Organic Wine Lounge … OWL. At first it was a joke, really, just a hobby. Mika and I had both taken viticulture classes at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and decided to get our wine license and make organic, healthy wine. Eventually, we thought we might open up a wine lounge but we started off just doing the wine thing. Then we decided to throw some t-shirts on our site, mainly because Mika’s brother was—and still is—in the clothing industry in L.A. We knew we wanted the tees to be something wine and animal related so our first shirt said, “I just wanna take selfies, drink wine and save animals.”

And you were selling the wine out of your house?

Yes. Because of state laws we actually had to put a big liquor sign outside of our house and our neighbors were asking if we were opening a bar in there. We had to tell them, “No, it’s just a formality.”

Aw man, an at-home bar would’ve been sweet! So, you’re selling wine and a few tees, what happened next?

Well, we were tasting wine a few years ago for the upcoming season and a commercial for The Bachelor came on. We said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we throw ‘Wine, Bachelor, Yoga Pants’ on a tank top and try it? We’ll probably sell 20 of them but whatever …”

The next thing you know, a few Bachelor people started wearing the tank because we also give back a portion of the proceeds to animal causes and they were passionate about that. Ashley I. [of The Bachelor season 19] and a few girls from her season ordered it and Kaitlyn Bristowe did, too. That’s when it blew up. 

Kaitlyn Bristowe Bachelor
Kaitlyn Bristowe, season 11 Bachelorette, wears the ‘Wine, Bachelor & Yoga Pants’ tank, an image that started it all.
Walk me through the story … 

We were still working out of our house at this time and when Kaitlyn posted the photo wearing the tank it was bonkers. I forget when she posted it—maybe in the middle of the night—but for hours our phones were just noisemakers. I went and knocked on Mika’s door: “Have you seen your phone yet?”

“Yeah,” Mika said. “Is there something wrong with our shop?”

We didn’t think it was real. It was that crazy. Luckily, our printer in L.A. was able to turn around the tanks really quickly and we got everything out but our house looked like … Well, remember Donald Duck when he jumped into the money pile? Our house was just filled with orders. Pretty much it was shirts everywhere. 

Clothing by Owl
Actual depiction of the OWL house after Kaitlyn Bristowe’s post.
Is that when you decided this could be for real?

Yeah that was definitely when we realized we couldn’t be working out of our house and committed to OWL full time. Right now we’re still a small team but we try to help out people getting into the clothing industry either by bringing them to our office or through intern programs. A lot of people go to FITM [Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising] to learn fashion but we’re self-made clothing designers. We had to figure out how to cut and sew. We learned it as we went. Luckily, Mika’s brother is in the industry so we had that support. We still write and design everything in-house.

Jojo Fletcher
Jojo Fletcher, Bachelorette Season 12, wears the classic OWL tank.
You also had the fan base and sales to back up your production. After Kaitlyn-palooza you pretty much infiltrated Bachelor Nation, right?

We did. We’re kind of a part of the community now and the girls and even guys from every season will contact us. ABC reached out, too, because clearly our following is closely aligned with Bachelor fans, so there’s value for the network.

How do you come up with the trendy slogans that go on your tees, tanks and suits?

We do a lot of testing on Instagram, posting quotes and seeing how followers react. We also go by what we’re noticing is popular. Corinne [Olympios of Season 21, The Bachelor] reached out and asked if we could make a suit, “Team Corn.” Once she posted it and people asked about the suit in the comments, it became an item in our store.

Corinne Olympios
Bachelor season 21 contestant Corinne Olympios in a custom “Team Corn” OWL suit.
I’ve always heard you have to let consumers know what they want before they even know they want it. This seems like the opposite approach. Do you let consumer demand guide design?

You just have to be open to change. There’s a great book about five reasons why start-ups become successful. Timing, for one, is a huge factor. You also can’t be scared. Once we realized this shirt thing could be a thing, we just went with it. You also have to be able to change. Iterate quickly. We started as a wine brand and quickly changed into an apparel company. Change is also how we create our clothing … Mika and I might love a shirt that says “meatloaf sandwich” but it doesn’t matter what we like. It’s what our consumer likes. We measure everything against what our consumer likes. In the end, it’s cheaper to listen than it is to try to force people to like this item and sell them on the reasons why. It’s like social media. You want to be part of the conversation but you don’t want to dominate it.

Is that your online marketing strategy? To listen and figure out where you fit into the overall social narrative before you speak?

Listening is a big part of it. Studies show that people are more likely to listen to a friend than anyone else. Next, they’ll listen to a human over a brand and then finally, they’ll maybe listen to the brand. So we try to get in the friend’s ear. User-generated content is huge in that sense because it’s free marketing. After that influencers are obviously big to help us spread the word. Although for influencer marketing to work, the influencer has to be savvier than ever these days; you can’t just say, “Buy this.” It has to feel organic and authentic.

Speaking of influencers, a few months ago launched a new line, LeisureLetics, with Bachelorette’s Chase and Robby. How did that collab happen?

We were at an event with them and Chase mentioned he was trying to start his own clothing brand, similar to OWL with funny, catchy sayings. We asked him about his infrastructure and then if he might humor the idea of working together because we were already three years into it. Right now, LeisureLetics is similar to OWL but the idea is to go more toward the athleisure wear market and create a real lifestyle brand. We’re also launching a subscription box service that’ll start the first week of July. Bringing in Chase and Robby was huge; they’re two monster influencers with about 350K each across all social media. With all our influencers combined, we’re reaching about 1 million people on social. Basically, we’re taking what we learned from OWL and putting those lessons into practice with LeisureLetics.

Looking back, why do you think that initial OWL tank resonated so much with fans? 

It’s literally every girl’s Monday night. You drink wine, sit in yoga pants and watch The Bachelor. 

Ha, not me! I spend my Mondays reading Aristotelian philosophy in ball gowns while sipping Earl Grey. No, kidding. That is my Monday. Can I please get a shirt?

Send me your size.