A bunch of celebrities, including Lena Dunham, Gillian Anderson, and Olivia Wilde were spotted donning the same plain white t-shirt with the “Future is Female” slogan. Doing viral rounds on Instagram, the tee quickly became the new Internet sensation.
Behind the design stands Rachel Berks, founder of the Otherwild brand — a female-owned, proudly queer, feminist-identified, independent small business, selling clothes and other fun curiosities out of their LA and NYC locations.
But there’s much more to Otherwild than one successful t-shirt launch. In the spirit of Pride Month, we’d like to celebrate how the Otherwild team managed to cultivate a strong, memorable, and distinctive brand positioning.
The Story of Otherwild
Otherwild was launched by Rachel Berks — a former professional dancer and graphic designer, turned artist, activist, and owner of a queer-led retail company.
Rachel grew into becoming a brand owner by a serendipitous chance. After her career as a pro dancer in NYC stalled, Rachel moved on to corporate graphic design work and eventually found herself in LA, job hunting yet again.
But her search for a new gig wasn’t going that well. Somewhere in between endless interviews, a friend, Marisa Suarez-Orozco, approached Rachel with an offer to start a brick-and-mortar store. Both were active in the LA artistic queer community and wanted to create a safe and fun place where others could come for a workshop, quick chat, or to stock up for locally-made goodies. The duo shook hands and rented a 288 square feet storefront in Hollywood for $500 months. That was the start of Otherwild.
The business was fully bootstrapped. Neither Rachel nor Marsia had big bucks to invest in inventory purchases or product development. As Rachel Berks shared in a Forbes interview:
“(Our sourcing strategy was like this) saying to a friend, or a friend of a friend, 'If you give me this work, I will do my very best to sell it, and I will pay you in a timely fashion.' I quickly developed a reputation for holding up my end of the bargain.”
Rachel’s commitment and honesty in doing business paid off. Otherwild developed a regular clientele of shoppers. Moreover, the team secured extra income by incorporating a small graphic design studio within the store. Plus, they started hosting workshops, events, and masterclasses, done yet again by friends and community peers.
By 2012, the business swelled. Otherwild got the funds to move to a bigger location in Echo Park, LA, where the flagship store still stands up to this date. However, along this journey, the co-founder Marisa Suarez-Orozco decided to exit the business.
Later on, Otherwild also added extra services to their repertoire — tarot card readings for visitors, regular comedy and music shows (prior to the pandemic), artistic collabs, and a whirlwind of other fun activities, regularly done in store.
Otherwild circa 2021 sells a range of feminist-wear, androgynous garments, and design curiosities across two mortar locations in LA and NYC, as well as in an online store.
The team still remains somewhat small — around 10 people — united and driven by a brand statement promoting:
“Inclusive, expanded, and fluid notion of gender expression, identities, and feminisms.”
How Otherwild Cultivated a Distinctive Brand
The viral “Future is Female” t-shirt, launched as an experiment by Berks in 2017, still remains the brand’s signature product.
However, since then, Otherwild also ventured into new apparel categories, launched a successful spin-off brand, and hosted a myriad of events.
Yet, the team never compromised on its original brand value — strong women, inclusiveness, and non-binary fashion.
As brand marketers, we are always curious how different companies manage to cultivate strong brand equity and what others can take away from success stories. We went on a deep dive to decode Otherwild’s brand DNA. Here’s the T.
Powerful Brand Messages Help Achieve Organic Growth
So much of Otherwild’s success goes to the “Future is Female” slogan on a tee.
Originally, a t-shirt with the same message was worn by Alix Dobkin, an American folk singer and lesbian activist in 1975. The slogan came from NYC’s first women’s bookstore, Labyris Books.
One day, Rachel Berks noticed this iconic picture on @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y Instagram account, which curates images and stories from the key points in the lesbian herstory.
Despite being over 40 years old, the message on the t-shirt felt as timely as ever for Berks. Sadly, the LGBTQIA+ community in the late 2010s still remained prone to sexism. “Gay” was used as a describer for two men in a relationship, whereas queer and non-binary people were hardly ever included or properly acknowledged.
Rachel Berks wanted to change the narrative.
She ordered-to-print a small sample size of t-shirts (around 25 total) to sell online. A few hours after the stock landed, it was sold out.
Delighted by the demand, Rachel commissioned a bigger batch. She also teamed up with lesbian photographer Liza Cowan, who originally photographed her then-girlfriend Alix Dobkin for the iconic picture.
Apart from just selling a t-shirt, Rachel also decided to promote a good cause — an important part of her company’s DNA. 25% of the sales proceeds went straight to Planned Parenthood. Once again, the product launch was a major success!
Otherwild chose a simple, but mass-appealing message to stand by and spread among others. The “Future is Female” is an idea that universally speaks to queer and straight females, cis and transgender women, and anyone in between who takes a stance against gender binarity, misogyny, and patriarchal culture.
Strong Target Audience Knowledge Goes a Long Way
Before starting the brand, Rachel was already an active part of the LA queer community. She also experienced a lot of the issues queer people dealt with firsthand.
Such deep and personal consumer knowledge helped Rachel effectively connect, represent, and celebrate her brand’s customers.
"I hope to appeal to lots of different people, but I think that to a young, queer person, we're an exciting store. Nobody else is speaking to certain interests or desires that they might have," said Rachel Berks in a Mic interview.
Her clear understanding of her brand's main target audience reflects directly in the brand’s apparel, design, and services.
Over the years, Otherwild teamed up with writers, designers, activists, herbalists, educators, and craftspeople to create products and services for people with complex identities, but an overwhelming need to create a proud, affordable, sustainable lifestyle.
In a foray to serve more people, the Otherwild team launched a spin-off brand in 2019. Hirsuit is an androgynous swimwear line with a focus on inclusion.
Again, the product idea was born out of the personal experience and target audience knowledge. As Rachel told Teen Vogue:
“In my own life, my partner, who identifies as an androgyne, has always struggled to find suitable beachwear, often gravitating towards sports-oriented swimwear, which has filled a missing gap but had non ideal design elements like a low-cut neckline, unflattering seams, and no real chest support. With a lack of stylish and affirming options available, it was this frustrating experience that led us to create our own solution.”
To promote the new line, Otherwild decided to hire non-professional models in different body shapes to better illustrate how their product fits actual, unretouched bodies. The response was overwhelmingly positive and most of the swimwear sold out fast!
Social Media is a Powerful Brand Driver When Done Right
There’s no denying that social media plays an important role in shaping brand perception.
But visual platforms such as Instagram are also often criticized for helping spread the wrong messages around beauty standards, lifestyle preferences, and other strong social issues.
Many brands, Otherwild included, are using their platforms as a megaphone for spreading the right ideas.
Originally, Otherwild had a small offline and online community of fans and allies. But with every year, the brand gained more and more supporters in the form of artists and designers to similar-minded activists.
As Rachel Berks admits: "Going from a business that was completely owned and operated in every single function by myself, to being a group of all of these incredible people who work for me (was an incredible community journey)”
Otherwild regularly teams up with other creatives such as Kelly Rakowski, who runs the Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y. Jointly, they launched a limited edition clothing line with some of the proceeds donated to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, as well as the victims of Pulse Orlando and their families.
Cause marketing is a strong growth strategy many brands try to leverage. But far fewer choose to consistently place good causes into the center of their operations.
Otherwild donated to BLM, AAPI community, ACLU, Freedom to Thrive, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and National Center for Transgender Equality among many others. They also launched a separate ANOTHERWILD fund to extend cash grants to QTPOC artists and makers with whom they are collaborating.
Otherwild uses a lot of its influence and community support for good, which is an amazing thing more brands should be doing, despite their size. They are living their beliefs and politics beyond quirky slogans and don’t attempt to capitalize on the marginalized and excluded communities as some rainbow-washing companies might do.
Otherwild is firm in its beliefs and deliberate with its actions. Despite being a small business, the company provides sizable support to other members of the LGBTQIA+ community and society at large.
Rachel Berks and her growing team of allies are not afraid to choose complex causes such as sexism, social justice, and access to health care as hills to defend. Many bigger brands, queer or not, could borrow some of their dedication and consistency to serving their ideal audiences as well as Otherwild does!