As is the case with most businesses, Marine Layer was founded to solve a problem. In this case, a very specific problem: Founder Michael Natenshon's girlfriend threw out his favorite t-shirt.
Even according to Natenshon, she was right to do so, though he was deeply saddened at the time. The t-shirt was admittedly on its "last legs" and one good shake away from transforming from a t-shirt into an explosion of t-shirt pollen. It had to go. However, Natenshon noted, the t-shirt was soft, only in a way that a t-shirt gets when it has been worn and loved for a very long time. It may not have been structurally stable, but he missed it and wanted another one.
At this point, most consumers wipe away a tear, perhaps pour out a 40 for their lost shirt, then move on to hunting down their next t-shirt. But Natenshon had a better idea: He bought a '69 VW minibus.
The New "Old" T-shirt
Okay, well, we may have skipped a step in the story. In between grieving his lost t-shirt and buying a minibus, Natenshon spent about a year perfecting a custom fabric that mimicked the softness in t-shirts entering their last phase of life. What he settled on was a product called MicroModal, which is reportedly made from recycled beechwood. According to Marine Layer website, "the pulp production is self-sufficient, which makes our tees sustainable [and] eco-friendly." It is also what makes them soft.
Once they had that first batch of super soft customer t-shirt ready to roll, Natenshon realized he needed a way to deliver them to the masses. Hence, the '69 VW minibus — the right blend of lots of cargo space and a rather eye-catching exterior that matches the beachy, breezy comfortable aesthetic the brand was trying to build.
"It's only broken down like 27 times so we're feeling pretty good about the investment," the website said.
Frequently breaking down or not, the brand managed to spread. Today, you can find a Marine Layer location in New York, L.A., Portland, Seattle, Lexington, KY, New Orleans, Brooklyn — the list goes on, but it is safe to assume that if the city has a reputation for attracting millennials, it probably has a Marine Layer store somewhere nearby.
In its way, that VW bus has been important to how Marine Layer has thought about its expansion itself.
The website says, "In the old days, our general strategy for expansion was to open stores in cool places our 1969 VW bus would take us. Then we opened a store in Chicago and the bus broke down halfway across the Bay Bridge, so we had to reevaluate."
In some sense, reevaluating is what the brand does well, which means some of its more outré moves are, in fact, well considered.
The brand, for example, created some waves earlier in the year with the announcement that it would be renting out apartments on Airbnb. Every Marine Layer apartments is decorated with knick-knacks, vintage furniture and enough retro-cool to make an army of Instagram followers ill with jealousy. So far, you can find an Airbnb with Marine Layer in New Orleans, Portland and Chicago. Nashville will reportedly open up for visitors within the next few weeks.
The move, however, grew out of an organic need within the brand. Natenshon explained that the brand's first Airbnb in Portland was created because the California team — while opening their Portland location — just needed a place to sleep. The store occupies the bottom floor of an old house in Portland, which had an upstairs loft available for rent, too — so it was pretty much an ideal fit for their lodging needs.
Earlier this year, Natenshon told Racked “I said, ‘Let’s have some fun with this place, and give it that real retro vibe that people love our stores for now.’ We had an inkling that we might do well in the hospitality space because people are always coming in asking if they can buy the furniture.”
It occurred to the team that they could place the loft on Airbnb, which Natenshon noted as a “funny extension of the brand.” Funny and lucrative. The space has been booked for 300 days a year since they rolled in out a few years ago.
Though the brand maintains that its stores are profitable, the move into hospitality is yet another sign that the winners in the digital age of retail will be those who think most often, and most creatively, outside the box.
“We’re in an age where the traditional rules of retail and apparel don’t apply anymore, and so brands have to think about new and different ways to connect with their customer,” says Natenshon. “Ultimately, we want customers to come into stores to buy clothes, but this is also an opportunity for people to engage with Marine Layer beyond the stores. It’s a next-step evolution.”