Matthew Bolick, cofounder of the Austin bar and burrito joint Little Brother, was joking around with his sous chef, Seth Jones, about merchandise ideas when Jones came up with a good one, one night in 2018. “He said, ‘You should do a hat like the Outdoor Voices ‘Doing Things’ hat that just says, ‘F—ing Around’ on it,” Bolick recalls. “I was like, that’s an amazing idea.” He tucked the notion into his back pocket, where it sat for a year and a half, while Bolick pursued other merchandising ideas for the group of small Austin businesses he helps run, which include the coffee shops and restaurants Brew & Brew, Better Half, and Holdout Brewing. Then, a year ago, Bolick decided to order a limited run of fifty hats that directly reference the omnipresent royal blue ball cap and its distinctive phrase “Doing Things” from the Austin-based athletic wear giant. Little Brother’s version of the hat is embroidered with a similar font, on a similar blue cap, and listed for sale on the bar’s website with product copy that read “Our iconic ‘F—ing Around’ hat in LB blue,” a parody of the text on Outdoor Voices’ web store. Outdoor Voices’ version of the hat sells for $28. The price on each of the hats Bolick made? $29. “We charged a dollar more,” he said.
On Monday—a year after he began selling the hat online—Bolick received a cease-and-desist order from a lawyer representing Outdoor Voices. “It has come to our attention that you are selling an imitation of our Doing Things hat, which is a well-known symbol of our brand and which customers closely associate with OV,” the letter said. “I am reaching out to kindly ask that you immediately discontinue all sales of the imitation hat and remove all references to the hat, including in marketing materials, social media pages, and websites. We are both local Austin brands, and OV is very mindful of preserving our brand perception, so we hope that we can resolve this amicably.” Bolick immediately posted the letter, along with a picture of the hat, to Instagram. Most of the comments on the post are from people dunking on the athletic wear brand. Local brewery Austin Beerworks, in a tongue-in-cheek show of support, vowed to make a hat that read “Brewing Things.”
Outdoor Voices is an easy target for ridicule, especially if you’re a bunch of rowdy Austin bar enthusiasts. The company was founded in New York in 2013, and moved to Austin in 2017, along with its founder, Tyler Haney. By 2018, it had raised more than $50 million in capital, and blanketed the city (and the world) with tasteful sans-serif fonts with fluffy, vaguely empowering mottos such as “Doing Things” and “Let’s Get Recreational,” creating opportunities for athleisure enthusiasts around the world to make their lives look more like Instagram ads. Then the company began facing difficulties—a New York Times story from March 2020 described it as having “imploded” as Haney stepped down as CEO—as its valuation dipped from $110 million in 2018 down to $40 million last March. The ubiquitous ball caps are still everywhere, but the brand they represent has struggled. (Outdoor Voices didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
Still, a $40 million company is a whole lot bigger than the handful of Austin bars that Bolick cofounded. He says he understands that Outdoor Voices has to defend its trademarks, even if he thinks the company should get “a sense of humor.” But what really galled him about the letter was the idea that a retailer operating locations in some of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the country—the company’s stores are in SoHo in New York, Melrose in Los Angeles, Lincoln Park in Chicago, Hayes Valley in San Francisco, and Georgetown in Washington, D.C., as well as Houston’s Heights and Austin’s South Congress strip—would have a lawyer send him a letter asking him to stop selling the hat because they’re both “local Austin brands.” “We’re a small guy. We made a silly hat. They’re the big guy. Everyone wears their hat,” he says. “Why would you not see this as funny? Old Austin would have found this funny.”
One reason Outdoor Voices might not see the humor is because the law requires trademark holders to aggressively defend their intellectual property, lest they lose it. As far as litigious letters go, theirs was relatively friendly, and according to attorney Kandace Walter, the director of Southern Methodist University’s Small Business and Trademark Clinic, Little Brother could be in dangerous legal territory in selling a hat that references Outdoor Voices’s trademarked hat. “I would tread cautiously,” she says of anyone—especially a small business that can’t compete with an army of lawyers—who tries to monetize a trademark belonging to someone else, even if they intend it as a joke. “They’re warning you, ‘We don’t think this joke is funny,’” she says.
Austin does have a history of drawing cartoon mustaches on whatever the Establishment is trying to be, and getting too big for your britches is a good way to draw out old-school Austinites who are thrilled to try to cut you down to size. In the nineties and early aughts, Austin video stores offered free memberships to customers who brought in their Blockbuster membership cards, and the city’s premier indie rock venue, Emo’s, routinely booked a band that called itself the F—Emo’s. The Austin-based social media parody site Lamebook survived lawsuits from Mark Zuckerberg’s global behemoth and is still mocking Facebook users to this day. From Bolick’s perspective, the hats he was selling at the bar are just part of that tradition. “We’re just doing some goofy Austin f—ery,” he says. “They’re coming after us for being a s—head? That’s what Little Brother is, and that’s what Austin is—we’re the little brother to all these giant cities, and now we’re being overrun by companies trying to capitalize on the spirit of what Austin used to be.”
Outdoor Voices beat the current wave of Austin newcomers to the city by several years, but accelerated by the pandemic, a number of high-profile, venture capital-funded businesses and deep-pocketed entrepreneurs have recently pulled up stakes for, or expanded to, Austin. It’s a long-standing Austin tradition to feel vexed by the arrival of newcomers, of course, and some of Bolick’s consternation seems to have as much to do with, say, Elon Musk as it does Outdoor Voices. He’s not alone in his desire to take a few shots at the moneyed newcomers who have set up shop in town—that’s why people wanted to buy his “F—ing Around” hats in the first place.
For his part, Bolick says that, while he’s not intimidated by Outdoor Voices’s letter, he doesn’t want his life to be consumed with an ongoing legal battle. “I don’t want to have more energy sucked from me than I already have in the past year,” he says. The hat is no longer available on the Little Brother website, and he says that it won’t be back. Mostly, he sounds like he’s just disappointed that Austin is a city where f—ing around is a little less acceptable than it used to be.