Made Together: Outdoor Afro + REI Co-op
Rue Mapp organically grips a room. Even if that room is a small corner at the REI Co-op in Berkeley, California, outfitted with the bare minimum in terms of marketing resources. A folding table and chair set. Home-office-copied brochures about a new venture called Outdoor Afro.
It was 2010, and Mapp started delivering the good news. She was making regular weekend visits to educate the local community about her new undertaking. Mapp knew that many Black people and Black communities struggled to gain entry into outdoor lifestyles. They found themselves not knowing where to go or what to do, and often overwhelmed by the cost of getting outside.
All it ever took was a few minutes of conversation, and Mapp would have visitors on board with Outdoor Afro. She doesn’t just talk to someone. She engages with them. Her infectious California smile, warm eye contact and welcoming gestures can turn a stranger into a friend in mere moments. And it all comes straight from the heart. “It’s just about genuinely connecting with people for me,” says Mapp.
Today, Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit with a network of more than 60,000 participants. Mapp continues to create space for Black people to reconnect and cultivate leadership roles within the outdoor industry. Safer and more sustainably. This month, Mapp’s new for-profit business, Outdoor Afro Inc., launches its first hike collection with REI Co-op. With the release, she aims to address an unmet need and cultural barrier she has long wanted to explore. “When I surveyed Outdoor Afro participants,” she says, “gear and equipment was one of the top challenges they faced—and still do today.”
The outdoor industry’s fit, style and functionality in fashion just didn’t quite align with Black bodies or experiences in nature—including hers, Mapp says. She just needed the right team of people to help execute products with the right, high-quality resources. Those tabling days and more than 13 years of relationship-building with REI Co-op would forge a powerful collaboration to advance Mapp’s vision of a more equitable and accessible future for life outside.
Now, after two years of close collaboration, Outdoor Afro Inc. is the first Black-owned business to co-create an exclusive clothing line with the co-op. The Outdoor Afro Inc + REI Co-op hike collection celebrates the nature in all of us and rewrites what true collaboration and community impact means. “It was obvious we were only scratching the surface of what we might be able to do together,” says REI president and CEO Eric Artz. “We had a window of opportunity that should not and could not be lost.”
The Making of Outdoorswoman Rue Mapp
Southern-linked, California-raised, Mapp knew nature from a girlhood with both rural and coastal viewpoints. Her family migrated west from the Jim Crow South in search of greater economic opportunities in America. Her dad: a true outdoorsman from East Texas. Her mom: a consummate Southern belle and homesteader from Louisiana. The two would have made the quintessential couple in those Old West films.
The family settled in Oakland Hills, giving Mapp, a first-generation Californian, instant admission into the grand world of coastal redwoods. She spent her weekends at the 14-acre family farm her father bought and transformed into the ultimate open-air getaway with fruit trees, a bountiful garden, plenty to hunt and fish, a tennis court and swimming pool. The family also raised cattle and pigs for provisions. It was there where Mapp could explore the natural world without interruption.
“Everything the family wanted to do in nature was available on that ranch,” says Mapp. “Everyone could visit and spend time there. It became my template for what welcoming and hospitality meant.” Her family’s land became an open invitation for multigenerational joy, togetherness, creativity, rest, healing, discovery and wonder. Where Mapp could learn from the elders’ “way back when” techniques for fishing, cooking and even designing her own doll clothes.
As she got older, Mapp wanted to re-create those childhood nature experiences with her broader community—and with people who didn’t look anything like those in the glossy magazines of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. “That was a problem for me,” she says. “Black people have always had historical connections to our lands, waters and wildlife. I knew—and so many others knew—that we have an ancestral relationship with nature.”
The blog she organized in 2009 as a modest social experiment to share experiences, thoughts and observations about Black people’s truth in the outdoors grew steadily in audience and engagement. Her simple ask to peers: Join Outdoor Afro to celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature. Within three years, 12 volunteer outdoor enthusiasts took the call to learn directly from her, kicking off the Outdoor Afro Leadership Training program (OALT).
“It was just me in the beginning,” Mapp says, taking a stretched breath while flashbacking. “Every role you can think of for our organization, I had to do if I wanted to get Outdoor Afro off the ground. I had to do whatever it took.” Through the leadership training program, volunteers learn about the health impacts of nature, as well as trip-planning basics, conservation ethics, effective social media storytelling, policy education and risk management applications. The instruction these volunteers receive equips them with the essential tools to lead their local communities.
She incorporated Outdoor Afro as a 501(c)(3) in 2015 and headquartered the national not-for-profit in her hometown of Oakland, California. Before long, she had a bit more help. REI became one of the first OALT supporters and developed a training curriculum for outdoor risk management inspired by the co-op’s own experience. It’s one of several ways REI and Mapp have worked together over the years, including collaborating on creating more diverse imagery for the co-op, as well as ongoing brainstorming sessions, including those for #OptOutside.
Today, OALT is one of several programs now offered by Outdoor Afro. The program has more than 100 leaders who have held more than 1,200 in-person and online events in 60 cities and 32 states nationwide. And Rue Mapp is still just getting started. In addition to co-creating the hike collection with REI, this year will see her publish her first book, Nature Swagger: Visions and Stories of Black Joy in the Outdoors, out this November through Chronicle Books. “Another busy year,” says Mapp with her trademark broad grin. “My book and this fashion line are celebrations of all the engagement and feedback Outdoor Afro received throughout these 13 years—especially from our local communities.”
What Outdoor Afro Inc. + REI Co-op Aim to Solve
This hike collection is the result of a landmark collaboration forged between Outdoor Afro Inc., the for-profit business, and REI Co-op in order to solve unmet needs in outdoor gear and apparel for and with the Black community. “We’re disrupting the system with this line,” says Isabelle Portilla, divisional vice president of product strategy and design for REI who worked with Mapp’s team on the designs.
What does that mean? It means considering the range of Black body shapes that the clothes will fit and respecting the culture’s interpretations of nature. It means exploring a broader range of fit modeling, bold, celebratory colors, and materials that work with textured hairstyles. “Each piece hugs me in the right places,” says T’Essence Minnitee, an Outdoor Afro volunteer leader based in Los Angeles. “When I put on the clothes for the first time, the colors naturally popped off my deep brown skin, and it felt so good.”
Short in stature with an athletic build, Minnitee comes with “a little extra cushion,” as she says. She automatically gravitated to the collection because it offered a lifted, instead of lumpy, solution to her petite frame. She adds, “The brightness provides visibility and security for me since I hike a lot, sometimes alone.” This is the exact response the collection intends to achieve across generations and with those who often engage in nature-rich lifestyles.
“What I realized is that everyone wanted access to the Black market from a diversity, equity and inclusion point of view,” Mapp says, “but no one was truly creating accessible and stylish options that actually accommodated our body shapes.” Or Black people’s real experiences in the outdoors. Because the collection travels outside of what REI has traditionally produced, Portilla had to “cut out all noise and make space for colors, prints and patterns with a different set of boundaries.”
The line is a mashup of iconic ’80s and ’90s silhouettes coupled with modern details inspired by the Black community: a play on throwback jackets, a riff on parachute pants and items printed with a tribute to the historical places Black folks would gather for rest and fellowship. “I tested the collection’s shell jacket,” says Stephen Scott, an Outdoor Afro volunteer leader in Minnesota who enjoys sailing, kayaking, log rolling, archery, mountain biking and hiking. “The jacket definitely rose to the occasion because I have broad shoulders and need to have movement in my clothes for the types of nature activities I do.”
What only a few know about Mapp: Her first shot as a fashion designer happened in the ’90s as the owner of San Francisco–based Rulette Wear. She made bridal dresses and outdoor gear for her snowboarding friends. Now she’s back in familiar territory with knowledge about the differences that apparel can make for the Black outdoor community. This collaborative collection of fleece pullovers, polo shirts, graphic T-shirts, trail pants, hiking leggings and hiking boots solve for fit, function, fashion and accessibility. Mapp says, “This fashion line is us. We are also nature.”