A visionary designer and an entrepreneur have joined forces to create environmentally sustainable footwear. By Zara Wong.
Comfort and fashion have not been easy bedfellows, but on the hilly streets of San Francisco, pedestrians have found the middle ground. A start-up consultant who I meet for coffee one morning in Hayes Valley is wearing simple shoes from Allbirds – mediumthickness soles, laces that match the body – natch, telling me that San Franciscans are proud to finally be able to wear a home-grown brand. (Them, and Barack Obama, Jacinda Ardern, Eva Chen and Gayle King, who gave Oprah Winfrey a pair and wrote of them: “When shoes feel this good, they don’t usually look this cute.”) Allbirds, founded by Tim Brown, a former New Zealand soccer player, and Joey Zwillinger, a clean technology entrepreneur, is a minimalist line of runners and loafers made from sustainable materials like ZQ Merino wool from New Zealand and eucalyptus fibre. The textured laces are made with recycled postconsumer materials such as plastic bottles; the insoles are derived from castor-bean oil. The body of the shoe wicks away moisture, so socks are not required. To clean them, they can be thrown in a washing machine.
Allbirds is a B Corp (which certifies sustainability) and the first shoe company to be certified by Forest Stewardship Council. “We’ve made an equivalent product [to other shoe manufacturers], but in a better way environmentally – that is the brand, that is the mission and that’s a non-negotiable for us,” says Brown, who had been working on the idea for several years before partnering with Zwillinger. Comfort is a major factor in the shoes, which came from stripping back the design to the necessities. “Our whole mindset is no-compromise. Not only does it have to be a great performing product, but it needs to be easily accessible for a reasonable price, otherwise it’s not potentially a big business and it doesn’t make an impact,” says Zwillinger. “We think maybe you should run barefoot. But next to that, ours is the next best thing.”
They take me through their offices to the design department. With more than 100 members, the team has grown faster than expected, so the offices are a rabbit warren in a historic laneway of San Francisco. We walk back out past the reception, which everyone in the Allbirds office takes turn manning for a week at a time, regardless of their job title. The head of design is Jamie McLellan, who is also from New Zealand and has designed for Cathay Pacific and Tom Dixon. He talks through the prototypes of the recently released Tree line, made of eucalyptus fibre, which has been two years in the making. Since the start of the company, the wool shoes alone have gone through over 27 iterative tweaks as Allbirds responds to customer feedback. “The wool shoes are made of a knit that comes in a roll of fabric and we cut out the pieces, whereas for Tree, we knit the eucalyptus fibre into shape, so that there’s very little wastage,” says McLellan. Through a maze again, and we’re at their first retail store, downstairs from the offices. It was originally meant to be a temporary pop-up, but it’s been so popular it’s now permanent. Customers walk away from the store with their Allbirds shoes in efficiently designed brown cardboard shoeboxes to minimise wastage.
Brown and Zwillinger had met through their wives, who are best friends from university. Zwillinger was feeling disillusioned about a project to create environmentally friendly surfboards. “We got a pro surfer to ride it and there was all this great PR, but when you speak to a surfboard manufacturer they would say: ‘Oh no, that costs 10 per cent more, no chance.’”
“For the longest time in London,” says Brown of the early days, “I would tell people that I was making a shoe out of wool and they would pat me on the head. Being part of the footwear industry was not part of some grand plan. It took connecting with Joey around the idea of sustainability, about a revolution, about the way things are made, a complete shift in our human desire to understand the provenance of the materials in the things we buy, how they are made and who made them.”
Tim Brown will speak at Vogue Codes in Sydney on June 22 and 23; codes.vogue.com.au.
Allbirds founders Joey Zwillinger (left) and Tim Brown at their headquarters in San Francisco.