Tak­ing flight

A vi­sion­ary de­signer and an en­trepreneur have joined forces to cre­ate en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able footwear. By Zara Wong.

VOGUE Australia - - Codes -

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.

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