Idealog - - BRANCHING OUT -

All­birds’ sus­tain­able merino shoes have cap­tured the hearts, minds and feet of ur­ban ad­ven­tur­ers around the world. But the com­pany was never j ust l i mited to wool – or even shoes. It was about fi nd­ing bet­ter ma­te­ri­als and man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses. Carolyn Ent­ing caught up with co- founder Tim Brown to hear about i ts l at­est i nno­va­tion, shoes that grow on trees.

all­birds co-founder Tim Brown was back in his home­land re­cently to un­veil the com­pany’s lat­est trick: shoes made from eu­ca­lyp­tus fi­bre.

In keep­ing with brand’s sus­tain­able ethos, a fleet of Tes­las were dis­patched to ferry guests to the award-win­ning Po­hutakawa House, sit­u­ated at the far end of Piha, near Auck­land. And what bet­ter place to launch a ‘Tree’ col­lec­tion than a house that’s been built around a tree.

The new shoes were dis­played on plinths in the gar­den, gar­nished with eu­ca­lyp­tus leaves be­side crys­tal bowls of the silky eu­ca­lyp­tus fi­bre. Or­phans Kitchen (which keeps bees on the roof of its Pon­sonby Road res­tau­rant) catered the oc­ca­sion with local pro­duce, as 20 guests got to rest back in their chairs with the added com­fort of a wool throw. All­birds has founded its rep­u­ta­tion on merino wool run­ners, af­ter all.

“It’s an op­por­tu­nity for us to un­furl our vi­sion for what the brand is about,” says Brown. “From the be­gin­ning, All­birds wasn’t re­ally about wool. I didn’t grow up on a sheep farm. And it wasn’t about shoes – it was about sus­tain­able ma­te­rial in­no­va­tion.”

From hum­ble be­gin­nings as a Kick­starter cam­paign in 2014, All­birds’ stylish and com­fort­able merino wool shoes were an in­stant hit and have proven par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar among the Sil­i­con Val­ley set. One of the fastest grow­ing shoe brands in the world, the Kiwi-born com­pany sold its mil­lionth pair in March, just two years af­ter launch­ing. That’s one pair of All­birds sold ev­ery minute since it launched.

But cus­tomer feed­back about the orig­i­nal Wool Run­ner showed that merino wasn’t ideal in warm weather, so they set out to find another ma­te­rial to solve this prob­lem, us­ing some of the US$27.5 mil­lion of fund­ing from Amer­i­can in­vest­ment firm, Tiger Global Man­age­ment, to do it.

Their in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­ter­na­tive ma­te­ri­als led them to ten­cel ly­ocell, a wood pulp tex­tile pro­duced from eth­i­cally sourced South African Eu­ca­lyp­tus trees. All­birds wove the cel­lu­losic fi­bre into a mesh ma­te­rial through a unique 3D-knit­ting process, al­low­ing the shoes to stretch and re­tain the com­fort of the orig­i­nal shoes, without im­pact­ing as harshly on the en­vi­ron­ment.

“Eu­ca­lyp­tus fi­bre is in­cred­i­ble for its cool­ing qual­i­ties and in­cred­i­ble soft­ness,” says Brown. “It’s taken two years of de­vel­op­ment. First, they found a way to turn it into a yarn. Then we re­alised that wasn’t enough, they had to in­tro­duce a whole new man­u­fac­tur­ing process. The up­pers are knit with our pro­pri­etary yarn, where we could con­trol the dif­fer­ent as­pects of the knit struc­ture to im­prove com­fort and breatha­bil­ity. We also found a way to use a bio-based ma­te­rial in the eyelet which are fused on in a process that is in­cred­i­bly ad­vanced. The shoelaces are also made out of re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles.”

The eu­ca­lyp­tus fi­bre also uses only five per­cent of the wa­ter and onethird of the land when com­pared to tra­di­tional footwear ma­te­ri­als, and is For­est Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil (FSC) cer­ti­fied. All­birds has also stepped up to reg­is­ter with B-Cor­po­ra­tion, “a new type of com­pany that uses the power of busi­ness to solve so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems”.

The ‘Tree’ col­lec­tion of­fers two styles in three colours: ‘ tree skip­pers’ of­fer a mod­ern take on the tra­di­tional 1930’s boat shoe, and ‘tree run­ners’ fol­low the clas­sic All­birds sneaker style. The in-sole and heel-cup are still made of merino so the soft fit the brand is renowned for re­mains. And, don’t worry. The merino All­birds won’t be run­ning away, ei­ther.

With plans to ex­pand its di­rect to con­sumer busi­ness to a fourth coun­try soon and fund­ing set aside to in­vest into new re­tail spa­ces (so far it has launched a range of pop-up stores around the world and has two per­ma­nent stores in San Fran­cisco and New York), the com­pany con­tin­ues to branch out.

Carolyn Ent­ing and Tim Brown

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