Wooden shoes, but not what you're thinking
Wednesday 21 Mar 2018
Tim Brown, a World Cup soccer player from Wellington, New Zealand, and Joey Zwillinger, the head of an eco-friendly algae-chemical company, met through their wives a while back, and, observing a trend toward workplace informality, went into business with a loose idea: knitted woolen sneakers. “This was the very first shoe we made,” Brown said the other day, in San Francisco, gesturing toward a photograph of footwear that bulged and puckered like a tea cozy. “It looks like something you might wear if you have some sort of medical problem.”
That was then. Since releasing its first non-hideous model, in 2016, their company, Allbirds, has sold more than a million pairs of sustainably sourced woolly sneakers. “Wool is this miracle fibre that regulates temperature and wicks away moisture,” Brown said. Lately, Allbirds has become the It shoe among woke millennials and techies, who admire its boundless workplace chic. “We went through multiple iterations to arrive at the simplest sneaker we could imagine,” Brown explained. “It’s what we call the right amount of nothing.”
By that measure, there’s more nothing than ever in Allbirds’ latest shoe, which is light and made from plants. As morning light struck some big philodendrons in their office windows, Brown and Zwillinger convened in a conference room to admire the new product: a sneaker called Tree, which is woven largely out of fibre made from eucalyptus pulp.
“This fibre is one of the most sustainable materials on the planet,” Zwillinger said, caressing the fabric, which is cool, silky, and woven into mesh. He was wearing work- casual (a striped button-down, jeans, blue Allbirds with white soles), in contrast to Brown’s cool minimalism (charcoal T-shirt, navy cardigan, cream Allbirds with matching soles). The new Tree shoe comes in two versions: a “runner,” which laces up like a track shoe, and a “skipper,” a low-riding model reminiscent of a boat shoe. The eucalyptus in the uppers is farmed, using no irrigation, in South Africa (the shoes are manufactured in Shenzhen, China), and produces fabric ideal for summer, when thick wool footwear might feel wrong.
“Our best-performing market in the country is Atlanta—no idea why,” Zwillinger said. “But give the wool a hot, humid day in Atlanta, and, if you’re not wearing socks, it gets swampy.”
Allbirds’ headquarters is in a historic neighborhood of San Francisco south of Telegraph Hill. “Mark Twain used to do writing in this building,” Zwillinger chirped, and he and Brown slipped out a door to a commercial alley. In a new annex, across the way, designers were peering at Tree prototypes arrayed on tables.
“This looks like a shoe that’s been dug up from a village in the Arctic,” the company’s head of design, Jamie McLellan (black Allbirds, black soles), said, picking up a stained and crumpled Tree prototype in off-white. “But it was the first one where we realized we could knit the fibre.”
“There’s probably another fifty prototypes after that,” Brown said.
The final version of the Tree shoe has laces made from recycled plastic bottles, an insole derived from castor beans, and eyelets based on plant starch. To create the eucalyptus fabric, wood pulp is dissolved in a nontoxic bath that turns it into tufts of downy fibre, called Tencel.
“The process takes five per cent of the water used for cotton and about half the carbon footprint,” Jad Finck (blue Allbirds, white soles), the vice-president of innovation and sustainability, said, rubbing Tencel between his fingers. The fibre is woven into a cloth that is airier than the merino-wool fabric in original Allbirds. “We want people who don’t know anything about materials to be able to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that one kind of looks like a sweater! And that one sort of looks like a screen door for your feet.’ ”
Finck wandered over to a table laden with bits of other materials used for research. “This is yak hair,” he said, examining a swatch. “This is a sugar-cane-based microfibre—it kind of looks like suède.” He picked up a square of bright-red fabric. “This is made from pineapples.”
Traditionally, the hard part of selling shoes—even those not made from wood—is getting a good fit. Allbirds does most of its business online, and it offers no half sizes, so its products must suit more feet than normal.
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