The stakes are high when it comes to sustainable fashion, and the UK’s newest addition is set to raise them even higher this week. Allbirds, the San Francisco-based shoe brand that makes its trainers out of eucalyptus, wool and sugar cane, is opening its first UK store in London’s Covent Garden on Wednesday and, if the reaction is anything like what’s happened in the States, it’s going to cause a stir.
Since its official launch in March 2016, the brand has sold more than 1m pairs of its original Merino wool trainers. Leonardo DiCaprio signed on as an investor, praising them as “a model for the footwear industry” and last week it was reported the brand secured another round of venture capital commitment to the tune of $50m (£38m). Following the injection, the company is now valued at over $1bn.
Then there’s the celebrity factor: Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Watson were early adopters. They also have political fans. Barack Obama previously seen sporting a pair and New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern gifting a pair to Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, during a state visit.
According to co-founder, and ex-pro New Zealand soccer player Tim Brown there are three key “pillars” to the brand: minimalist design, which he calls “the right amount of nothing”, comfort, and sustainable manufacturing – in that order.
“We really didn’t lead with sustainability,” Brown explains. “For the first two years, it was very much a secondary part of our story and we focused on comfort and design. Only now, with our third material innovation – after wool came eucalyptus and, latterly, sugar cane – under our belt, and having learned a lot more about our impact, have we started to say, this is something we need to talk about more.”
Brown’s initial motivation, back in 2009 when he was still playing football, was to create something simple in the face of over designed, logo-heavy products like the sort he would receive from his big brand sponsors. “This idea of stripping stuff away is absolutely a key part of the philosophy,” he said. “What this translates to is a look that is almost nondescript in its plainness, which is what makes it cool for the generation trying to do better.”
Brown co-founded the firm with Joey Zwillinger – the husband of his wife’s best friend, and an engineer and renewables expert. “It took meeting Joey to realise that this actually wasn’t about shoes, it wasn’t about wool, this was about a revolution in sustainable manufacturing and we could be a part of it.”
The timing of Allbirds’ launch and the opening of its London flagship comes as the fashion industry increasingly seeks to address its green footprint.
“Outside of the fossil fuel industry, it’s the largest contributor to carbon emissions in the world,” Brown said. “The footwear industry globally makes 20 billion-plus pairs of shoes a year – it’s an enormous category.
“Our perspective is that they’ve only been paying lip service to the idea of sustainability. There’s a change coming, there’s a different type of consumer, so that’s the bit that gets you out of bed and say, there’s a problem worth solving here.”