In America, New York may still be known for designer fashion, but in the increasingly visible category of direct-to-consumer, accessibly priced, brand-anonymous basics — think of them as the next generation of Gaps, Levi's and Uniqlos — San Francisco is steadily coming to the fore. The latest to join the gang: Allbirds, a sustainable footwear brand backed by Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Great Oaks Venture Capital and Warby Parker CEO Dave Gilboa, which launched Mar. 1.
Allbirds's first product is a $95 Wool Runner, a minimalist everyday sneaker designed in a range of colors for both men and women, with a 16-micron merino wool upper (the same grade of wool used for suiting) and polyurethane insole derived from castor beans. It's soft, lightweight, flexible and breathable — so much so that Time recently dubbed it the world's most comfortable shoe, and Wired gave it a 9/10 rating. And unlike your typical sneaker, it's lacking in flashy brand identifiers, its logo etched quietly into the tongue.
The company was founded by Tim Brown, a former professional soccer player for New Zealand with a master's degree in international management from the London School of Economics, and Joey Zwillinger, a biotech engineer with an MBA from Wharton. Brown, who was once sponsored by Nike, began experimenting with sneaker design during his pro soccer years. After finishing his degree, he launched a crowdfunding campaign for Wool Runners on Kickstarter in 2014, hitting his maximum target of $120,000 in just five days. The campaign caught the attention of Theory, and the duo launched a collaboration of Wool Runners under Allbirds's former name, 3over7, last year. Zwillinger jumped on board soon after, and the company raised a $2.7 million seed round of funding heading into the March launch.
"Our whole approach to design here is about simplicity, stripping things away," Brown said over coffee in New York recently. "That sort of approach, the un-design approach, of anonymous luxury, is the very core of what we think about... The Nike stuff is fantastic, they do some innovation for athletes, but there's always a swoosh on it. I liked the idea that the brand could disappear into the background and could be about the person wearing it."
Brown said he experimented with canvas and leather in the very beginning, but wool was ultimately the most appealing — it regulates temperature, wicks moisture and is a sustainable resource. "It's also so comfortable, and comfort is such an important part of footwear that's often ignored or just an afterthought."
The company's concern regarding its environmental impact extends to the packaging, which does away with the shoebox inside of a box and ships in a single (patent-pending) container, requiring 40 percent less material. Soon, the polyester laces on the sneakers will be replaced with a material that's 100 percent natural. "It's nothing to really to be proud of — every brand today should be thinking like this," Brown said modestly. "And it's not enough just to do things sustainably, you also have to do those things because they make better products, or better experiences. On the one hand, everyone cares about sustainability; on the other hand, it's not a big part of a purchase decision, people just want the best product."
Brown is a big admirer of Everlane — and when he set out to launch Allbirds, it was with "the 26- to 34-year-old Everlane customer who cares about the way things are made, who likes an unbranded sort of simplicity" he had in mind. "But we've had all these organic pickups from every walk of life, every age group — from knitting [communities], for example. That gives us a great deal of encouragement in terms of scope of vision, in terms of where we might be able to go with the brand." Right now, there's an even split between male and female customers, and Brown would like to keep it that way.
Allbirds isn't stopping at sneakers — slip-on shoes and boat shoes are both on the product roadmap. "And it won't just be wool; we've looked at a whole bunch of other natural materials that have been ignored, that have opportunities for innovation." If the company can do slip-ons and boat shoes as well as it's already doing lace-up sneakers, it'll be a force to be reckoned with.