It’s a global success story that has put the names of our native birds on the map, and is a game-changer for the footwear industry worldwide. We reckon we can claim Allbirds as our own.
When you think of a New Zealand brand, you generally think of a company that’s based locally or has product manufactured here.
In the case of Allbirds, however, there are really only two main links to the Land of the Long White Cloud: co-founder Tim Brown is a Kiwi, and the wool used to create the brand’s footwear is sourced from merino sheep that graze in the South Island.
Nevertheless, we Kiwis have claimed Allbirds – and you can’t blame us, really. After all, it’s a global success story.
The San Francisco-based start-up officially launched with one style – the Wool Runner – in 2016, but Tim had come up with the idea of creating a brand that challenged the footwear industry both in terms of design and materials years earlier when he was playing professional football.
With the idea that wearing merino socks couldn’t be much different to wearing merino shoes, he sought a research grant to investigate the use of merino wool in footwear, went to study business at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and in 2014 launched a Kickstarter campaign with one shoe style, made from wool, to see if it would stick.
The Kickstarter fund reached US$100,000 in just four days.
Tim met his co-founder, biotech engineer Joey Zwillinger, through their girlfriends, who were flatmates, and with Tim’s business acumen and Joey’s background in sustainable engineering, the pair combined forces to create a shoe brand that fit somewhere between the fashion and sports categories and utilised common materials.
Rather than inventing new ingredients for their recipe, they simply reinvented how these materials had been used in the past.
At its core, Allbirds is all about sustainable material innovation and comfort; the bells and whistles are found in what goes on behind the scenes, rather than in the product itself.
Fast forward to 2016 and the direct-to-consumer brand’s official launch online from the US. The premise behind the brand was to challenge an industry that was traditionally producing products that were over-designed, over-logoed and unsustainable in terms of their materials and manufacturing processes.
Time magazine called Allbirds the world’s most comfortable shoes within the first week, and consumers from all walks of life were quick to embrace the simple design and undeniable comfort before they even cottoned on to the sustainability side of the brand.
“It’s been really exciting to see how customers around the world have taken to our shoes,” says Tim.
“Comfort is such a universal need and our shoes are quite simple in design, so they’ve really been able to transcend different styles and markets.”
The Wool Runner was the only shoe in production in Allbirds’ first 14 months in business, but in the past three years, the style has undergone some 27 design and material tweaks based on customer feedback and advancements in sustainable materials and technology.
The slip-on Wool Lounger came next, along with kids’ range Smallbirds, then shortly after their second birthday – on announcing they’d sold one million shoes globally – Allbirds launched their second material innovation made from eucalyptus fibre.
The third big innovation is undoubtedly the most significant for the footwear industry, though – a sole made from sugarcane. Teaming up with a Brazilian energy company (one of the largest green-energy companies in the world), the brand was able to take the petrol out of the traditional plastic EVA foam most commonly used in footwear, and replace it with carbon-negative sugarcane.
As is the collaborative Kiwi way, rather than keeping it all to themselves they’ve made the material available for use by the entire footwear industry. For a brand that’s only three years old, Allbirds is already making significant strides into changing the footprint of shoe manufacturing worldwide.
“We’ve found that our mission to make better things in a better way has resonated internationally, as a growing global movement of consumers has begun to demand more sustainable and ethically made options,” says Tim.
“We’ve been able to invest in premium renewable materials without putting the cost back onto the consumer due to our direct-to-consumer approach, which was essentially unheard of for a footwear brand when we launched in 2016.”
Late last year, it was announced that the company had secured a funding grant of US$50 million, with the Wall Street Journal estimating that the funding round boosted the company’s value to US$1.4 billion.
This latest grant will see Allbirds expand into more brick-and-mortar stores on top of their current locations in New York, San Francisco and London’s Covent Garden.
It’s likely we’ll also see yet more material innovations and advancements, as well as new collaborations with both local and international brands.
They’ve already teamed up with Shake Shack and Nordstrom in the US, and have designed an eye mask for Air New Zealand and a limited-edition Allbirds colourway with NZ Forest & Bird to celebrate their Bird of the Year – the kea.
Birds continue to inspire: several Maori names have been coined as colourways for many of the brand’s designs, and the name itself comes from the idea that before the first settlers arrived here, New Zealand was just that: all birds.
Although Tim didn’t necessarily set out to create a Kiwi business, it seems you can’t forget your roots, even when you’re on the other side of the world.