When Tim Brown was playing professional soccer in New Zealand, he used to get tons of free shoes, especially from his sponsor, Nike. There would be shoes of all sorts: from athletic powerhouses to more casual fare.
And he began to notice a trend, he tells Business Insider. While there was startling innovation going on the high-performance or fashionable footwear, the shoes marketed for everyday wear were uninspired. They would just stick a Nike swoosh onto a subpar shoe made in Vietnam, he says. It was all celebrity marketing.
Brown had gone to school for design on a soccer scholarship, so the wheels started turning in his head. He began to experiment with making his own shoe designs, and eventually hit on the idea of using wool, an aspect that would set him apart. Brown’s tinkering eventually led him to found Allbirds, a startup backed by US venture capitalists with the goal of creating the most comfortable sneakers in the world.
I got to try out Allbirds’ first shoes, the $95 “Wool Runners,” and they certainly live up to the hype. They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn besides slippers and are stylish to boot. They do have their flaws, which we’ll get to later.
But first, let’s talk about the origins of Allbirds. New Zealand has some of the most famous wool on the planet, but the industry is in decline, Brown says. There are 30 million sheep in New Zealand, but people just don’t grow up wanting to be a sheep farmer.
That’s part of the reason why Brown was able to get a research grant to create a wool-nylon blend strong enough to be used in shoes.
The idea was that the sneaker industry was overlooking certain natural materials because they were harder to deal with. Wool has imperfections, like naturally pilling, but it’s a mainstay. “Think of a cashmere sweater,” Brown says. There’s a reason why it’s at the peak of everyday comfort.
Brown thought there was a market for this, and plunged into it after retiring from soccer after the 2010 World Cup, but he wasn’t fully convinced until Allbirds’ 2014 Kickstarter campaign smashed his expectations, selling out with over $100,000 in pre-orders. That success meant Brown had to get serious about the supply chain, and he enlisted San Francisco renewable-materials entrepreneur Joey Zwillinger to help launch Allbirds as a viable startup.
The pair raised $2.7 million from venture capitalists like Lerer Hippeau Ventures, with participation from Warby Parker cofounder David Gilboa, whose glasses startup Brown sees as philosophically similar to Allbirds.
Allbirds’ put out its first wide release in March: The “Wool Runner,” a simple sneaker made out of a superfine merino wool upper and a sole of rubber and foam polymer.
Here’s what they are like to wear:
Allbirds uses wool from New Zealand and a mill outside Milan, Italy. The result is an incredibly comfortable fit, which stretches out a bit after a few days (you want the shoes to be tight when you first try them on).
There isn't much structure to the shoes, which makes your feet feel free, but also means you shouldn't do heavy sports in them. Jogging is fine, though the risk is that they will break down over time if you use them for a lot of athletic activity.
The wool breathes well, and is totally fine for summer wear. You can also wear them comfortably without socks, and they didn't get stinky with mild use (they certainly could eventually, however, and I wouldn't recommend going sockless all the time).
Wool has its flaws. One of them is pilling that happens inside. This should reach a stasis after a week or two, but eventually it will pill like a sweater. There are pros and cons of using natural materials. In my experience, it happened on the inside and didn't affect the aesthetics.
Another minor flaw is that the shoes pick up dirt fairly easily. But you can throw them in the wash (on a wool setting) and they will come out clean.
In wearing the Allbirds for a week, I got a lot of unsolicited compliments on the look -- which is subtle but feels new. People asked a few times what they were made of.
Brown says that Allbirds' next step is to bring other natural fabrics into the mix. He says the company is tinkering with new blends to rethink other casual staples like boat shoes -- though he is mum on the precise plans.
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