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Sports hero turned shoe guru

From footballer to footwear skipper, former All White Tim Brown is the New Zealander behind the Allbirds Wool Runner and Lounger.

Words Carolyn Enting. Photography Vaughan Brookfield.

If anyone knows anything about running shoes, an athlete would, right? So when former All White skipper Tim Brown decided to try his hand at shoe design it seemed a logical step.

Brown, who originally hails from Wellington and now lives in San Francisco, confesses the opposite is true. Though his Allbirds wool runner, made from superfine New Zealand merino wool, has been a runaway success. 

The turning point for Brown was when he teamed up with Allbirds co-founder Joey Zwillinger, a San Francisco-based engineer and renewables expert. Together, they’ve created a winning combination – minimal design, comfort and a deep commitment to sustainability. 

Since launching in March 2016 the wool runner has been described by Time magazine as “the world’s most comfortable shoe”. Actress Emma Watson and actor Ed O’Neill (from Modern Family) are fans, and they’ve been adopted by the Silicon Valley Venture Community. InStyle.com writer Claire Stern says they’ve “changed her life”, and Huffington Post has proclaimed the Allbirds sneaker “is a likely bet to replace your Converse” trainers.

The fact that it’s a great-looking shoe, as well as comfortable, machine washable, lightweight, unisex  and made from a sustainable fibre and you can see why it’s a game changer.

“I went through a period of time after my football career trying to work out why I was making shoes. I didn’t grow up on a sheep farm. I didn’t have 300 pairs of shoes in my cupboard,” Brown explains. “I went through a few years when people were telling me that this was a stupid idea and patting me on the head. You know, when you’re making shoes in the industry you change them seasonally. We’re selling one shoe. The criticism before we launched was that ‘it’s unremarkable’, ‘it’s too simple’, ‘I’ve seen it before’. And we’ve actually managed to sort of cut through by doing maybe the opposite of what the playbook is. I don’t think of us as a fashion brand. I think about us as solving a problem. We’re kind of un-designing. It’s managed to work and been deeply satisfying.”

Why the name Allbirds?

It harks back to the time when the inhabitants of New Zealand were all birds. It’s about the ideas of travel and flight, and the way we see these products… they’re about movement, travel and comfort.

How did you get into footwear design?

I saw an opportunity in the market to make something that was simple and unbranded. My sense was that brands were shifting from being about logos and placement to being about form and story, and that hadn’t happened in shoes and casual shoes. When I started to make shoes, I knew nothing about it, I mean literally nothing. I thought, ‘Why is everything leather? Why is everything synthetic? Why do people not use organic cottons? Why is wool not being used?’ 

Where do you get your wool from?

We buy all of our wool through New Zealand Merino in Christchurch who work with an Italian knitter who is one of the best in the world. I feel like wool and natural materials are having a moment in the fashion industry. People are turning around and wanting to know about the provenance and the origin of the things they’re wearing. We’ve seen it happen in food. It’s now happening in fashion, and wool has this wonderful story to be told. 

Tim Brown chats to Northburn Station manager and merino grower Bevan Mcknight

Why do you think the Allbirds wool runner is so popular?

There’s a number of things that are working in our favour. The blurring of the lines between work and play. That trend, aesthetic, unbranded look, and deep thoughtfulness about natural materials. And comfort is really important… And likewise with sustainability too. 

Where are Allbirds made?

They’re made in Korea which used to be a hub for footwear decades ago … We’ve gone back to the heart of it, because they deeply understand some of the sustainable goals that we have. When we spoke to some of the other suppliers in the early days they looked at us like we had six heads, because we wanted to use better glues and those sorts of things. It’s more expensive but it’s just the quality and the ethical standards that are at a very high level. We use an Italian wool provider who’s based in Biella, Italy, who largely make fine suits for the fashion industry (Armani, Tom Ford, Hugo Boss). They have a small innovation lab and have created the material that’s the base of our shoes. 

You’ve just launched a new shoe, the Lounger?

We thought ‘how do we distil the slip-on shoe down to its simplest form?’ It’s been a lot harder in some ways than the wool runner just because there’s nowhere to hide. It’s all about the silhouette. There are really only two seams. It’s called the Wool Lounger to evoke a sense of comfort and like the runner which is not for running, the Lounger is not for lounging. It’s about movement, seeing and doing and walking and something for seeing the world. It’s a little bit more of a fashion piece than the wool runner. How we describe it internally is that it is like the wool runner after a couple of drinks. A little bit more outgoing. It’s made of the same materials as the wool runner but has a thinner slipper-like form and much thinner sole.

What drives and inspires you?

In a previous life, I played football. I really enjoyed football but for a lot of the time I wasn’t quite sure why I did it, what it meant. Then I got a taste of playing for New Zealand and that meant everything to me. I was able to push through and be a part of the team that went to the World Cup, and I think if I hadn’t had that New Zealand thing, that deep sense of meaning, it certainly wouldn’t have worked out for me. It’s the same thing here: for a period of time I was designing and making shoes, and exploring an industry and that was interesting. When my co-founder Joey and I joined forces in the idea of ‘this is an industry that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, that pays no service to the idea of sustainability’, we realised we can make a real difference here. We can do something deeply meaningful. Everything has made sense. When we look back, we assembled this incredibly smart team in San Francisco. Investment bankers, and smart people from all walks of life that are not joining us to make shoes or sell shoes, they’re there to make a bit of a dent in the universe. And I believe we can, and I think we’re doing something quite important and meaningful.

How often do you get back to NZ?

I need to be in San Francisco to build the business but New Zealand is where I’m from, where our fibre is from. We just had a very special day connecting with our farmers. To be able to do that and to come back home regularly, see my family and friends, to build a brand around where I come from is pretty cool. So I’m living a bit of a dream at the moment.

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