I’m not sure where I first heard about Sydney Brown, a shoe designer doing fresh, modern shoes. I do remember saving her information, because there was a vague element of eco-friendly in there. It wasn’t totally clear on what it was, and I was left with the impression that it was a luxury shoe brand with a few sustainable initiatives here and there.
It turns out that the L.A.-based designer is actually a huge eco-nerd. It’s just that she chooses to lead with the style, instead of the ethical element (I guess you could say she doesn’t want her customers to pity shop her designs). When I popped in her booth at the Capsule fashion show a couple weeks ago and sat down with her for an interview, I also found out that she’s smart, articulate, and down to earth – a real pleasure to talk with.
“We have a thorough sustainability concept for the whole brand,” she told me, while buyers for East Coast luxury stores wandered by. “We call it reverence for life. That falls into three spheres: environment, animals, and the humans, both in terms of labor and the comfort of the shoe wearer.”
It may be her guiding principle, but she doesn’t put it on a banner. “Most of the stores that we are in are not eco based,” she says. “The reason I began this in the first place is because I always loved Margiela, Dries van Noten, all the Antwerp Six. I’ve always chosen clothes carefully, and there were no shoe options that were made without leather or sustainably. My vision was to be on the shelves next to my favorite brands. I want people to be drawn initially to the design. I think everything should be done this way, so I don’t need to ram it down people’s throats. If the customer has an option of A or B, and B is made consciously, of course they would choose that. So we’ve been staying away from the vegan/eco brand positioning, because we don’t want to be pigeonholed. I think it’s more influential for the normal fashionistas to wearing us. Now we’re getting so much feedback from vegans and the environmental community, which I welcome. But I want this to be just a good luxury brand. ”
Sydney herself is 95 percent vegan, though she admits she would probably have cheese when she went to Paris the next week. “A lot of vegan brands, on their websites they have images of mutilated animals, ” she says, “all these heavy things. That’s the opposite experience of what I want to give customers. I want them to be inspired, and moved, and happy.”
Have you ever heard about how giving creative parameters can yield more interesting work? So it is for abstaining from animal products in her work. “Leather is so easy to work with. It’s skin, so you can do gorgeous things with it,” Sydney points out. “Because we’re not using leather, we’re looking at alternative materials that are as beautiful, and as durable, and interesting – not just leather copies. We usually do 7 to 11 prototypes per style; the average shoemakers might be doing one to two. ”
She picks up a pair of boots. “We have this, which is a synthetic that we’ll be phasing out. It looks like leather, but it’s not as interesting.” Then she picks up another shoe. “This is straw, wheat and different grains, which have been shaven and then bonded to organic cotton, with a wax covering.” I point out a metallic shoe – it doesn’t look eco-friendly at all. “This is made out of partially recycled plastic bottles,” she says. “All the wood is sustainably harvested alder wood from North America. We’re using natural rubber for the soles. The metals that we use are all L.A. eco-metals, so they don’t have the same processing a lot of metal has. The shoelaces are organic cotton.”
It’s clear that Sydney does a lot more work than the average shoe designer. “It’s a process. We’re developing a lot of materials in-house in collaboration with an Italian supplier. They’re doing amazing work; they have beautiful facilities and sustainability parameters. We’re experimenting between coconut fiber for the insoles and different recycled materials. We were using coconut exclusively, but that hardens over time, so we’re changing it up a little bit. Now we’re developing a lot of our own glues, water-based glues and non-toxic glues. We’re doing so much experimentation because nobody has really done this before. We’ve been figuring it out as we go along.”
She says she’s had to drop some suppliers who weren’t willing to work with her on these issues. Her honesty about supply chain logistics is refreshing. “The transparency of the supply chain is so challenging. We have magnet closures, and to trace the magnet is extremely challenging. We’re in very close touch with the magnet company, but even their ability to trace the metals is impossible.”
She also gets feedback from Kate Fletcher, head of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London, who signs off on their decisions and wrote up their sustainability report. “It’s almost like the lesser of the evils, we have two options and they both have different strengths and weakness. She helps us navigate that.”
“Initially I was so frustrated because I wanted it to be a cradle-to-cradle concept. I wanted at the end of the life cycle of the shoe to be able to bury it, and that would be it. But of course that’s not possible. We’ve come to the realization we have to make baby steps. With each collection we’re trying to get a little better.”
In the past few years, she’s seen a shift in the mentality of stores and brands toward embracing sustainability. “Initially people were really unsure about what we were doing. We would approach stores and they would have no interest in this at all. Kering, the big luxury conglomerate – they own Stella McCartney, Gucci, Alexander McQueen – they just hired Kate Fletcher as their sustainability manager in the past few months.”
“There’s a huge new awareness that we have to do this, and we have no choice. This is the future. That has been really exciting.”