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Allbirds releases some new kicks, and founder Tim Brown talks New Zealand design

A year on after Allbirds launched its Wool Runner shoe, the brand is flying high, from celebrity endorsements to a Purple Pin at the Best Awards. This week, the company expanded its product offering with the Wool Lounger - the more fashion-conscious cousin of the Wool Runner. Founder Tim Brown has a chat about the new product's design.

Though they're called the 'Lounger', the company says the shoe is for anything but relaxing. Instead, like the Wool Runner, its first product off the ranks, it's for moving around and getting out in the world.

The shoe is a merino slip-on and made from the exact same fabric as the Wool Runner. 

The video for the launch, which was created by Wrestler, features a cameo from founder Tim Brown and his hometown of Wellington and some good-natured ribbing of Kiwis' tendency to talk fast in their strange accents via subtitles. 

Brown dubs it a slightly more outgoing version of the Wool Runner, or "Sort of like the Wool Runners, but after a couple of drinks".




Design is about finding problems, attempting to solve them and then repeating the process. And Brown says the Lounger shoe has been a part of Allbird's design vision from the very beginning. 

"For several years we have tried to resolve what, in some ways, has been a harder design challenge than the Wool Runner. While the Runner has laces, a throat, and a tongue the slip-on has nothing. There is simply nowhere to hide and it is all about form. Getting that right has taken two plus years and hundreds of prototypes.

"At the end of the day in this wool series of shoes, the superfine NZ merino wool is the hero. As designers, we've tried to get out of the way and create a platform for the wool to create this incredible level of comfort. The Wool Runner does that spectacularly. However, in some ways if you were designing the perfect shoe for this material then the Lounger would be that shoe. It just feels like the perfect merging of form and function and we're really proud of where we landed."

In an interview for Idealog's 2017 Design Issue alongside designer Jamie McLellan (watch for the video next week), Brown reflected on the previous design iterations of the hugely popular Wool Runner.

He said the many different versions of the shoe was clear evidence of “the Kiwi sense of chipping away, the DIY mentality.” And, from a design point of view, he believes that this attitude is actually very helpful.

“An American company probably would have raised money at the beginning. They would have gone and found the best people in the world and they would have just done it from the start. We went on this long, winding journey, but we had to go through that process. And I think if we hadn’t done that at the beginning, we wouldn't have been as good as we are now.” 

He believes this slightly haphazard, experimental attitude has incubated a world-class design culture in New Zealand, although this can hold us back in other ways.

“I think that New Zealand is operating at a very, very high level from a design point of view,” says Brown. “We know that. We might not be great operationally, or at scaling businesses or accessing capital, but the design in our products, and our product design, is operating at just an immense level. I think we've been able to cut through in a very crowded category and design has been a huge contributor to that.”

Brown believes some of our local companies are also at the cutting-edge when it comes to modern branding.

“The level of brand execution is so impressive across the board.”

As part of its ‘Allbirds And’ series, which sees it collaborate with companies from different, creative cities, it headed to the capital recently and partnered with the Wellington Chocolate Factory, Supreme Coffee and Garage Project to create limited edition shoes. And for Brown, Garage Project stood out as an exemplar of looking at what everyone else is doing and not doing that. Where many brands feel the need to maintain their brand colours and adhere to their brand rules, he says their product line is always changing and evolving and the playful tone in its communications creates a sense of momentum.

“It’s almost like an Instagram feed,” he says. 

In the Netflix documentary Abstract: The Art of Design, the episode featuring Nike’s head designer Tinker Hatfield showed that each shoe he designed had a story, that each tiny detail was sweated over and that, over time, you make progress. And it’s exactly the same for Allbirds.

“It's continued to creep up on us,” says McLellan, who is set to move to San Francisco. “It started well and it's gone better and better. It’s been fantastic. The really lovely thing is that we're continuing to improve the product. I think probably like lots of designers, you're never quite satisfied, there's always that next thing, always that thing that you'd do differently ... This family tree is continuing to grow and we’ve made a conscious decision not to talk about it like a 2.0, not to try to conform to this trap of obsoleting old stock or isolating customers. We like the idea that these things live, and grow, and evolve, and maybe your original Wool Runner might actually look quite different by the time you've honed it and evolved it, in two or three years’ time.”

The business will probably look a bit different too, or at least have some much bigger numbers attached to it. But, like the shoe itself, the central tenets will remain.

“We're 25 people now,” Brown says. “We’re in San Francisco with some different people in New Zealand helping us out. All our customer service stuff is in-house so if there's a problem, we get feedback straight away and we're able to interact quickly and plug that straight back into improving the product. That feedback loop is super tight. We don't have a wholesaler or some retailer telling us a story and not giving us the bad news.

"We also don't have seasonal releases. We're not having to release a shoe on the first [of] August for the fashion calendar. We release a product or update when we want to. And I think that's a unique position to be in.”