Wool Runner creators' madcap idea becomes reality

​Tim Brown always wanted to make a shoe from wool. Now that dream has been kickstarted firmly into the real world.

When Peter Snell lined up for the 800-metre final at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, he was the odd one out. You just had to look at his feet. The other seven finalists donned track shoes from their sponsor, fledgling brand adidas; Snell wore a pair handmade by his coach, Arthur Lydiard.

Auckland-born Lydiard is credited with inventing jogging: the idea that you might go running simply to keep fit rather than to become an Olympian. Lydiard also preached the gospel of simple, lightweight running shoes more than four decades before the advent of Vibram FiveFingers and Nike Frees. He even tried to start his own shoe company, but it never got going.

Now a young Kiwi brand is poised to pick up Lydiard’s baton with an innovative running shoe that makes use of our most plentiful resource: sheep.

Tim Brown always wanted to make a wool shoe. The idea’s so obvious, he says, that he can’t believe no-one else is doing it. When you think about it, wool is ideal for footwear, and not just because it doesn’t smell. It’s antibacterial, regulates temperature, wicks moisture, dries quickly and is really, really hardwearing. But Brown quickly found out why wool shoes don’t exist.

“There was no fabric that existed that could be used for footwear,” he says. And making any average shoe wasn’t on the cards. “We wanted to make a performance shoe. That’s always been my dream.”

‘We’ is Brown’s brother Paul, plus friend and business partner Mike Wilson. They’ve got an athletic pedigree; Tim Brown and Wilson both played football while earning university degrees in the States, then for the All Whites.

But with no fabric to work from, the trio parked the wool idea and came up with a shoe they could source materials for. With creative input from Wellington product designer Lee Gibson, they launched ToBe in 2007 – a range of three sneakers made from white Whanganui leather. In line with their love of understated, elegant design, ToBe sneakers are the polar opposite of brightly coloured, loudly branded hi-tops. Delightfully, the crinkles, grain and imperfections of the leather are retained in the finished product, because sneakers are meant to look worn-in – even from the start.

These days Brown calls ToBe their practice shoes. “It was very much an experiment,” he says. “There’s no way you can dive into making a performance shoe straight off the bat if you don’t know what you’re doing. The leather sneaker thing was really about learning how to make a shoe. We made a ton of mistakes, but ultimately we made a really good product.”

ToBe released three ranges of sneakers between 2007 and 2011. The team banked knowledge about design, materials and manufacturing for later – and ToBe’s success helped fund research into wool fabric.

The wool shoe dream had an unlikely ally in Wellington. “There’s a great deal of desire within the New Zealand government to find new ways to commercialise [wool],” says Brown.

Wool’s density is measured in microns, and the spectrum runs from super-fine merino at 15-17 microns (the kind Icebreaker brought to fame) to carpet at 34 microns and over. But there aren’t many product applications for the middle swathe of microns, which become rugs, upholstery and not much else.

“That mid-micron wool is a little bit tougher and it’s perfect for use in footwear,” says Brown. “So we pitched it to Wool Industry Research and we got a grant with AgResearch to develop our own fabric.”

The timing was perfect. AgResearch’s textile engineers had been working on a stab-proof wool fabric for the Australian Defense Forces, but the project had just been abandoned.

“The first sample we got was some of this fabric made with Kevlar and wool. It was indestructible. We sent it over to our factory and it ruined all the blades on the machines.”

It might’ve been army-grade but it also cost about $250 per square foot. “They re-engineered it – and we had a bespoke fabric just for us that we call Fitwool.”

Brown says they could have stopped there and sold Fitwool as a raw material to shoe manufacturers, “which was probably the easy way to go and what most people were telling us”. But where’s the fun in that?

The minimalist running shoe category is a $2 billion market in the United States – with $1.4 billion of that belonging to the Nike Free, a lightweight, simple iteration of the brand’s heavy, structural sports shoes.

Minimal shoes really got going after a 2010 Harvard study found heavily cushioned running shoes change runners’ strides, while slimmer, lighter shoes could help prevent repetitive stress injuries. Now everyone’s after a slice of the almost-barefoot pie, with most brands adding a low-profile shoe to their offering over the past five years.

It also encouraged Brown that running shoe design was something a small company could attempt. “You didn’t need to involve NASA and have a thousand engineers working on some fancy rubber,” he says. “Paradoxically a simple, really basic shoe is actually better for you.”

But Brown knew they’d need a bit of help to get the Wool Runner right. Asking around led them to Auckland-based product designer Jamie McLellan, who’d designed an award-winning sports shoe as part of his Massey University degree back in 2008.

The team knew the most crucial aspect of the Wool Runner would be its adaptability – there’s a huge market for running shoes worn for style rather than performance. “Eighty percent of Nike Frees are never run in,” Brown points out.

McLellan designed the Wool Runner to fit in the Venn diagram overlap between fashion and sport, while retaining the DNA of ToBe’s clean, austere design. Although they’ve renamed the company Three Over Seven, there’s no visible brand – the shoe has a true unassuming Kiwi personality.

“We’ve targeted this product specifically at the everyday athlete,” says Brown. “The shoes are as comfortable with a pair of jeans as they are as a running shoe and that’s been quite intentionally done.”

You don’t need socks and they don’t smell – something Brown has been busy testing out.

“I’ve gone 40 days now and the shoes don’t smell – I wore them on the flight back from London and they feel fresh as a daisy. I stick my nose in them. I’m sure people think I’m weird.”

Bootstrapping it as a three-man company with a research and development bill that runs into the hundreds of thousands hasn’t been easy – so the team turned to Kickstarter to fund the Wool Runner’s initial production. “We couldn’t do it otherwise,” says Brown.

The campaign raised more than $118,000 in 10 days, selling out the first production run of shoes, and almost quadrupling their initial target of $30,000. Later, Brown and team aim to make Wool Runners available online via 3over7.com and through a few hand-selected retailers.

In the meantime, there are intellectual property matters around Fitwool to sort out. Brown’s heading back to London, having beaten 160 entrepreneurs from around the world to a spot on the British government’s inaugural Sirius Programme – which grants him 12,000 pounds, a UK visa and mentorship of the Wool Runner business without sacrificing equity. “It means I can bring on some employees and give it a proper nudge,” Brown says. London is much also handier to the Wool Runner factory in Portugal, which he’s visited a bunch of times.

And Brown’s keeping a weather eye on the future. “Shoe manufacturing is just on the cusp of changing – it hasn’t really changed for hundreds of years. The process is labour intensive, it’s largely handmade and that’s why it’s centred in low-wage economies in Asia and parts of Europe. That’s ripe for disruption. 3D printing and the manufacturing revolution is going to enable us to do things differently.”