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Good wool hunting: The Allbirds story (WATCH)

Rave reviews, impressive sales, celebrity endorsements, a Purple Pin at the Best Awards … The Wool Runner from Allbirds has tapped into the growing desire for ‘anonymous luxury’ and is riding a wave of popularity. But it’s no overnight success. In the presence of about seven years’ worth of prototypes, co-founder Tim Brown and designer Jamie McLellan tell Ben Fahy about the long and winding road they had to travel to bring their vision to life.

Walking into Jamie McLellan’s studio near Wynyard Quarter in Auckland is a slightly surreal experience. Like some kind of illegal speakeasy in New York, you have to walk right through the middle of a sailing shop called Harken and then ascend some stairs at the back (giving a classic Kiwi eyebrow lift/lip raise to the swarthy old seadogs on the shop floor probably isn’t compulsory, but it felt like they might not let me through if I didn’t).

Once upstairs, in stark contrast to the busy retail scene below, you’ll find McLellan’s very considered space. Like any good designer, there are Apple products as far as the eye can see. And inside his own office sits a selection of beautiful objects that he has created over the years: a stunning carbon fibre Avanti bike; an oil diffuser, 3D printed scissors and knives, minifurniture, and a beer tap created specifically for Steinlager Pure on the custom-made shelves; and all around the room stunning high-end chairs, stools, coathooks, tables and lamps.

It’s a very tangible example of the multidisciplinary nature of McLellan’s work. But I’m there to hear about something else; something similarly well-designed and, to many, beautiful, but far cheaper and much more popular than anything else he’s ever been involved with: the Wool Runner, a merino shoe created by New Zealand-born footwear company Allbirds.

Good yarn

The Allbirds story has been told a lot recently, both here in its homeland and, increasingly, overseas. And it’s a very appealing tale. But there’s more than a hint of the classic overnight success narrative to some of the coverage. The trouble is, overnight successes tend to take a number of years and lots of blood, sweat and tears. We wanted to see that evolution with our own eyes, so we got co-founder Tim Brown and McLellan in the same room for something of a family reunion with a selection of the different shoes that had been designed and developed over the past seven years.

Somewhat surprisingly, Brown and McLellan had never seen them all lined up like that in the same place and, just as McLellan’s studio offers a reminder of his impressive oeuvre, so too did the Allbirds family tree show how far they had come since Brown had his initial hunch that there was pent up demand for a simple, comfortable, sustainable, affordable shoe made from merino; a shoe that was somewhere between cheap Chuck Taylors and ridiculously expensive Common Projects.

“Everything had logos on it,” says Brown. “I felt like it was [a] category that was over designed. That's where that idea started. Wool was layered on top of that because we wondered why it hadn’t been done. We applied for a grant from Ag Research and I said ‘look I'd like to make a shoe out of wool’. In typical Kiwi fashion the scientist goes ‘we've actually been playing around with this fabric for a number of years.’ I think that was a development contract they did with the Australian Defence Force to make a bullet-proof wool. It was woven with Kevlar, so it was insanely expensive.”

Brown got his hands on a square of the fabric and sent it over to a factory in Indonesia to make up into a shoe. The factory sent a note soon after saying the fabric had ruined its blades and they couldn’t cut it. But eventually they created the first shoe – or, as they refer to it, “an assemblage of parts”, in 2009. It was a rough and ready blue number that looked like an uncomfortable version of the Dunlop Volley, but the lineage had begun; the patriarch was born.

Help wanted

Brown, who was a professional footballer for around eight years and vice-captained the All Whites at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, says his strength was seeing a niche, spotting an opportunity and starting the ball rolling. While he earned a bachelor of science in design at the University of Cincinnati, he was “never going to be able to craft the aesthetic to the level that was required”. So he asked some of his academic contacts for suggestions on who could assist. McLellan’s name came up a number of times, so he went to him with that first blue shoe and said "I need some help."

“I said ‘I'd love to help’, naively thinking ‘how hard could it be to design a shoe?’” says McLellan, as the dog sitting at his owner’s Allbird-wearing feet sneezes repeatedly (maybe it’s allergic to wool?)

McLellan had previously designed a shoe for his thesis project at Victoria University in Wellington, but he was hesitant to show it to Brown “because it was pretty unusual”.

What isn’t unusual is entrepreneurs biting off more than they can chew. Brown and McLellan both admit to completely underestimating the difficulty of the task they took on. But they chewed hard.

“There are two aspects to making stuff,” says Brown. “There's making the first thing, understanding exactly what you want to make; and then making lots of that same thing. Both those things are just incredibly hard … Making a t-shirt is not hard, relatively speaking. But making a shoe is an engineering project. There's size, there's fit, there's movement, there are so many different dynamics at play. It's incredibly complicated. I don't think that's something we realised. Then you layer two other things on top of that, which is working with a fibre that has never been used in footwear before, and also trying to make these things as sustainably as we can.”

But that naiveté had some benefits. Humans are eternal optimists, and if entrepreneurs knew what they were getting themselves into before they started, most probably wouldn’t start. Plus, their lack of experience also allowed them to think differently.

“We actually had this wonderful lady join our team, Lisa, who has this immense footwear experience,” says Brown. “She gave a presentation on the rules we were breaking and we didn't quite know that we were, because we hadn’t made shoes before. That was a huge, powerful weapon for us in hindsight.”

Survival of the fittest

Like the haircut you had during university, Brown and McLellan seem slightly embarrassed by some of the earlier models as they explain how it all happened.

“There was always the joke that we were making shoes for when someone’s got one leg longer than the other,” says Brown. “We were all ‘Jamie designed another medical shoe.’”

He says some of them probably should have stayed in the archive and while there are plenty on display in the office, they reckon there are probably five times as many samples in total, with lots of subtle silhouette and scaling adjustments made along the way.

“We stuck with it,” says Brown. “I don't think what we were trying to achieve has changed. It was always about the simplest form that we could make. It was always about wool and comfort, and it was always about sustainability and thinking about the use of natural materials … There is no secret to this stuff, it's just a clear insight and then the courage to keep going when it gets hard or when you're laughed at for a good chunk of the way.”

There’s also an art in knowing that you’re heading in the right direction, but possibly travelling down the wrong road. Originally, McLellan says they were focused on the running space and Brown wanted to make a woolen performance shoe.

“Then I think as we started designing, we started to realise that actually we wanted the shoes for ourselves, but also for a slightly different purpose than pure running,” says McLellan. “We talked about the shoe you could run in and then go to the pub and have a pint. Then eventually it just morphed into just a shoe for whatever activity you felt like.”

McLellan says there was no consumer research. It was very intuitive. But one way they gauged market interest was through Kickstarter. Going by the name Three Over Seven at that point, it launched a campaign for the Wool Runner in 2014 after it had refined the design and found better manufacturing partners. It reached its target in four days, raising $70,000 and selling 500 pairs.

“I do think a lot of times people will design in a vacuum, or in the studio, and something works great. The thing for us is we had to release this out into the world and get feedback, whether we liked it or not.”

McLellan says the positive response was enough of an insight to give everyone the confidence to push on through what became “quite an arduous period of time”.

“Resolving the fabric, resolving the shoe, resolving the funding, and figuring out the broader strategy for how to really properly take these shoes to the world and what the brand would be in the longer term … Over my time I've learnt that a good idea will remain a good idea, and sometimes it's about just finding the right time for it or the right home for it. My sense of these things has gotten much clearer over the years. And my sense was always with this idea that it had such legs on it that it just needed to see the light of day beyond the Kickstarter.”

Soon after, Brown teamed up with San Francisco-based engineer Joey Zwillinger and set about raising funds for a public launch. They managed to raise over $10 million from investors like Ben Lehrer and David Gilboa. In 2015, it launched publicly as Allbirds, a subtle nod to the country of origin. But it certainly hasn’t been easy and, according to some close to Brown, there were a few times when he was close to throwing in the towel.

As he said in an earlier interview with Idealog: “You look at it when it’s become public and it looks all glossy, shiny and new and simple. As is always the case, there is a lot of heartache in between the glorious moments. It’s the same with me and my football. We managed to go to a World Cup in 2010 in South Africa. Everyone kind of wanted to be my friend as a footballer then but there were plenty of lonely moments, plenty of on trial moments wandering around the world trying to find a paying gig, doubting yourself, all those sorts of steps before you are able to achieve this great thing at the end.”

KISS

Simplicity has always been a North Star for Brown. And, as many business luminaries have said, simplicity is often harder to achieve than complexity.

“We've gone out to distill something into its simplest form. In some ways there are so many barriers and constraints to what we do, but ultimately we stuck with it and we arrived at a product that, pre-launch, was considered unremarkable. I think we now see that as a compliment. We've made something that's unremarkable and we're proud of that.”

And that unremarkableness – or, as Brown likes to call the category he thinks Allbirds fits into, ‘anonymous luxury’ – has seen it appeal to a very wide range of customers.

Perhaps it’s because of our understated charm, our likeable innocuousness or our general lack of a class system, but many foreigners can’t quite seem to place New Zealanders and it means that we often slide into places/jobs/situations we “shouldn’t” be in. And you could argue that Allbirds is almost the footwear equivalent of that. They fit in to a range of different contexts. As an example of that, Brown and McLellan had just returned from a trip to the South Island, where they met some of the merino farmers who supply the wool, at a pub in Clyde. One of them was wearing his short shorts and a classic ‘ugly’ rugby jersey – the four-panel harlequin top – with the sleeves chopped off. And, rounding out this agrarian ensemble was a pair of well-worn Allbirds (we look forward to the four-panel Allbirds model in an upcoming release).

“I think that's what's so special about the shoes,” says McLellan. “They are not polarising. We have broad appeal from 20-year-olds through to great-uncles. Not many pairs of shoes can do that.”

The Wool Runners have also had plenty of celebrity endorsements – and all for free: Ed O’Neill from Modern Family (but, perhaps more pertinently, Married with Children, where he played surly shoe salesman Al Bundy) is a big supporter; Taika Waititi has been a massive advocate, Brown says; Mindy Kaling is a fan; and one of the most surprising endorsements came from Glenn Beck, the prominent, ultra-conservative US TV host (they say they don’t like to get too political, but how else can you explain Beck’s rapid change of attitude from pro-Trump to pro-Obama in the build up to the election? Maybe it’s the spiritual, natural, sustainable shoe that turned him?)

“We do put a bit of feng shui into them,” Brown says. “I read an article saying logos should never touch the ground, so we took that off.”

There is undoubtedly some skill in seeing where the market is going. Brown saw a shift towards the casualisation of the workplace, the merging of work and play and a growing demand for products that didn’t have logos and overt branding, as evidenced by the popularity of direct-to-consumer brands like Warby Parker, Everlane or DSTLD. As McLellan says, “maybe it's a shift in the value of luxury, or how you assign value to luxury, but I'd argue that these shoes are luxurious at an amazing price point”.

But Brown admits there’s also a fair bit of luck involved. “There are just random people and random things and stuff you couldn't have planned for. We've become this shoe of Silicon Valley and just had this amazing uptake in the tech community. Again, if you were trying to plan for that, it would never happen.”

Dukes of haphazard

Design is about finding problems, attempting to solve them and then repeating the process. Looking over the various iterations of the Wool Runner, Allbirds’ founder Tim Brown says it’s clear evidence of “the Kiwi sense of chipping away, the DIY mentality.” And, from a design point of view, he believes that 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.

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Growing up

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. “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.”

And the slip-on shoe that McLellan was wearing during our interview was released last month.

As the coffers have filled and the investors have invested, Brown says the company has had to refine its processes.

“In the early days it was just trial and error,” he says. “My old man would wear a pair and tell me they weren’t good enough, and Jamie would wear a pair and we'd compare notes. This went on over years and years and years. Now we're doing all the right testing and running through a quite formal procedure for introducing a product to the market.”

While New Zealand farmers grow some of the best merino wool in the world, manufacturing has generally moved to other parts of the world, and Brown says Allbirds has had to seek out specialists to work with the different components.

“I think we're now working with the best people in the world to do what we do,” he says. “We've got a textile mill in Italy that weaves our seventeen-and-a-half micron super fine New Zealand merino into a fabric that's incredible. We've got a Korean manufacturing partner who is just amazing. It just took a long time to find them.”

The law of the business jungle is that challenger brands generally spot a trend, fill a gap, make hay while the sun shines and the big, slower-moving behemoths eventually catch on – either by mimicking or buying. That’s starting to happen now, so can a relatively small company like Allbirds compete with the likes of Adidas or Nike? Can it continue to profit from the amazingly positive word of mouth it’s receiving? Or could the company be a target for acquisition?

“Adidas has released a shoe with a little bit of wool in it, a Stan Smith variation, which is a huge compliment,” says Brown.

“We're starting to define a new category. We're getting the industry to look more closely at natural materials, which they've largely ignored for synthetics and leathers, so that's a great thing. Ultimately as a business we're making and selling shoes, but as an organisation we're trying to really change an industry, and that's what we're excited about. That's what we're driven by.”

And with that bold statement we shake hands and finish up our interview. I thank Brown and McLellan for introducing me to the family, organise another reunion in 10 years and think about stealing one of the beautiful lamps. As I’m walking through the shop below, past the winches and canvas products, I give an eyebrow lift/lip raise to the boys and look down. I was already a big fan of the black Allbirds I had purchased a few months before because they lived up to the hype and, true to one of the most glowing reviews, were pretty close to “walking on slippers made of clouds”. But after listening to their life story, seeing firsthand the huge number of different iterations and hearing about how much skill and dedication was required to bring them into the world, I appreciated them even more.