It takes a lot of effort to make a shoe aficionado fall in love with sustainable footwear - a task almost, if not more, challenging than convincing a dedicated carnivore eat tofu three times a day. Except when we are talking about Sydney Brown, an LA-based footwear label founded by an American-born designer with an idea of merging luxury and environment in a holistic, mind-body-soul nourishing, way that would benefit both the stylish Cinderellas and the planet.
WHO: Sydney Brown, an American shoe designer, vegan, music promoter and dog lover with a penchant for Dries Van Noten, Yoji Yamamoto and Christophe Lemaire
WHAT: Sustainable made-to-last footwear influenced by the Japanese concept of all objects having a soul, each shoe hand-crafted in Los Angeles using eco-friendly materials including coconut fibres, organic cotton, bonded cork and wood.
WHY: Because these shoes are beautiful, unique, stylish and incredibly comfortable, each spotting that little something, a detail, a finishing touch that sets them apart from anything else you've seen or tried.
LOOK FOR: the wedges, the sandals, the derby with a beautiful Alder wood platform soles, very chic and elegant ankle boots and classic lace-ups with a copper-covered heel.
What does fashion mean to you?
To me, it's an expressive sensibility that reflects individuality and/or novelty.
Why do you think the society has become so obsessed with fashion? Or it is something else, not just fashion?
I think it is more about consumption in general than fashion. People seem to be on the lookout for the latest and greatest - whether it is fashion or technology. The new celebrity culture infatuation has also contributed to this greatly.
It seems that fast fashion happened as a result of this... How do you feel about it?
As a whole, I think it should be criminalised, but even slight shifts that fast fashion brands can do in terms of sustainable production have vast ramifications as their footprint is so massive. Their opportunity to shift the global landscape is incredible.
Do you think that sustainable fashion is just another trend, a hot topic? Or something to stay?
It has to be here to stay - this is just the beginning! There's still a stigma with the term "sustainable fashion". It often conjures up images of granola, frumpy or hippy fashion. There needs to be a shift in perceiving this. To me it can mean conscious, careful and intelligent design.
Can luxury fashion be sustainable and how?
For me, true luxury goods are consciously and sustainably made, with every detail deliberated upon.
Do you believe that it is possible to change the current fashion supply chain? And what are the main obstacles, if any, for creating sustainable and eco-friendly collections?
Yes, it is possible and necessary to change the current supply chain and make it more sustainable! For footwear, non-toxic or non-petroleum-based vegan and eco-friendly materials are more expensive, harder to work with and more difficult to source. We've had to develop a lot of our own, as they hand't existed previously. There are a lot of exciting developments coming in the next three to five years, so hopefully soon this will be much more mainstream!
What inspired you to start your own brand in the first place?
It all began with a New Year's resolution of January 2010 to stop buying leather. I had always felt conflicted about buying leather and not eating meat, as I had been a vegetarian for 20+ years. Within about a week of my experiment, I needed shoes for an event and realised that there was nothing available on the luxury market for sustainable-made, animal-free shoes, that fit my aesthetic. I realised there was a huge opportunity to do something about it, so my journey began there.
Where di you learn the craft of shoe making?
I apprenticed with a shoemaker in LA for a year and learned the craft all the way from pattern-making to lasting. I then moved to Europe and worked in factories in Italy, Portugal and the UK for two years. It will take a lifetime of learning and I'm actively learning new skills every day.
What was the most challenging about making vegan shoes that would look and feel luxurious? As you have already mentioned, footwear can be particularly tricky when it comes to style and right aesthetics....
Non-leather materials are generally more difficult to work with than leather. This means that the last development and pattern-making process are much more involved. The initial prototyping then takes longer on all fronts. For us, because we are doing all production in-house, we have the luxury of taking the time to refine all aspects of this, and the design then reflects this synthesis. I find myself designing and refining now in anticipation of the production process.
How does your personal style affect your designs?
In my personal style as well as my designs, I try to be as minimal as possible and without a lot of embellishment. In my designs, the conservation of materials is always a primary goal.
Where to you look for inspiration and how do you choose which materials to use?
For every collection's inspiration, I choose a California nature scene and give it a soundtrack to begin the design process. Regarding the materials to use, the core tenets of my brand revolve around the concept of "reverence for life". This respect for life is extended to three spheres: human - working conditions, fair labor practices, foot health and shoe comfort for wearers; animal - no materials derived from animal products; and environment - minimum use of hazardous substances and non-renewable resources, low energy and water consuming materials and processes, and minimum waste production. These principles dictate the materials that we use - currently much of what we are developing in-house - a lot of bonded corks and straw materials.
How long does it usually take to make a pair of shoes?
About 20 hours, from start to finish.
Which part of the process is most exciting for you?
Sadly, the design process is only a small part of the entire business. The design and material development are my favourites. Also, scouting for landscapes and producing the photoshoots are always a big adventure.
Is there a pair of shoes in your collections that you love the most?
The Clogs are my go-to shoes, as they seem to go with almost everything and are so easy to wear.
Do you have any tips for taking care of eco-friendly footwear?
They are basically the same as leather shoes in terms of care. Our cork shoes can be polished with standard shoe polish when needed.
What should we expect from Sydney Brown in 2015/2016? Is there anything you are particularly excited about?
We are in the process of developing sneakers, which will hopefully be launched soon!
5 THINGS ABOUT SYDNEY BROWN
Your style in three words... Comfortable, wearable, easy
Guilty pleasure... No pleasure should be guilty.
Favourite quote or motto... "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Mahatma Gandhi
One thing people don't know or would be surprised to learn about you... I used to be in a metal band in Detroit :)
Success is... doing what you are passionate about, in balance with spending time with loved ones.
Photo source: Sydney Brown Spring/Summer 2015 collection, c/o Sydney Brown