Hot wool sneakers

NEW YORK • The perfect airport shoe is hard to come by. It should be stylish and cushioned, not overly sporty and slip on easily. Mr Tim Brown, a former professional soccer player from New Zealand, thinks he has the killer application for such a shoe - wool.

He has started allbirds, an e-commerce sneaker brand selling one simple model: a foam and rubber outsole stitched to a single piece of merino wool. Dubbed The Wool Runner, the kicks come in four colours and cost US$95 (S$133).

It is sleek and cosy. It goes on and off with ease. And as feet swell, it gives without pinching because the wool breathes and stretches a bit.

"It does all these amazing things for free that you can't really get with synthetic fibres," Mr Brown said.

Allbirds is the latest in a growing cadre of brands spinning wool into sneakers. Baabuk, a Swiss start-up, says a line of wool sneakers it launched in October is getting traction all over the world. Maha- bis, a British start-up, has a line of wool slippers that come with detachable polyurethane soles.

Even Nike is getting into the game. Swoosh fans can order eight Nike models in different wool fabrics supplied by Pendleton, an apparel brand based near Nike's Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters. And Converse launched a collaboration with Woolrich in November, stitching fuzzy plaids in place of the standard canvas in its sneakers.

Designers at allbirds said they set out to make the simplest shoe possible.
Designers at allbirds said they set out to make the simplest shoe possible. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ALLBIRDS

The wool sales pitch is simple: It is green and it is good. Wool is relatively lightweight, fairly tough, weather resistant, breathable and anti-microbial.

Baabuk founder Dan Witting said: "It's a natural Gore-Tex. You know what the Bedouin, the nomads, wear in the desert? Wool."

Wool is one of a rash of new materials that sneaker entrepre- neurs are using to get attention in a bid for consumers.

Mr Brown said big brands do not use wool more widely because it is relatively expensive. Spinning up fibres and fabrics from petroleum offers a far better profit margin.

There is no telling how much wool will weave its way into the shoe market, but early signs point to serious traction.

Allbirds, which  started as a campaign on crowd-funding website Kickstarter, is the brainchild of a professional athlete looking for something to do in retirement. The campaign gathered US$120,000 in four days and Mr Brown had a waiting list of 6,000 customers. Now, two years later, those folks will get a chance to buy the sneakers.

He has two warehouses and funding to make new models. About US$2.7 million of venture capital poured in when he pitched wool sneakers in New York and Silicon Valley.

"We're tapping into an innovation angle that's very interesting. We think it could be big."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline 'Hot wool sneakers'. Print Edition | Subscribe