Sydney Brown’s luxury, ethical footwear collection is nearly unrivaled in the current market. Largely inspired by the ten years she spent living in Japan, it was then the aesthetic for the collection, came alive. Gorgeous fabric and innovative form take the lead in the shoes Brown designs in her Los Angeles atelier, the shoes are free of animal products and use eco-friendly materials such as coconut insoles, recycled and sustainable uppers, and reclaimed wooden soles. Brown is one of few spearheading the consciously-designed footwear trend.
What’s your design experience like? What were you doing before launching your namesake shoe line?
Before shoes, I was a music promoter in Japan for many years. I’m still actively organizing and curating our annual Nagano festival, Taico Club. This allows me access to so much new music, which I then draw from in my design process.
In the collection development process, I always first begin with a California nature scene – this is a main inspiration for each collection. From there, I choose my soundtrack to that location. With the scene and sound in mind, I then try to capture that atmosphere within the materials and lines of the collection.
Did you find others had a conflict with their personal beliefs and their footwear choices?
I began the brand because I loved great design but had very few options that were animal-free. I thought that there must be others who also felt this conflict, but I had no idea that there were so many. The response has been so encouraging!
Can you tell us about the design process – how is it different from non-ethical, non-sustainable brands?
The core tenets of the 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.
That said, because we don’t use leather, the materials that we use 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. 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 and where do you source your materials?
We are constantly researching and experimenting, and R&D is one of the largest areas of the company. We source many of the uppers in Italy and the technical fabrics are either Swiss or Dutch. The wood is sustainability-harvested California Alder wood or reclaimed wood that we source here in LA. We are also now in the process of developing a lot of our own materials and glues in-house, so with each collection our aim is to become more and more sustainable.
Who are your contemporaries in this market besides Stella McCartney – seems like the playing field is wide open?
It certainly is! There aren’t any others doing luxury in a sustainable way. It was initially challenging for brand positioning as we weren’t a classic luxury label and we tried to stay away from the vegan and eco brands, so buyers weren’t sure where we fit in. Now people are definitely catching on and realizing that we are empowering them by giving them this option to consume consciously.
What designers do you love seeing paired with your shoes?
I love seeing the shoes paired with my favorites such as Zero + Maria Cornejo; Christophe Lemaire; Dries Van Noten; Annitan,; and Yoji Yamamoto.
There’s an amazing design culture happening in LA right now – what’s it like to be part of it?
It is really exciting! Black Crane, Shaina Mote, Raquel Allegra, Building Block, LD Tuttle, Cerre, Kieley Kimmel, Rodarte, and many others are based in LA. It is so inspiring to have everyone here together and the options for collaborations are endless. As I was basically alone when I began the company, it is now so nice to have access to innovative designers in the same neighborhood!
LA is such a special place – what are you top three things to do in the city?
Because it is warm here all year round (very different from Detroit where I grew up!), my regular activities include: Malibu beaches, occasional hikes and eating at LA’s many amazing restaurants!
Where do you see yourself and the brand in 5 years? 10 years?
We are planning on expanding into sneakers and men’s shoes. We are gradually expanding more and more into high-tech production. We are already beginning to implement 3D printing and scanning, so in 10 years, the technology will be incredibly exciting — less waste and more innovative materials!