Sydney Brown is a recent addition for us at MooShoes. Over the years, at our shops in NYC + LA and here online, we've been making a conscious effort to carry fewer brands with opaque or unclear production practices. On the other side of that coin, we've also been working to carry more lines that tout transparency in their production and hold on high humane working conditions and eco-friendly manufacturing and materials.
Luxury vegan shoe company Sydney Brown most definitely fits that bill. As they state on their web site: "Sydney Brown, an American-born designer, founded her eponymous label due to her conviction that luxury could be produced in an environmentally-friendly way. The brand aesthetic is pared down and understated with the focus on luxurious materials, sculptural lines and unusual detailing."
Co-creative director + Los Angeles store-runner Troy Farmer took some time to talk with the company's namesake to talk about how her brand was born and why ethics beyond veganism are so important to her work.
Feature photo by Joseph Cultice.
Troy: So, for anyone not familiar with the brand, can you give us the mission or vision or elevator pitch or whatever you want to call it for Sydney Brown (the company...not you....)?
Sydney: Sydney Brown is a design-driven, sustainable luxury brand. It’s ideals revolve around the concept of “reverence for life.” This respect for life is extended to three spheres: human, animal, environment. It celebrates the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence on other forms of life. The rights of one species is linked to the rights of others, meaning that recognition, acknowledgement and respect for the life of all things are essential to the brand.
Most excellent. I read that you studied + worked in Japan for a number of years—we actually just got back from our first visit to Japan and absolutely loved it. Where were you there and what were you doing in terms of work and schooling?
Yes, it has been 17 years I’ve now worked in Japan! I initially moved there to do a masters program in sound design. I barely began the program before I shifted gears and instead began an electronic music promotion company. I grew up in Detroit and knew many of the techno artists touring in Japan, so this was a natural fit and wonderful opportunity for me. Although I sold my half of the company in 2008, I had co-founded the Taico Club music festival, based in Nagano, Japan, which I still curate and host annually. It has become Japan’s largest charity festival, supporting local environmental NGOs. We just had our 14th edition a couple weeks ago!
Japanese design and aesthetic is a major influence on me. The national religion of Japan is Shintoism, in which people believe—in extremely simplified terms—that objects have a soul. If you create something, part of your soul is embedded into the object. This concept is extremely important for me, which is why I work on the shoes myself. There is a small part of me in every pair! I love to have time with the shoes before they embark on their adventures all over the world!
Wow, that festival looks excellent—I hope you caught Little Simz yourself. We love her live show. (IF YOU'RE IN THE HOUSE MAKE SOME NOISE!)
How did the sound design + music lead you to the shoe biz then (note the total avoidance of any and all 'show biz' puns here)?
After selling my music company, I moved to Los Angeles and contemplated my next steps. I enrolled in a Spiritual Psychology masters program in 2008 and as part of the program, I began to examine all aspects of my consciousness and my consumption as well—what I ate, what I wore, which companies I supported, etc. I had always been conflicted about wearing leather as I had been a vegetarian since the age of 16, so my New Year’s resolution of 2010 was to stop buying leather.
After about two weeks into this, I had a big event in LA and needed shoes. I realized that there were no luxury vegan options on the market except for Stella McCartney. Her price point was too high for me and my aesthetic was quite different. I realized that there was a huge hole in the market for people like me, who wanted design-driven, sustainably-made, luxury vegan shoes. I then sought out a shoemaker in LA with whom I apprenticed for one year and learned the craft from pattern-making, through lasting and heel-development. I began making shoes for friends and weddings and the brand grew from there. I then moved to Europe and worked in shoe factories in the UK, Portugal, and Italy.
Nice. Why was it important to you to create a company and product that was more holistically ethical, concerned not only with the lack of animal-derived materials but also made in fair working working conditions while minimizing environmental impact?
The fashion industry is the second largest global polluter after big oil! The environmental and human ramifications of this are unconscionable. To create more “stuff” in the world in itself is so loaded. I would never embark on producing anything if it weren’t as environmentally and socially sound as possible.
So glad to hear that from you and just see more demand for this kind of production and thinking in the marketplace too.
One of the...challenges for us a MooShoes is explaining to some customers the added financial cost to them for accounting for responsible business practices. Have you hut many roadblocks along those lines as you built Sydney Brown the brand and how have you dealt with those?
When I began, I had never worked in fashion and had to simply figure out everything myself. I never did and still don’t have any partners, so I am responsible for every aspect of the company. The learning curve has been overwhelming much of the time!
Many people assume that if the shoes aren’t made of leather, then they are made with cheap, toxic alternatives. The truth is that the development of our materials takes years. I had to basically re-engineer the shoe! I had my own factory in Los Angeles for three years that was primarily dedicated to research and development. There are 15 components in a simple shoe, for example, so if I couldn’t find sustainable or organic options, I had to develop them myself. To trace the supply chain of every single component is incredibly challenging. From the beginnings of the cotton seed being planted, how it is grown, who harvests it—the whole life cycle before it is even developed into fabric—I was chasing this. For example, just imagine tracing the metals in snaps or buckles! Where is the original ore mined, what are the social and political conditions of the workers, etc.
Sounds like it could be overwhelming at times, but, again, even the fact that there is this demand in the marketplace and that it can be met—understandably, with much more work involved—is a huge gain, I think. Can you go into your materials a little bit? I know you seek out the higher-end, more luxurious materials—how do some of them differ from your run-of-the-mill vegan (or non-vegan) shoe?
The main material that we use is bonded cork. Every summer we harvest the cork in southern Portugal, then shave, press, dye it and then bond it to organic cotton. This is an incredibly labor-intensive process and takes time. We can only harvest the cork of one tree every nine years, as that is duration of the regrowth process. If we sustainably harvest the cork like this, it is a renewable resource that will last hundreds of years.
The wood for our heels and platforms comes from PEFC-certified German beech wood. Our soles are made from natural rubber, supporting indigenous tribes of the Amazon.
90% of shoes generally are made with pig-fat glue. It took us over four years, working with adhesive chemists in Italy, the USA, and Portugal to finally develop a suitable alternative.
How is the iridescent material constructed? It's so impressive visually.
Like all of our materials, we developed our iridescent materials in-house over the years. This material is made from polymers derived from natural renewable sources and is an extremely high-tech, future fabric. To develop and produce this is incredibly involved and much more expensive to produce than leather. We are still working on improving this. We are far from perfect, but we try to refine it with every collection. The creation of 100% solvent-free, petroleum-free products, with zero environmental impact, is the near-future goal for our R&D.
Was there a conscious decision to elevate ethical/sustainable fashion a bit from your end; battle the misconception that all vegan or ethical fashion is stunted in terms of fashion-forward-ness?
Yes! Many people still think of vegan footwear as being granola, hippy, clown-shoes. We have aimed to be on the shelves next to luxury brands, so that if customers see two pairs of well-designed, beautiful shoes, ideally they will choose the consciously-constructed option!
We were just discussing this at an event for EcoSessions recently. I feel like that's the ultimate goal; creating this product (be it shoes or whatever) that can stand next to its rival that uses animal leather and look just as stylish, be just as well-made in worker-friendly conditions, just as or more eco-friendly, and cost no more than the non-cruelty-free product; eliminating the barriers to shop cruelty-free in all aspects of life. Then what kind of asshole would actually chose the product that does hurt animals/people/the earth?
Switching gears though, we love what you've got so far, but any plans to expand the men's offerings in the future?
Yes! For SS18 we are adding a chukka style and we will slowly grow from there. This is a new market for me and I want to be as thoughtful and prudent in the development as possible.
Personally, I have to say I'm very much looking forward to that. Anything else lined up for future release that you're excited about and can talk to now?
For SS18, we are launching a new material made from the vegetable, fennel!
We are constantly experimenting and after a couple years of development, this is finally ready for production. It almost looks like a psychedelic print, so we are very excited about this!
That's absolutely rad. Also rad—I really dig your site design; love the video loops for the men's + women's collection. Who designed all of that for you, if you don't mind my asking?
I designed the website myself and the video is a collaboration between myself and a wonderful filmmaker in Porto, Marcelo Graf Reis.
Awesome again! Well, we can't wait to see what else is to come from you. Thanks again for taking the time to talk, Sydney.