In a bid to get through to a cooler audience the new Allbirds Riser has just “widened the aperture” and shown the world what can be done with natural materials.
“It doesn’t have to be all single piece uppers” says Ashley Comeaux, Vice President of Product Design at Allbirds talking to me over zoom. Ashley was previously the Footwear Design Director at Nike and has been in the footwear game for over 14 years so she knows the turf. It took years of researching and tinkering to craft a shoe in a wool fabric made specifically for footwear and the Allbirds ongoing mantra to build better things was one of the main attractions for Ashley. “During the pandemic, like everyone else, I was looking at the state of the world and wanted to do my part towards an industry change and to influence how we made the world a better place””
Like everything that Allbirds make the Riser is designed for all day comfort and uses a mixed material base with details and accentuated heel. It’s a step up and away from the orthopaedic form of the merino wool shoe brand that revolutionised the shoe industry. Cool definitely wasn’t a factor in the soft and pliable slipper foot that took the world by storm but the Riser is definitely competing for sneaker prestige.
“There are so many more lines and levers we can take advantage of now” says Ashley. Understanding the ins and outs of shoe culture and contemplating what she calls the ‘je ne sais quoi’ factor of shoes and what makes them cool is part of her job but it’s the sense of attitude that a shoe gives that is essential to its design.” As women we can wake up one morning and feel quite femme or wake up one day and feel more masculine and you can express that in your shoes”.
Function and fashion is the ongoing tension but when both align it’s a smash hit. The shift to versatile footwear is here to stay and Ashley admits these days more and more people don’t want the outrageously expensive high tech statement sneaker. They want authenticity and values. Her job as a creator has been to bring together the best of the natural materials and show how they can be more expressive and more styleful and still have the core tenets of what Allbirds hold true as a brand.
In a lot of ways she says Allbirds is the underdog in the footwear industry relative to the footwear space but she loves being inside a company and seeing from the inside how it all unfolds. “Getting a sneaker from sketch to retail is about 18 to 24 months give or take.”
The process involves consumer testing, meaning a select group of ‘shoe testers ( who knew that was a job? wear the shoes for about a week and report back before the design is greenlit. Does she get a kick out of seeing her shoe worn out on the street? You bet. Arch support, comfort and the hard core principles of good design that doesn’t kill the planet. What’s not to love?
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