In 2010, Sydney Brown, who had previously worked for a decade as a music promoter in Japan, couldn’t find leather-free shoes that matched both her minimalist aesthetic and her less-than-Stella McCartney budget. So during a yearlong apprenticeship with a shoemaker in Los Angeles, she learned everything from patternmaking to lasting, and then debuted her brand in 2012.
Today, the $300-to-$400 line is sold in fashion boutiques such as Edition in Japan, Henrik Vibskov in Copenhagen and Assembly in New York, as well as eco shops including Kaight in Brooklyn, N.Y. The fall ’13 collection of four styles features coconut insoles, North American alder wood, faux nappa and cork uppers, and a new lead-free eco brass manufactured in a factory near the brand’s L.A. office.
Still, meeting her goal of sustainability in material design and manufacturing hasn’t been easy. And this summer, Brown will open her own factory in Los Angeles to make sure the whole manufacturing process meets her green standards.
“I thought there would be a lot more available resources when I began. I had no clue,” she said. “The learning curve has been extremely steep for me. I was managing artists and musicians for so long, so to actually have my own project has been thrilling. But it’s been an upward battle.”
Here, Brown, 38, discusses positioning her brand, opening her own factory and the challenges of being accountable.
Does the Sydney Brown line fit within the budget you were originally seeking?
SB: We were hoping it would be a bit less, but it’s such involved work. We were doing a lot of machine lasting, and now we’re back to hand lasting everything. With the labor involved — and because we’re trying to give people a normal wage — we have to be at this price point. But I hope to not go too much higher than this.
Have you found sourcing animal-free, traceable materials to be a challenge?
SB: [Yes], in the first collection we were using a Scandinavian pine that was sustainably harvested, but finding the people who were cutting down the trees and all of that was an absolute nightmare. I went to 12 different lumberyards in Northern England trying to find information about the woods they had. Glues have been another nightmare. We had a bunch of boxes made and realized they had all been made with pig-fat glue, so now we’re working with a glue scientist to develop new glues.
Why do you want to open a factory?
SB: We’re trying to be as sustainable as possible, between the glues, materials and practices we’re trying to implement. [But we’ve realized that] all the factories that have been working for the last 200 years have no interest in modifying their practices. It was just a tug of war the entire time. We ended up using five factories in four countries the first two seasons. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can do this so much more efficiently if I have my own space. I have my team in place, and I’m now just waiting on loans and different things. We’re slowly acquiring the machines that are needed. Most of [the shoes are] handmade, but we still need a few machines.
How do you balance working with fashion boutiques and green retailers?
SB: One thing we’ve come up against is that when a lot of people in the fashion-design world hear “eco-friendly,” they cringe. Positioning the brand was tricky initially. We had gotten a lot of offers, and I wanted to really be careful about the stores that carry [the line]. We’ve been avoiding department stores until I get the production solid. And we’re not in that many eco/vegan stores [because] their price points have been too low. So we’re in the higher-end boutiques. We’re not selling alongside other vegan brands, and that’s actually been really positive because the clientele in a lot of those stores haven’t had any [green/vegan] options up until now.
You worked with Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, on creating a long-term sustainability vision for the line. How much progress do you think you’ve made toward making a transparent, sustainable brand?
SB: If you look at a shoe that has 20 components and you want to try to be as transparent as possible, [it means] getting down to the nitty-gritty of what’s in every single item. I went around in circles with her, and the upshot was we couldn’t, as a first collection, be perfectly sustainable. It’s a process, and we hope with every collection we’re taking a few steps forward. There is a lot of legwork to be done, but it’s totally doable. I feel I’ve accomplished so much in the year that a lot of people hadn’t achieved before. Give me a couple more years, and I’ll have a lot of this resolved.