5 Questions for Tigerbear Republik’s Founder

Jannie Denney, founder and CEO of Tigerbear Republik, is out to bring some environmental responsibility to the juniors’ market.

The former senior designer and creative director for Rocket Dog said her road to becoming an eco-warrior began in 2008, when she designed an environmentally friendly capsule collection for the label. “I wanted to make sure we were authentic when we did our collection, so my design partner and I went to the California Design Center and took a three-day seminar on sustainability and eco-friendly footwear,” she said. “It blew my mind and changed my life.”

For starters, Denney learned shoes that contain PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and other synthetic resins could take 500 to 1,000 years to biodegrade — if they ever do. “It’s inconclusive [regarding] the time it takes for PVC or mixed rubber-based products to biodegrade,” she said. “Some people believe it never decomposes.

“When I started looking at the number of pairs of footwear that I felt personally responsible for going into a landfill, I started to feel a moral obligation to do something,” Denney added.

Out of that eye-opening experience, Tigerbear Republik was born. The juniors’ line launched for spring ’13, targeting girls aged 13 to 18 and priced from $29 to $69. The looks are made with eco-friendly dyes and water-based glues. The soles of the shoes are injected with EcoPure to help them decompose in landfills. “EcoPure is basically a bacteria that is injected into PVC,” said Denney. “When heat and gasses that are formed in landfills meet, it is the catalyst for the actual breakdown and deterioration of the product. It’s almost like it eats itself. It can deteriorate between two months or a maximum of two years. Then it’s gone.”

Tigerbear Republik is getting attention from major juniors’ retail players such Tilly’s and Journeys. A men’s line will debut for spring ’14, and a children’s line is expected to soon follow.

Here, the designer talks about her path to eco-awareness and launching a new line in today’s retail environment.

1. Why do you think your line is resonating?
It’s the aesthetic. It’s not the fact that it’s eco-friendly. What draws people in is not that our product is vegan or eco-conscious. They come because it’s trend-right, fashion right and aesthetically pleasing. It’s the styling that brings them in, but then they walk out feeling better about what they bought because, by the way, that piece you picked out is more than a fashion piece. You’re going to help create change and it’s a good feeling.

2. How do you balance getting your vision into a shoe design, with the technological constraints of staying eco-friendly?
It is tough work. It’s quite daunting. But we should all be responsible for making a better world. In the beginning, I’d shake my head and say, “Why did I do this?” It was so hard. We pay more money for everything, from the glues, to the lasts, to the constructions, to the injection of EcoPure. It’s not an easy task. Because EcoPure has not been used by the masses, we have to do a lot of product testing prior to production. And we’ve had a lot of misses, but now we’ve also had a lot of hits.

3. How difficult was it to launch a new product in the current retail environment?
A lot of people said I was crazy to try it, and I mean everyone. But I just trusted my heart. I was bored by what was out there. Everything was so safe that it wasn’t fun to shop for footwear. People were comfortable in the status quo. This brand is my canvas and it showcases my art and my passion and my story. And it’s contagious. People are drawn to the passion and the sense of humor.

4. What is your long-term vision for Tigerbear?
Our goal wasn’t to be the next multimillion-dollar brand. The goal was to be happy. Our goal was to change the mindset of the consumer and also bring some positivity into the fashion footwear market.

5. How has your focus on sustainability in footwear impacted other aspects of your life?
It’s pretty immense and it starts first thing in the morning. I found out that coffee filters are white from bleach, and when you pour water into it, you’re actually absorbing the bleach in your body. I now have eco-friendly, un-dyed filters. I stopped buying water in plastic bottles because I found out the amount of PVC in our blood system is 5 million times what it should be. I buy organic, hand-milled soaps. I switched my car. I had a Ford Explorer and I bought a Ford Focus. I found out that when you buy clothes off the rack and you don’t wash them, they are sprayed with a fire retardant and an anti-bacterial spray, and you absorb that. I’ve changed my mattress … because there are chemicals you absorb through your skin when you sleep. It’s changed my life.

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