Fifteen years after launching his namesake collection, Nicholas Kirkwood has a new mission — to create the first biodegradable luxury shoe.
He’s well on his way: The designer’s spring ’21 collection will be 60% biodegradable and 20% chrome-free. A fifth of the offering will also use stock from the archive. The uppers — using organic silk, suede, hemp, wool and nappa leather — will be fully biodegradable. Recycled soles are part of the equation as well.
It’s a notable achievement for Kirkwood, who is backed by LVMH. And the designer believes the coronavirus shutdown fueled a significant tipping point for eco-friendly design.
Still, he’s candid about the challenges involved in creating a truly sustainable shoe. Here, he breaks down the process, from his original vision to stumbling points to the road ahead.
The Vision: “Shoes themselves can’t really be recycled — at least this type of construction. It got me thinking whether it would be possible to create a biodegradable shoe. If done correctly, it can be composted and turned back into minerals with biodegradable and natural components. The route I want to take is to try and make the product as natural, chemical free and biodegradable as possible. For me, that is trying to eliminate the use of any plastic. Within that, I want to try to eliminate — as much as humanly possible — chemicals within production. It’s to try and get to a root cause. It’s breaking down the shoe into every single component and working out what could be made in a biodegradable way.”
How It Started: “It’s been a couple years of testing individual components. At first, there was a limited choice. I started to notice some materials such as biodegradable linings. We tried experimenting with leather made from apple cores. It didn’t have the finish or quality I was looking for. It’s not purely choosing a more organic material. That is one element for the uppers. The architecture of a shoe is quite complicated with all the innerworkings — the sole boards, the padding, the backing, the stiffness, the heel. It’s been two years of research.”
Coming Together: “This is the first season I can put a lot of what we experimented and tested into practice in a meaningful way. It’s by no mean perfect yet — and I still have some major challenges with the heels. There are some promising techniques being developed by one of our suppliers. I’m trying to develop an even better sole. There’s no magic bullet. You have to be clever in how you work with the materials. There is a certain amount of collaborative effort.”
The Consumer Equation: “In luxury women’s shoes, there is little choice right now [with sustainable styles]. But there’s a title wave that’s inevitably going to hit. For me, if the sustainable cause is going to collect any sort of traction, the aesthetic can’t be dictated by the fact it happens to be sustainable. It can’t look like granola. Quality and wearability can’t be impacted.”
The Education “We’ll include the products and materials in the shoe descriptions now, and we’ll be training our internal sales team and our store team. It’s definitely not going to be easy, but we have to do our best when it comes to educating people, There is no sort of great grand plan. We don’t have a big advertising budgets. It’s going to be word of mouth for sure. I can get the message out there.”
Made-in-Italy Is Key: “I want to go all the way up the supply chain, not just to our direct suppliers but all the way to their suppliers to try and find the best solution. The new components are being developed in Italy. There are a lot of government incentives to make this happen as well as development funds that Italian government is supporting. For me, this will be the new luxury. And so it’s Italy that should be at the forefront.”
Persistence Pays Off: It’s about hunting out companies. Say there is the type of material you love using. Instead of it being grandfathered in, try to look for the alternative. For example, satin is always in the collection, ask whether they have a 100% organic version of this. Test it out — how does it look, how does it act? Does it act? Can certain things be challenged? It’s easy enough to switch materials that will look the same, act the same and essentially cost the same. I’ve been trying to do this for the last couple of seasons. I’m not saying everyone can do a huge jump from one season to the next, but I think there needs to be a commitment and a priority to develop new things. My approach is now, I won’t use certain materials at all in the collection until a more environmentally conscious version becomes available — velvet for example. I love velvet but it’s pretty toxic, and the natural versions that are available don’t have the look I want.”
The Future: “There’s still a huge amount to do. This is the first step to it. I’m very aware that there’s a lot of holes that can be poked in it. For me, it’s about being honest about the things we can do better on. I’m not saying I’ve come up with the perfect solution. But it’s a huge step in the right direction.”