Can This New Wool Brand From Two Shoe Veterans Give Allbirds a Run for Its Money?

You think you know wool sneakers? Probably not like these.

Woolloomooloo Shoes, which launched early last year, has brought comfort and tech innovation to the concept of wool footwear — and it’s offering its collection only to the independent retail channel.

The brand was created by shoe veterans and longtime friends James Rowley and Paul Robins, two Sydney natives who — like another well-known shoe brand — recognized the untapped potential of Australian wool for making footwear.

And they should know: Rowley has more than two decades of experience in the shoe industry, at Geox, H.H. Brown and, most recently, as president and CEO of Mephisto USA. Robins, meanwhile, is a distributor for the Taos brand in Australia.

Rowley recalled that the two began mulling the idea during a conversation at a shoe show in 2019. “Wool has been used footwear for years and years, but mainly as a felted product, but we started talking about all the different ways to use it,” he said. “What we ended up developing was a technique where you take Australian wool and spin it into a superfine merino thread. And then we run that thread through knitting machines. We’re digitally knitting all of our footwear.”

He noted that the knitting machines are similar to the ones used to create mesh for sneakers like a Nike Flyknit. So by utilizing this method — versus a traditional felt wool — the shoes become more breathable, durable, washable and have more elasticity, as one might find in a performance product.

The founders also added extra bells and whistles inside the sneakers. “We built these shoes not as a minimalist product, but as a true comfort shoe,” said Rowley, pointing to their cushioned orthopedically-correct insole that’s covered in wool.

All those extra details bring with them a slightly higher retail price than other wool sneakers on the market. The line consists of three unisex styles, which range from $125 for the Suffolk slip-on to $140 for the laced Belmont runner and Darwin court style.

The Woolloomooloo collection currently consists of two lace-up styles and a slip-on sneaker, offered in multiple colors.

But retailers haven’t been deterred by the price tags. Woolloomooloo has already been picked up by 150 independent stores in the U.S., including Comfort One in Maryland and Virginia, Warrens Shoes in Arkansas and Footwear Etc. in California.

Comfort One president Garrett Breton said his stores began carrying the line just before Christmas and have seen a good response from customers, “despite the uphill battle of launching a new brand in the nation’s capital during a pandemic/insurrection combo.”

He noted that the Belmont and Suffolk styles have been the top sellers. “And men’s are also out performing women’s so far, which is an anomaly,” Breton added.

He recalled that the team decided to sign on with Woolloomooloo based on two factors: the quality of the product and Rowley’s track record. ‘We were attracted to the story of the brand originally,” said Breton. “I then tested the shoes personally: I wore the Belmont and found the quality, comfort and padding to be great. Once we decided that the shoes would fit with our customers’ high standards, we spoke with James. We have worked with him multiple times over the years and found him easy to do business with and a true partner.”

Rowley said Woolloomooloo is committed to supporting independent retailers, who have faced monumental challenges this year due to COVID-19 restrictions — on top of years of battling against the rise of e-commerce, which has only accelerated during the pandemic. The brand is not selling to any department stores or any online players.

“I was an independent retailer in Texas for eight or nine years,” said Rowley, “so I know what independents can really do for a brand. These stores have the trust of their local marketplaces and they’ve got the ear of the consumer in their areas.”

As Woolloomooloo enters its second year in business, a Chelsea boot and slide sandal are in the works, but the brand is taking a moderate pace when it comes to growth. “We’re trying to keep it really simple and minimize all of the risk for everybody,” said Rowley. However, it is in talks with some apparel brands for upcoming collaborations.

And the label is working to improve its environmental impact by pursuing a carbon-neutral certification and by working with its sourcing partner, Woolmark Company, to develop other sustainable techniques and materials for its shoes.

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