As we have come to find in the last decade, top-tier fashion hasn’t always been at the forefront of sustainable practices, with waste coming not just from unsold product but also from the prototyping, supply chains and myriad other steps and details that make up the process of luxury shoe and leather goods production.
But as more of the fashion industry commits to implementing more sustainable standards, there is a crop of footwear designers rising to the top in terms of innovation both in materials and processes. And while they are certainly not alone in their efforts, these creatives are forging a path that allows the very traditional industry of artisanal, (mostly) made-in-Italy footwear to think about new ways of working. Here, a breakdown of eight designers — and eight of their shoes — delivering on eco-promises, in great detail.
1. Nicholas Kirkwood
The British designer aims to have the first luxury shoe brand that is 100% natural and compostable — and the goal kicked off with his spring ‘21 collection, which he broke down into different eco-forward processes and materials. They include Nature L compostable leather, designed to degrade 75% in the first 90 days of composting and also takes dye more easily, allowing for less to be used. Elsewhere, fabric uppers are made of eco-friendly hemp, and traditional thermoplastic counter stiffeners are replaced with organic alternatives made of cotton and natural latex, harvested sustainably from regenerative rubber trees. Meanwhile, compostable cellulose fiber insoles reduce the need of placing a metal shank in high heel styles.
The Joaquim mule, shown below, has a 100% wood heel that is finished in Carnauba wax, from the Brazil-native Carnauba palm tree and a suede upper that is vegetable tanned and utilizes a natural color.
All of designer (and 2020 FNAA Launch of the Year award winner) Alfredo Píferi’s shoes are made in Parabiago, a small town outside of Milan where artisan teams are comprised equally of men and women, with an average age of 40 (a notable for Italy’s shoemaking industry, which has long been in need of younger workers).
The Ursula asymmetric pump, shown here, is made of Bioveg certified bio-vegan nappa, which is composed of 48% bio polyols derived from GMO-free field corn. Compared to traditional production methods, the processes used to make bio began nappa have a 13% lighter carbon footprint, used 44% less energy and reduce CFC emissions by 32%.
Insoles are made of 100% pure cellulose that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and heels are crafted from recycled ABS, a plastic compound that is considered to be more durable and easier to recycle than PVC. The brand is still researching a full alternative to plastic.
Enhanced Thunit, a resin rubber, is used to produce the outsoles. Made of 50% synthetic rubber, 40% inorganic material composts of silicone and mixed clay, and 10% additives (fastenings, pigments and plasticizers), the material is non-slip and more durable, flexible and water resistant than similar rubber materials.
Friends and fellow footwear designers Pamela Costantini and Domitilla Rapisardi cut their teeth at luxury brands, but with the prestige came a lot of waste. “We realized a lot of materials were just being destroyed,” said Costantini. So began Iindaco, which launched in early 2020.
Leathers used in the inner soles and components derive from the food industry, certified materials that are also metal free (meaning they are not tanned with metals such as chrome or aluminum, whose byproducts can poison local water supplies).
The duo uses only deadstock fabrics and materials from Italian tanneries and factories near their Florence home base. After the material runs out, it is retired — which has been a boon to the brand’s wholesale business of limited-edition, exclusive styles. Less focus is placed on developing new silhouettes each season and styles such as the Argo, shown here, carry over.
The brand’s upcycling practices helped to keep three small Italian factories afloat last summer. After major fashion companies canceled a series of large orders, Costantini and Rapisardi swooped in to use the materials that had already been ordered to create a series of thong sandals.
4. Gabriela Hearst
The designer has long used sustainably-sourced materials ranging from by-product shearling and recycled cashmere to hand knitting by women’s collective Manos del Uruguay — processes that Hearst has also brought to Chloé as its new creative director, helping the brand to reduce its environmental footprint by 400% for fall ‘21, compared to the previous year’s line.
Using responsibly sourced cork, the designer was able to achieve her signature platform look for her own line’s spring ’21 collection, using the lightweight material for the Torque wedge heel, shown below.
By 2022, Hearst will eliminate the use of all virgin materials in her collection.
5. Prota Fiori
Valentino and Giorgio Armani alum Jennifer Stucko began her quest for eco-friendly footwear by first working with a factory in Italy’s Le Marche shoemaking region to help her develop leathers made of upcycled apple and grape skins (the latter of which sometimes come from the waste from vineyards) to create a durable but sleek material for uppers, including those for the Flora sandal, shown below.
Other eco-friendly details from the brand, which launched last year, include chrome-free metal components, recycled cardboard, upcycled plastic, a vegetable tanning process and regenerated leather that takes scraps from tanneries.
Prota Fiori (which translates to “protect the flowers”) is a public benefit corporation that is awaiting its B Corporation confirmation status and so far has fulfilled 13 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The brand also has a citrus garden in Sicily that sees one tree planted for each customer.
6. Stella McCartney
The fairy godmother of sustainable fashion, McCartney is ever expanding her repertoire of eco practices, most recently using Mylo, a vegan leather made from mushrooms, in ready-to-wear garments. She has also utilized the Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) sustainability measurement tool from Kering.
The Emilie sandal, shown here, uses a sustainable wood platform heel attached to a chunky rubber layer, which is made of mixed fibers from residual textiles. The leather for the sandal’s upper is vegan — and if you want to know the designer’s full argument on why it’s better than animal leather, she breaks it down here.
For Earth Day today, McCartney is hosting a series of beach clean up days that encourage children and families to pitch in.
7. Malone Souliers
For spring ‘21, designer Mary Alice Malone introduced the Zero-Waste collection, which focuses on using upcycled materials.
Malone worked with a sustainability specialist and supplier in Italy that collects leftover materials that would otherwise be disposed of. For this collection, it was a run of thick heritage linen (a natural product of flax, a plant that can be utilized as a whole) salvaged from a ready-to-wear brand’s leftover stock, finished with nappa leather trim from Malone’s own past season stock.
To cut down on unnecessary waste from last building and sample making, the designer focused on some of her most popular and classic styles, such as the bestselling Maureen heeled mule, shown below.
“I truly believe that style needn’t come at the expense of the planet, which is why I was so excited to find a treasure trove of unused materials in the archives of our Italian suppliers,” said Malone. “The experiment inspired us to make a zero waste approach a cornerstone of our manufacturing and design process.”
For both the upcoming pre-fall and fall ‘21 collections, the family owned and operated Italian brand cut back on its line offerings, focusing on staple silhouettes such as ankle boots and pumps, plus and a sprinkling of statement platforms.
Working with Aquafil, a global research firm specializing in the research of ethical manufacturing processes, the brand did a series of boots and bags using Econyl, an eco-alternative to nylon that is obtained through the recycling and purification process of plastic waste collected from oceans, fishing nets and textile fiber waste
Econyl makes up the degradé polka dot sleeve-like calf upper shown below in the Lespois high heel boot.
Elsewhere in the collection, Econyl-accented boots are also convertible, suggesting a less-is-more approach to building a footwear collection.