When Nicholas Kirkwood landed on the luxury shoe scene in 2005, he disrupted the industry with his bold, architectural designs.
Now the prolific designer, who shelved his eponymous brand in February, is out to shake things up again with an ambitious eco-driven launch that completely transforms the entire shoe life cycle — with a drastically simplified, vertically integrated and fully circular model.
“I want to see what it would be like to make a product that can genuinely be net zero or even carbon negative without any offsetting,” said Kirkwood, who will reveal the name of his new company in the coming months. “The concept needs a fresh platform to launch with, and the reality is the Nicholas Kirkwood brand was just not that platform. I felt it was better to gracefully park it and focus on this new, exciting — and if it works out the way I’m envisioning —groundbreaking world.”
The designer spent the darkest days of the pandemic carving out his vision for his new venture. One of his guiding principles? To avoid greenwashing and honestly communicate his environmental impact every step of the way.
“I don’t think the word ‘sustainable’ should be used unless the ‘sustainable’ thing is environmentally impact free or even regenerative,” said Kirkwood. “Sustainability, on the other hand, is a subject matter and one we all need to be engaging with.”
Six years ago, Kirkwood became excited by the innovation in materials — from recycled leather soles and plastic heels to plant-based leathers.
But once he went deeper, he discovered that “basically all” of the claims were misleading. “Recycled heels were only 30% [reused plastic] but still labeled as recycled.
Plant-based leathers were essentially a dried mush of some fruit or cellulose waste, and then coated in virgin polyurethane to give the strength and appearance of leather,” he recalled.
In 2019, the designer decided to explore making a completely fossil-free luxury product that would be biodegradable after use.
“I changed my approach — no more plexi heels, clear PVC or Lurex,” he said. Kirkwood focused on hemp, wool, metal-free and compostable leathers for uppers and linings. He tapped into natural elastics, organic silks and started to use uncoated soles.
“By the end of 2020, I had eliminated about 80 to 90 percent of fossil fuels from the styles, but still had problems with glues [even water-based ones], threads and heels,” he said. (He started using wood heels, but they were limiting.) Even more challenging was the fact that environmentally conscious materials were difficult to trace. “I would buy from a supplier in Italy, but their raw ingredients were coming from all over the world, and often places with little to no environmental, social and governance transparency.”
This, combined with the fact that materials only account for 30 to 50 percent of the carbon footprint, made me realize a bigger rethink was needed,” Kirkwood said.
During the pandemic, Kirkwood had a major revelation. “The solution lies in massively simplifying the entire supply chain — and even rethinking how a shoe is made,” he said. “[I looked] at the whole structure of a shoe and what steps within the manufacturing process could be simplified or eliminated.”
First, he said, it was necessary to reduce the skill level and time it takes to make the product. Eliminating over-production and excessive warehousing was also key. Material transparency — going all the way back to the farm — would also be core to the plan. And understanding the working conditions in all stages of the supply chain was also crucial.
It was virtually an impossible task unless he could own every step of the supply chain. That meant making materials from
locally grown raw ingredients and turning those materials into shoes through a new manufacturing method.
“I had originally hoped to apply this method to Nicholas Kirkwood, but for so many reasons this wouldn’t be achievable or even the right platform to do so — at least immediately,” he said.
The diversity of Nicholas Kirkwood styles — some of which were incredibly complex to produce — and the industry’s standard wholesale model weren’t compatible with the designer’s vision. With that in mind, he embarked on developing a new manufacturing method for his still-unnamed venture. But there was one big hurdle. “There is no factory that exists that can do this,” he explained. “So I’m building my own.”
If all goes to plan, the new factory is slated to open by the end of the year in Margate, U.K., a small seaside town about an hour-and-a-half from London. It has an up-and-coming arts scene, great restaurants and absolutely zero history of shoemaking. But it’s close to some of the raw ingredients I intend to use.”
Kirkwood is restoring an old printing factory just outside of Margate’s old town to house the brand’s manufacturing, and will source and grow his materials locally.
“It’s still very much in research and development with some challenges to overcome. But I am steadily making progress to bring this to fruition.” The new production process will initially be employed to produce a sneaker, which the designer hopes to beta test with a limited release, and then perfect in 2024.
The hyperlocal approach also extends to the distribution of the products, which will be geared to the local Margate community as well as to nearby London. (Electric vehicles will be used to deliver the product.)
And once the consumer is finished wearing the sneakers, Kirkwood also has a plan for the shoes’ “end of use” chapter. The fossil-free elements will eliminate post-use contamination in soil and sea — instead turning into nutrients.
Kirkwood is currently self-funding the project, but will be seeking investment in the coming months when more of the R&D is completed. At that time, he also plans to begin putting together a “dream team.”