A new group has formed with a mission to change the way products are made.
The Proto Collective, composed of critical thinkers from both inside and outside the footwear industry, is a group focused on creating a profitable business that puts both people and the planet in the forefront. The collective aims to create a sustainable supply chain in the Americas that will yield a range of products, with a focus on responsible and local manufacturing — all while being transparent about the process.
The collective includes Katie Longmyer, who is CEO, and Jillian Ricciardi, who is COO. Alongside Longmyer and Ricciardi are Jeff Staple and Jeffrey Henderson, the brand lead and product lead, respectively, and Melody Ehsani and Jessica Orkin serve in advisory roles. Rounding out Proto is WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey, who is the lead primary investor.
And everything in Proto is collectively decided upon — including its name.
“All the founders suggested names and we all voted,” Ricciardi told FN. “Proto is the prototype of a new way of being. Based off my favorite song ‘Prototype’ by Outkast, the lyrics inspired the vision of being the ideal, modeling a way forward. Prototypes are also the initial development concepts in footwear, so with those two things in mind it felt like a perfect synergy. We thought we’d have to go through many iterations of making and remain flexible and adaptable to create something new and we knew we’d be the prototype for future brands.”
Henderson added, “In product creation, prototypes are the best example of how a brand thinks and builds. These prototypes are always a step toward perfection. We saw this process as not just an example for product creation, but also a way to build new business models, organizational structures and sales distribution. The sneakers would be prototypes, and so would the company.”
Aside from their shared values, McKelvey believes Proto answers the questions of today’s consumers who demand transparency from the companies they spend their money with.
“As consumers, we must become more more aware of the power in the choices we make if we want the company and the world to change. We can’t turn a blind eye to the exploitative practices of the companies we purchase from just because we think their products are cool,” McKelvey told FN. “We need more options like Proto, so we can show that our purchasing decisions can support our values.”
Henderson believes this demand is stronger now than ever before.
“The tax on traditional sneaker consumption is being called out by consumers. What’s your product made of? Where’s it made? Who makes it? Who owns the company?” Henderson said. “Being relevant in sneakers takes more than celebrity endorsement and technology. Solving real world problems while empowering the people who deliver solutions is what people expect in all of their product now.”
Proto was established in 2020 after several exploratory conversations via Zoom. Now, the collective is set to release its first sneaker, the Iris.
For the uppers, the collective chose environmentally-friendly yarns — which utilizes 98% recycled materials — from Los Angeles-based knit manufacturing facility KX Lab. The uppers were put together using Shima Seiki Mfg. Ltd. computerized knitting machines, which Proto said leaves next to no marginal waste and requires “a fraction of the amount of glue or adhesives” of other shoes.
Blumaka designed insoles, which Proto explained are created by regrinding factory scraps, old products and foam waste. Proto said this saves 99% water consumption by using recycled scraps, and more than 85% of the insole is recycled material. What’s more, Proto said Blumaka opened its manufacturing facilities close to the source of the waste rather than shipping it back and forth from Asia, and its new El Salvador location is creating near-shoring capabilities for the Americas.
The cupsole was designed by leading outsole manufacturer Vibram, and the All-Pro Flat Braid Eco shoelaces — made with recycled and sustainable PET yarn — are from by Longview, N.C.-based company Wincord, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
As for Proto’s packaging, the collective is opting for eco bags made by Ecopackables, which Proto said are 100% compostable and reusable, and printed with soy ink. Also, the collective is using 100% recycled EcoEnclose mailers that are made in the USA, algae printed and made with agricultural waste.
The Proto Collective Iris will arrive via Protocollective.com and retail for $320.
Aside from footwear, Proto will launch T-shirts and sweatshirts, which were were produced by L.A.-based and Latina-owned (Guadalupe Tlatenchi) apparel manufacturer GTLA.
And Proto isn’t keeping its processes under lock and key. The collective is working in an open source manner, which it believes is beneficial to all.
“Every day our goal is to be 100% U.S. manufactured. 100% sustainable. But we know this is going to be a journey,” Henderson said. “Every prototype we sell will be headed in that direction, so we want to share what we learn with others so they get better, too. We always want to be first, but we don’t want to be alone.”
Ricciardi added, “We need to work together to make systemic and environmental changes. We need volume to make bringing innovation back to the U.S. feasible. We need to create demand for a supply chain to be built and we believe that if we can figure out a new way to operate a profitable business that centers the people and the planet then we will be able to begin to make a real impact on communities and lives.”
Aside from product, the collective is BIPOC and woman-led. Proto said 93% of the company is women or BIPOC.
“The footwear industry is heavily white-male dominated and has been for decades. The consumers who have put most brands on the map as well as champion footwear brands often aren’t just white-males,” Ricciardi said. “We believe it’s important to show a new way of emergent leadership, one that embodies compassion and foresight to innovate and build. We believe some of the best ideas come from those with different backgrounds, insights and experiences, and we believe that the more you push away from the outdated norms and structures, the more our business and product becomes healthier and relevant.”
McKelvey added, “From the ways the products are designed, produced and marketed to how the company is operated day to day, our team is dedicated to finding the new and the better — for us, for our communities, for planet. Doing everything differently takes the strength and fortitude that grows from those who have taken a harder path and from those whose journeys have been more complex.”
Looking ahead, Ricciardi said the goal in both the short-and long-term for Proto is simple: to make a playbook others can learn from and improve upon.
“We want to share our story and begin to find ways to partner and collaborate with material sciences, engineers, makers and creatives to bring innovation and creativity into the current state of the U.S. footwear industry. We want people to feel good wearing our products and be a part of something bigger. We want the people who made our products to feel good and taken care of. And we want consumers to know where their products come from, how much time and effort and skill goes into making them and ensure that the value of knowledge care for your products is known,” Ricciardi said.