Can Shoes Be Sexy and Sustainable?

1st July 2020


British shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood might have the answer.

Nicholas kirkwood-yellow-shoes

Left: Nicholas Kirkwood’s sketch from his a eco-friendly SS21 range. Right: The popular ‘Monstera’ mule by Kirkwood was just released in some new colour ways. Images courtesy of the brand.

Footwear has been one of the slowest fashion categories to make progress when it comes to sustainability – blame shoes’ shorter lifespans and the complicated production process, that often requires triple the amount of components than ready-to-wear. 

When progress finally started to be made it was mostly reserved for the sneaker department, with Veja’s minimalist white low-tops or All Birds woven styles becoming the poster child of what a sustainable shoe looks like.  

In fact, All Birds – which count Leonardo DiCaprio as an early investor – also sealed a major deal with Adidas last month, to create a sustainable, high-performance sneaker while also cutting down their greenhouse gas emissions throughout the process. 

But for luxury shoe fanatics like me and you, who would be more keen to wear Balenciaga’s Speed sneakers by day and Amina Muaddi crystal ‘Jade’ sandals by night, sustainable footwear options have been limited to say the least. 

Not anymore. 

Luxury shoe designers are rising to the occasion and coming up with new, more conscious solutions for their designs, so that sustainability in footwear is no longer reserved for questionable-looking woven sneakers. 

Nicholas Kirkwood is one of the latest designers to make headlines about his ambitious eco-agenda. The British designer’s new mission is to create the first fully biodegradable shoe and he has already made good progress: His upcoming spring 2021 collection will feature 60 percent biodegradable materials like organic wool, hemp and nappa leather. The shoes will also be 20 percent chrome free and Kirkwood has recycled components from archival pieces for the range too. 

The collection has been a “pipe dream” for the designer, or the result of a lot of trial and error, experimenting with everything from eco-friendly glues, to biodegradable linings and recycled leather soles. There’s still a lot of progress to be made especially when it comes to developing sustainably-made heels, most often made from petrochemical-based plastics at the moment. 

The key to succeeding? Not compromising on the design and quality the brand’s customers are used to. Which is why the spring 2021 collection is as desirable as ever, featuring striking geometric wooden heels and plenty of wallpaper-like floral patterns, inspired by the architecture and furniture of mid-20th-century Brazil. 

The blend of fashion-forward design and eco-friendly production is surely a big step forward for the luxury shoe sector and there’s still a lot to do according to Kirkwood, who is also looking into providing new shoe disposal services at his London store and staying up to date with an array of new technologies currently being developed. 

The future could see food waste or materials like cactus and bamboo being used more and more to construct shoes, if you ask Kirkwood, who built his name around his use of giant pearls on the heels of shoes, futuristic-shaped wedges and pretty ‘Beya’ loafers

Designers are clearly starting to do their part, but what’s your responsibility as a consumer?

Educate yourself: As tempting as it is to just ogle over a show-stopping bejewelled heel or the perfect minimalist mule, spend a few more minutes reading the product description and learning what materials were being used to create the shoe; ask questions if you’re in store; or read up about which of your favorite shoe brands are investing in sustainable production. 

Kirkwood for one has been spending time educating all his sales staff about the new materials and production techniques the brand is now employing and putting all the information on the product descriptions found on the label’s website. 

There’s a few more luxury names following in Kirkwood footsteps. Sophia Webster, a fellow Londoner and former employee of Kirkwood, has been creating capsule collections using deadstock materials from previous collections. Alexandre Birman too, drove the sustainability message across during his latest Paris Fashion Week presentation where he introduced shoes made from materials like recycled cotton, cardboard and chrome-free tanning leather and also spoke about moving his factory towards using all renewable energy and recycled packaging. 

There’s also Alfredo Piferi, a Jimmy Choo veteran and new name on the block, who launched his namesake label early this year and ensured that his sexy stilettos are all made out of vegan leather. 

The spectrum of choice is clearly widening, it’s now up to us to marry our love of shoes with a commitment to helping save the planet.