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Champions of Design: Toms

The ethically aware shoe brand has at its heart an ethos of fighting poverty in developing countries.

 

Toms' range of casual footwear was inspired by founder Blake Mycoskie's trip to Argentina.

Noticing the espadrille-style alpargata shoes worn by the locals, Mycoskie saw the potential of the simple shoe as a tool for fighting poverty and health conditions in the region, where children often went barefoot.

Central to the Toms ethos is consumption for social good and a one-for-one policy; for each pair of shoes sold, Toms donates a pair to a developing country.

The company's name comes from the abbreviation of 'shoes for tomorrow'. The simple blue and white flag-like label that adorns the back of each pair of shoes acts as a signal of the wearer's participation in, and support of, the company's social philosophy.

Mycoskie teamed up with his friend and polo teacher Alejo Nitti to set up the company. Taking on the management of shoe production in Argentina and managing the supply chain to the US, Nitti was named 'chief shoe maker', and Mycoskie, as the face of the company, 'chief shoe giver'.

Traditionally made from natural materials such as hemp and canvas, with a sole fashioned from rope, the alpargata was re-engineered for the US market with the addition of rubber soles, leather insoles and a vast selection of coloured fabrics and designs. Light and bright stripes and patterns on canvas as well as corduroy, tweed and knits for colder climes offer purchasers a huge choice of looks, whatever their style.

In addition to the classic Toms shoe, the range has expanded to include styles such as the trainer-like Cordone, Botas boot and even a vegan range.

The success of Toms in its first year led to its inaugural 'shoe drop', when 10,000 pairs were donated to children in the Argentine province of Misiones.

The following year, 50,000 pairs were distributed in South Africa. Since Toms' inception, more than 1m shoes have been given away. There have been shoe drops in 40 countries, including Ethiopia, Haiti and Guatemala.

The shoes are manufactured in Argentina and Ethiopia, but increased demand has meant outsourcing production to China. The company has stated its mission to increase local production in the areas in which it donates shoes to offer a more sustainable concept of giving.

Toms has also cultivated a grass-roots community dedicated both to the shoe and its social mission. Each pair of shoes comes with a sticker and flag, and wearers are encouraged to share pictures of what they have done with them.

Style Your Sole parties encourage customers to create their own designs on blank pairs of Toms.

The company also offers the opportunity to participate in a 'giving trip', so that wearers can experience the benefits that their purchase brings to communities in developing countries.


BRAND LESSON

Silas Amos, creative strategist,, JKR

By Silas Amos, creative strategist, JKR

The best design champions are not simply celebrating themselves through outstanding creativity or dazzling aesthetics.

Rather, they put design to work as a means to an end (rather than an end in itself).

The design is championing something 'beyond' - a mission - rather than just being champion in and of itself.

It's the good that the Toms brand does that makes it a champ. Design, however, also plays its part. First, the not-insubstantial price tags are partly justified by nifty-looking products.

I guess the insight is that, while we want to do good as consumers, many of us don't want to feel that we are buying 'second best' to do so. It takes some skill to prevent a 'vegan classic' shoe looking how it does in the mind's eye.

Second, the level of branding is pitched just right. On the shoes, the discreet flag does not scream one's claim to socially aware cachet. That would be vulgar. But it is there to be seen, advertising one's conscience. Otherwise, who would know?

The eyewear is, perhaps, becoming less subtle in its branding, reflecting a growing confidence in the quality of its products.

Toms has a good design that does good, and makes us feel good by doing it. It starts with how design can be a vehicle for an idea, rather than the idea informing the design. It provides proof that aesthetics can be a source of brand values.


TIMELINE

2006: Blake Mycoskie took inspiration from the alpargata shoe, which is worn across Argentina, to create Toms shoes and the one-for-one giving concept.

2007: Toms won the People's Design Award from the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

2009: Toms began the first 'One Day Without Shoes' campaign to raise awareness of children worldwide who suffer from a lack of shoes.

2010: Toms celebrated donating its one millionth pair of shoes.

2012: The one-for-one concept has been expanded into an eyewear range. For every pair sold, Toms offers sight-saving or restoring treatment, surgery or prescription glasses to those without access to medical facilities. So far, 88,539 peoplehave been treated.

View more Champions of Design

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