Shoe Designers Go Forward with Couture

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Charmone’s Noraha, Olsen Haus’ Balance, Nina Dolcetti’s Bibsa, Terra Plana’s Juniper

We all specialize in something.

Eco-Shoe Source founder Arlene Bahar is good at finding the most fashion-forward sustainable shoes. Whether tweeting on Twitter or through her blog, Bahar always has on-trend news to offer or shoes she can suggest at the asking. We all need a little help sometimes, right?

I caught up with her recently to talk about eco-friendly footwear.

How did you become an eco-shoe specialist?

I’ve always had a passion for shoes.  I have narrow feet and as a young girl, my mom would take me to specialty shoe stores. As a result of having to be fitted regularly, I tended to look forward to my trips to the shoe store and the personal attention I would get from the sales people. I absorbed the knowledge the sales people were sharing and began to appreciate shoes from an artistic perspective. That has remained with me to this day. I guess you could say a fetish was born.

I also was, like so many others, very moved by An Inconvenient Truth. I personally made a commitment to consciously make changes to live a more responsible lifestyle. I started recycling, donating and looking for everything eco, including shoes. I began to research the shoe industry and tried to find shoes that were eco friendly. Finding eco shoes that fit my high fashion taste was extremely challenging.

As I began to question retailers about what they were offering, I often found they really had no clue or misunderstood what eco is. I discovered Stella McCartney was already producing eco-friendly clothing and had launched a shoe line. I started finding obscure and lesser-known designers like NeuAura, Charmone and others who were talented and creating fabulous shoes. I thought, “I bet other women are finding it hard to get fashionable eco/vegan shoes, too.”

I started my blog, Eco Shoe Source, as a way to educate, promote and make women aware of the beautifully stylish eco and vegan shoe options that are available all over the world. It is a labor of love for me: love of shoes, love of people and love of the earth.

Do you have a favorite shoe line?

I have several favorites. I am a big fan of Stella McCartney. Her collections get more exciting every season. She’s just on point when it comes to high fashion eco shoes and is able to deliver very fashion forward styles. Her personal commitment to sustainability is unquestioned and admirable.

Terra Plana is great for everyday shoes. I find their collections consistently functional and durable as well as fashionable.

How have eco-friendly shoes evolved over the past few years?

At one time, eco-friendly shoes were dowdy and not very appealing visually. No longer are choices for eco shoes between a moccasin or a sandal. The silhouettes are sophisticated and have evolved – there are cute flats, sexy heels, embellished pumps with rich fabrics and cute booties. There was never as much range as there is today.

A designer that I’m watching very closely is Melissa Shoes. Melissa is probably one of the most innovative shoe design houses when it comes to merging technology, specifically recycled plastics, and intriguing design aesthetics. Over 90% of the materials used in their shoes are recycled. How’s that for evolution?

Are they as on-trend as other popular lines?

Very much so, to many people’s surprise. Designers like Stella McCartney, Charmone and Terra Plana are designing shoes that are on par with mainstream designers. I can’t tell you how many people are utterly surprised when I tell them that I’m wearing eco shoes. These designers have not only re-interpreted the latest trends like gladiators, peep toes, strappy sandals, kitten heels, wedges, thigh high boots and platforms, they’ve created some trends of their own in very Fash-stainable ways!

And now you’re finding it is the mainstream designers that are incorporating “eco” in their lines. Christian Louboutin featured eco cork heels and natural fibers as part of his latest 2009 Summer Collection. It will be a beautiful thing when all shoes are produced in an eco-friendly manner.

Can you list some designers who are going above and beyond to design and manufacture their lines responsibly?

Most eco/vegan friendly designers do strive toward sustainability, as the shoe manufacturing process is one of the most damaging to the environment.

Kalia, NeuAura, Beyond Skin and Charmone immediately come to mind as being responsible designers. They maintain very high standards, not only in the creation but in the manufacturing process, using natural fibers, recycled materials, non toxic chemicals, and if they do use leather, it is vegetable-tanned or -dyed and they employ economical delivery methods.

These designers are very cognizant of the environment in every phase of the production process. They contribute to the communities they manufacture in by embracing local artisans and incorporating native craftsmanship in their designs. They give back by providing living wages, reinvest in community social programs and donate proceeds from sales to environmental causes. This is even more impressive to me than creating great shoes. I feel that by purchasing, I am giving back, too.

Is there still a majority or (hopefully) minority that thinks eco-shoes are Birkenstocks only?

Yes, the perception does still exist that eco/vegan shoes are not fashionable, sexy and in some cases just cheap.

Birkenstock, with its attention to constructing comfortable shoes, can be credited for paving the way for the designers that are emerging now. The designers I just spoke about, as well as many others, are flipping the shoe industry upside-down with the innovative use of materials. Even Birkenstock is now offering some more stylish versions of their original designs. The true beauty of “going green” is that there are so many shades and choices available for consumers to make as conscious a choice as they want.

So, if you’re looking for comfort and not many frills, there’s Birkenstock, ElNaturialista and Simple Shoes. If you want high fashion or custom shoes, Mink Shoes or Sui Generis are some brands to see. And you have everything else in between, like Melissa, NeuAura, Patagonia and more.

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.