No Canvas, No Leather: A Reboot for the Sneaker
“They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, these are extremely lightweight and they’re so cool-looking,’ ” Mr. Weinreb says. “ ‘But they’re made out of paper.’ ”
The shoes are actually made from Tyvek, a material that is as light as paper but also water-resistant and relatively sturdy and breathable. The soles are rubber. Mr. Weinreb sells the shoes online and in boutique shoe stores nationwide through his company Civic Duty, based in Secaucus, N.J.
If you’ve had your attic insulated in the past 30 years, attended a concert requiring a wristband for re-entry, or sent or received a package, you’ve probably used Tyvek. Created by DuPont in 1955, it is made from high-density polyethylene fibers and was originally used, and continues to be used, for things like labels and book jackets. Tyvek has also been used in hazmat suits, banners, medical and industrial packaging, and covers for cars and boats. Now designers are fashioning shoes, bags and other accessories from it.
The shoes are a new addition to the minimalist footwear trend established by brands like Crocs and Vibram, with its FiveFingers line, known as the barefoot running shoes. Running shoe companies have long been reducing the weight of athletic footwear, and Nike is now using polyester yarn in some of its lightweight shoes.
“I call it techno-fashion with a sustainability sensibility,” Shawn Grain Carter, associate professor of fashion merchandising management at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says of the new designs.
“You’ve now got this consciousness of not just fashion for fashion’s sake, but fashion to protect the environment,” she says. “Tyvek is a nonwoven material that meets both those qualities. It’s postindustrial. It’s futuristic. It’s postmodern.”
Civic Duty markets its Tyvek sneakers as easy on the environment, and suitable for those who shun clothing made from animal products. It recycles customers’ shoes at special recycling centers that convert them into “a picnic table or a park bench or something else that’s made from the Tyvek itself,” Mr. Weinreb says. (For recycling, customers must send the used shoes back to the company.)
Since Civic Duty’s founding in 2009, its sales have totaled about $8 million, he said.
One of his competitors has taken a similar path, focusing its marketing on both environmental and cool factors. The three co-founders of Unstitched Utilities, in East Brunswick, N.J., met while working at Fila, the sports clothing and footwear company.
One co-founder, Kevin Crowley, had worked in the hazmat suit industry. Several years ago, the group began experimenting with Tyvek in shoe designs, and they later dabbled in using recycled magazines (cut into strips and sewn together) as a shoe material. Now they sell sports shoes made from Tyvek as well as canvas.
“Tyvek is a difficult material to work with,” says Jack Steinweis, another co-founder. “You’ve got to really know what you’re doing, and we had the right information.”
Mr. Steinweis and his partners initially wanted to make the shoes in the United States, but couldn’t find a factory willing to work with Tyvek or able to do it affordably.
Unstitched Utilities began making its Tyvek sneakers in China but has since relocated manufacturing to Vietnam. The shoes, in high- and low-top versions, sell for $50 to $135 a pair on its website and in about 30 shoe stores in the United States.
A third competitor in the Tyvek-sneaker market, Unbelievable Testing Laboratory, was started in China two years ago by Token Hu, who was working at the design firm Frog Design. He began experimenting with Tyvek sneakers when his wife routinely couldn’t find shoes she liked that fit her very small feet.
Mr. Hu eventually left his job and started Unbelievable Testing Laboratory. It is now based in both Shanghai and Las Vegas and is marketing its products to 23- to 35-year-old men who “work in the design, technology, I.T. and engineering spaces,” says Joseph Constanty, a co-founder, adding that the company does not actively market an environmental aspect.
The company sells the shoes on its website for $68 to $78; it also offers a Tyvek wallet. It has also begun using a Kevlar blend and a microfiber in its shoe designs, and in September it will start a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the manufacturing of a new Kevlar-and-Tyvek boot that it’s calling the Moon Boot.
The company’s shoes weigh less than a pound a pair, which is lighter than many traditional running shoes as well as casual sneakers like Converse Chuck Taylors.
Civic Duty’s shoes are also made in China. According to the market research firm IBISWorld, China is the world’s largest manufacturer of footwear, a $114 billion industry there in 2013.
Owners of the shoe companies each estimated about a yearlong life span for their shoes, which they put on a par with sneakers made of more traditional materials.
There are questions about the environmental sustainability of Tyvek. It is, after all, made of plastic fibers. And shoes aren’t particularly easy for consumers to recycle.
“It all depends on what percentage of the customers actually send them back and on how diligent the company is about recycling them properly,” according to Rachel Obbard, assistant professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, who has researched and taught classes on materials in sports equipment. “I personally don’t think it warrants the label ‘sustainably produced,’ ” Ms. Obbard wrote in an email.
And the shoes are probably not something you should plan on using for your workouts, according to Ms. Obbard. “Tyvek is equally strong in all directions, stain resistant, and has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio,” she said. But, she added, it’s not elastic and its breathability isn’t as high as that of a traditional running shoe.
“I could see having a pair of super light casual Tyvek shoes that you could stuff into a backpack or suitcase,” she wrote. “I could not see playing sports in them.”
Ms. Grain Carter acknowledged that there were limits to Tyvek. But she sees the shoes as appealing to members of the millennial generation willing to take risks.
“They’ll see it as performance art; they’ll see it also as functionality,” she says. “It will be an easy sale for that particular segment of the demographic.”