Jamie McLellan

Wool Runners

Minimalist, simple, practical – Wool Runners are becoming a new classic in the casual-sports footwear genre. Designed by Jamie McLellan for Allbirds, merino wool replaces synthetics in a shoe that is pushing materials and design innovation for more sustainable fashion.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, ex-footballer and entrepreneur Tim Brown has taken Allbirds HQ to San Francisco. As a B-Corp, it is part of a new wave of digitally native brands that are shaping old markets with new ways of thinking. Allbirds’ focus on material research and innovation is part of their mission to make better things in a better way.

Auckland-based industrial designer Jamie McLellan, designer of the original Wool Runners, has designed the second generation. And if sales are anything to go by – 12 months of stock sold in just three ­– the shoes have captured attention for their authenticity, pared-back design and down-to-earth branding. Along with a pure New Zealand merino wool upper, they feature a vegetable-based insole (using castor bean extracts), while Allbirds are pushing materials innovation through R&D to make one of the most natural sneakers they can.

Despite its obvious comfort, moisture wicking and anti-bacterial properties, wool has been a largely untapped material for footwear. To employ a quality natural product in an industry dominated by cheap synthetic materials, McLellan had to develop a design that could make a woollen sneaker more affordable.

“We questioned the shoe industry’s tendency for rapid change and reliance on new product releases,” says McLellan. “We wanted a more timeless approach, to create a new classic; the running shoe equivalent of a Chuck Taylor or Vans. Mass appeal was critical for a start-up brand needing to find success with a singular product. Colour aside, we simply did not have the capacity to release new product iterations every three months, nor did we want to.”

We wanted a more timeless approach, to create a new classic; the running shoe equivalent of a Chuck Taylor or Vans.

New to footwear design, McLellan was free to question and challenge existing norms. What he found was that much of the superfluous and distracting detail of sneakers is there to make them cheaper and easier to make. By keeping the Wool Runners as simple as possible – an all-in-one upper, for example – the materials could be of a higher quality.

As a unique textile, both functionally and visually, the knitted wool became the focus of design. The fabric is celebrated through minimal branding, seams or embellishments. “In a sense, it was a process of ‘un-designing’ the shoe,” notes McLellan. He has stripped the design down to its essentials, and then played those up. For example, he’s used slightly oversized, contrasting embroidered eyelets with large, tubular laces. Contrasting colours complement the wool’s texture and a subtle logo tag is sewn onto the tongue and heel – a playful yet restrained flourish.

The sneakers’ performance, natural materials, style and eco packaging have gained praise from Youtubers and the media, with Time magazine’s Matt Vella calling them ‘the world’s most comfortable shoes’. The Best Design Awards judges note the shoes are “extremely responsible, considered and elegant”, and that they “deliver to the user a complete experience via their packaging, the product and the story. This product is distinctly New Zealand while being truly global.”

—Andrea Stevens