Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie is one of my favorite Angelenos, if you can call him one, since he spends so much of his time traveling on shoe drops in South America and Africa, and giving speeches about his One For One business model (buy a pair of shoes, and a pair is donated to someone in need).
I caught up with him over tea at his Santa Monica office recently, and even though I had to use my Blackberry, I wanted to take a picture of his wonderfully wacky outfit (below). He's wearing a nubby Edun cardigan and pants he picked up at a market in Nepal, and carrying his journal, purchased at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires. He's also wearing Toms, of course, from the latest collection inspired by the journals and images left by activist Dan Eldon, the young photographer who was killed in 1993 covering the war in Somalia. (The shoes have a fingerprint-print, which Mycoskie took from Eldon's passport.)
It's appropriate that Mycoskie looks a little like a guru, because he's asking us to follow him on Tuesday, April 5, in spending a day without shoes to raise awareness for those who do not have a choice. He's expecting 1 million people to participate worldwide in the One Day Without Shoes event, include corporate partners AOL and Microsoft. It would be an astonishing response, especially considering the brand isn't 5 years old yet.
Not that Mycoskie is anywhere close to completing his goal of stamping out foot diseases worldwide. To that end, on June 7, he's announcing a new product that will guide the next phase of growth for his business.
But he's keeping that product shrouded in mystery, or hidden in a box as it were, which he presented to an audience for the first time last month, while giving the keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
I tried to play the 20 questions game with him. Is it bigger than a bread box? Will it sell at the same stores as Toms shoes? Is it a product in the fashion space? But he wouldn't budge. He says his staff doesn't even know what it is. He asked retailers to purchase the product sight unseen. "If they open the box and don't think [the product] is a fit for them, they can send it back to us," he said. "And I do believe it can be sold in 50% of our stores, and that it will open up new doors, and new places. Our first big retail account was actually a furniture store," he pointed out.
The plan for June 7 is to distribute 200 of the mystery boxes to different influencers around the world, and to have them open the boxes simulataneously. (Which could be exciting, considering the folks Mycoskie keeps company with -- Bill Clinton, Cameron Diaz, Morgan Spurlock, etc.) Until then, we'll just have to keep guessing.
From a fashion perspective, it's incredible how many people are wearing Toms, which are now almost as popular as flip-flops. In June, the summer collection will land in stores, with a very cool-looking crochet style. And for fall, Toms has collaborated with the Row on a collection of shoes designed by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.
"The great thing about their line is that they make unbelievable basics, which sell incredibly well at some of the same stores we sell," Mycoskie said. "So to take their amazing cashmeres and Italian wools and put them on a classic Toms style, it seemed like it made sense. And they feel like butter on your feet."
The core fall Toms collection, however, has a more lofty inspiration: great mentors and teachers. "I saw 'Waiting for "Superman,"' and I started thinking with that film and some of the things the Gates Foundation is doing, that education could be the next climate change," Mycoskie said. "Not that we don't have a long way to go on climate change still, but I believe education will be the next chatter of pop culture."
So he asked Toms employees to team up with their favorite teachers and model fall shoes for a photo shoot. Mycoskie's favorite teacher is pictured in the lookbook: Jim Woodruff, his theology teacher from senior year of high school. The shoe designs play off the education theme, with an academic-looking herringbone, and a print that reads "dare to teach."
Mycoskie is putting the finishing touches on his first book, titled “Start Something That Matters," out Sept. 6. "It's the No. 1 question I get asked: 'I have an idea, how do I get it started?' And I think I have some ideas to help people with that," he said.
Part of the book is about challenging people -- to volunteer at a homeless shelter, start a nonprofit or start a giving program at their for-profit business, he explained. "It's not only an entrepreneurial book, it’s personal."
The book also makes a case for simplicity -- simplicity in design, message and in how you live. "People are addicted to stuff," said Mycoskie, who lives on a houseboat to keep his stuff in check. "They think they can't live without it. But intellectually, they also understand how not having a lot of stuff to keep, and take care of, lets you lead a more free life."
Except that Mycoskie sells shoes, and he doesn't want you to just buy one pair. "That is a dilemma," he admitted. "But everything has its flaws."
At least Toms don’t take up a lot of room.
-- Booth Moore
Photos, from top: Blake Mycoskie, right, rallying the crowd in Venice at the 2010 One Day Without Shoes event. And green crochet Toms from the summer collection. From Toms shoes.