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Clae Embodies Cali Cool with Minimalist Sneakers, Sustainable Style: On Brand

Being California Cool isn’t just about having a laid-back attitude—at least, not anymore.

In 2020, it’s about championing environmental causes and paving the way toward a more sustainable future—all while harnessing the state’s inimitable “chill vibe.”

For L.A.-based sneaker brand Clae, which has found its footing with hipsters and hippies alike, simple silhouettes belie a serious commitment to sustainability.

The Brooklyn-born brainchild of Sung Choi, the Seoul-born designer who founded the company in 2001, Clae footwear was conceived of a desire to create polished, wearable styles for sneaker aficionados.

The brand helped usher in the era of the simple leather cupsole—a staple as iconic during the 2000s and 2010s as Converse high-tops were in the ‘90s.

“Our designs are inspired by the modern architectural approach of authentic form, while innovating in comfort and materials,” Clae CEO Jim Bartholet told Sourcing Journal.

Clae has been working to refine its classic silhouettes through a “meticulous attention to materials, design, comfort and innovative details” for almost 20 years, he added.

“We and are dedicated to offering minimalist and timeless pieces that evolve and endure, all while minimizing our footprint on the environment.”

While the brand’s designs are simple, Clae has thoughtfully refined its material offerings over the years, settling on ethically sourced leathers and man-made vegan options, all produced in Vietnam.

The collection’s leather shoes are made in cooperation with certified, award-winning tanneries “that operate with a low carbon footprint, paying high attention to water and energy consumption,” Bartholet said.

In December, the brand debuted its bestselling low-top cupsole, the Bradley, in vegan leather. The durable synthetic was introduced in a handful of neutrals, and new packaging made with 100 percent recyclable materials accompanied the launch.

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Clae also offers styles made from recycled PET, derived from post-consumer plastic bottles. The waste is melted down into pellets and then extruded into durable yarns used to weave mesh and terry uppers, fabrics more breathable than standard leather.

Clae uses recycled PET in the creation of its breathable knit sneakers.
Clae’s Bradley Knit style in pale khaki. Clae

An eye toward functionality drives design, Bartholet said, and the introduction of these new materials provides benefits to performance as well as the environment.

“Our upcoming Spring-Summer 2020 line will see our growing capabilities in creating sustainably produced footwear,” Bartholet added, touting a new partnership with SEQUAL, an organization dedicated to upcycling marine plastic into retail products.

SEQUAL partners with fishermen, NGOs and ocean cleanup programs to retrieve different types of discarded plastic from open waters where they could be ingested by marine life.

Clae plans to introduce more silhouettes with synthetic and recycled uppers in future seasons, increasing the category’s prominence within the overall brand offering, Bartholet said.

The simplicity of Clae’s silhouettes makes them quintessential wear-with-anything shoes—and optimal canvasses for collabs.

An absence of adornment practically invites artisans, like recently tapped designer Simon Frankart, to make their mark on the shoes’ supple leathers.

Frankart showcases his “sexy and subversive” sketches on his Instagram account, @petitesluxures. His signature Clae shoe features an insole marked with decidedly not-safe-for-work drawings, and a simple heart and hand-shaped logo on the shoe’s upper.

Clae's exclusive sneaker with artist Simon Frankart, creator of Petites Luxures.
Clae x Petites Luxures Clae

Clae has partnered with six designers, retailers and other brands in recent seasons, inviting them to design footwear capsules and complementary accessories, like watches, totes and wallets, for the brand.

The collections infuse the otherwise even-keeled Clae line with varied artistic perspectives, and allow the brand to tap into collaborators’ niche audiences.

All of the collaborations are still available for purchase on Clae’s direct-to-consumer site—a different strategy than the limited-edition drops employed by other sneaker brands to generate hype. Rather than inspiring purchases through scarcity, the brand treats its collaborators like artists-in-residence.

A capsule with famed French designer Agnes B. features whimsical pastel suede uppers and striped heel accents, while a line with French men’s contemporary brand Bleu de Paname resulted in a streetwear-inspired athletic sneaker with denim, fleece and suede panels.

Clae's collaborative sneaker with French brand Bleu de Paname.
Clae x Bleu de Paname Clae

A collaboration with Melbourne-based accessories brand Bellroy created a truly minimalist cupsole style fashioned from a single piece of unlined nubuck leather.

Costa Mesa, Calif., surfboard maker Paul Lefevre’s brand, Son of Cobra, worked with Clae on a sneaker with a marbleized upper—reminiscent of ripples on water—and a retro fish board bearing the same motif. Another California label, luxury timepiece maker March La.B, crafted a capsule collection with Clae that included a rustic olive sneaker and watch with a matching suede band.

“Most, if not all, of these these partnerships have grown organically and instinctively from forging strong working relationships over the years,” Bartholet said.

Clae, he added, tends to choose brands and designers that share in some element of design philosophy or branding, despite their vastly different styles.

As the footwear firm looks forward to 2020 and beyond, those relationships will continue as vehicles for the brand’s evolution and expansion.

“We are inspired by the creative minds who think outside the box, whose iconic designs do not compromise functionality,” Bartholet said.