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This Plant-Based Sneaker Startup Wants to Be 100% Vegan Next Year

Long a staple in the American and global wardrobe, sneakers have been subject to sustainable makeovers in recent years as a new breed of innovators reconsiders the footwear favorite’s planet-polluting profile.

Last week, Brooklyn-based Kengos debuted with a rebrand, name change and 98 percent plant-based sneaker that by next year will be vegan through and through, it hopes.

The dual-gender Lace-Up shoe offers familiar styling with a novel twist, riffing on the classic white sneaker that incorporates signature, patent-pending 1Knot construction to stand out from the pack. Not only does the whipstitch detail enliven the aesthetic with textural interest, but it also sidesteps the need for environmentally unfriendly adhesives by binding upper to sole with a single cord and knot.

Founding CEO Dave Costello, who earned his MBA at Northwestern University and has stints at LVMH and Boston Consulting Group under his belt, launched Kengos with the mission of combating climate change by weaning society off its toxic reliance on petroleum and animal-based products, says director of marketing Wendy Kadon. “He chose footwear to tackle the problem because it’s a product he loves that’s both personally expressive and globally ubiquitous,” she added. “It’s also the most resource-intensive piece of apparel we wear every day.”

Initially intending on bowing in July, Kengos found itself temporarily sidelined by the Covid-19 crisis, which closed its entire supply chain for months, Kadon said, and turned chief product officer and Cole Haan alum Micah Heftman into a “full-time homeschool teacher.”

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Kengos hopes its cruelty-free footwear will resonate with urban-dwelling mid-20-something millennials “excited about innovation and style,” says Kadon, and who devote their dollars to “sustainably made products when possible as long as the product does not compromise on the core attributes” of price, comfort and style.

Consumers seem to be demonstrating greater interest in fashion made with animal welfare and planetary health in mind. Globally, the market for women’s vegan fashion is set to reach $1.1 trillion by 2027, expanding at a combined annual growth rate of 13 percent, says.

Though Kengos assembled a supply chain of eco-friendly materials, it has even bigger plans in store for the future. For now, cork in the Lace-Up’s midsole comes from southern Portugal, while the natural rubber is sourced from Mexico, where Kengos manufactures its footwear in a Leon factory. “We are still pursuing full supply-chain tracing of the corn, eucalyptus, and natural latex components, but source those from large, reputable materials companies,” Kadon noted.

Costello’s team put considerable time and effort into coming up with a sourcing strategy that minimizes impact. The brand, Kadon says, “started with a reductionist philosophy by questioning every component of the shoe from the ground up, which also affects the supply chain.”

Leveraging a piece knit process for the upper rather than cutting and sewing nearly eliminates production waste, for example, while building a sneaker with just five components rather than the 15 found in the average shoe means fewer parts hurtling around the globe, Kadon says. Kengos is investigating how to concentrate manufacturing efforts in Mexico alone to cut cross-Atlantic transport out of its supply system, she added, noting plans to conduct a full life cycle assessment next year.

And it’ll get to 100 percent vegan status by coming up with a new rubber input. “We are in the process of developing a new natural rubber formulation that is 100 percent plant based and free of all petroleum-based ingredients,” Kadon said. Innovation adviser Howard Colvin, a polymer chemist specializing in rubber with more than four decades of experience in the tire industry and upward of 40 self-authored patents, spearheads Kengos’ R&D investment.

An in-the-works rubber formulation will bring Kengos to 100 percent vegan status next year.
An in-the-works rubber formulation will bring Kengos to 100 percent vegan status next year. Courtesy

Originally named Scoots after a nickname bestowed on Costello by his father, the brand was forced to shift gears when it filed for domestic trademark protections and discovered someone already owned a trademark for the name in a similar category. It settled on Kengos—“short, catchy, and unlike anything else out there,” Kadon says of the “made-up word.”

“Upon further research, we discovered that there are similar-sounding words in both Igbo and Japanese culture that have strong, positive meanings, so that sealed the deal for us,” she added.

As one of the latest in a long list of direct-to-consumer startups disrupting the retail space, Kengos is content to remain a digital native for now, though it’s open to wholesale opportunities next year “that feel right for the brand,” Kadon said, adding that the startup raised a pre-seed funding round from private investors late last year.

In a statement, Costello described Kengos as “setting a new standard for sustainability in the footwear industry.” As part of its goal to create completely plant-based footwear by the close of 2021, the sustainable upstart, he added, will “push for meaningful change in our country’s waste management infrastructure so that our shoes can be commercially composted.”