Tull is the Founder of neo-luxury footwear brand, FEIT.
You have been working in the footwear industry since the early 1990s. How has the industry evolved over this time and in what ways has this evolution influenced the ethos behind FEIT the brand?
Wow—when I started out it was 1996. The concept of athleisure didn’t even exist then. Athletic companies were making athletic shoes which, other than the adoption of some classic silhouettes, were in no way designed to be ‘fashion’. All athletic footwear was laced, and there were very few brands. I came to the market with the idea—Royal Elastics—that athletic footwear could be a purely fashion product, and that in the future most of this product would be lace-less. 20 years on today, the above two points are major drivers for athletic companies.
After spending more than 10 years being part of a global mass-production business model, and building my footwear in the same manner as the larger athletic companies like Nike, Reebok or Adidas, I started to see the world through different eyes. I began to see that businesses are based purely on the requirement for quarterly growth—meaning that when it comes to product, the focus is on reducing the cost of manufacturing to drive volume.
I saw that the process was less focused on design and more on cost-cutting. And, to my alarm, driven by the use and creation of synthetic products which cannot be broken down, and thus become landfill. Those two realisations inspired the creation of my vision of FEIT: a company that would put the quality of a product, namely its materials and construction, as its central focus over profit and volume. FEIT would make these products in a manner that would ensure minimal impact to the environment, whether by the reduction of landfill or by the use of natural materials over oil-based synthetics.
Today, you can see large athletic brands and luxury houses starting to incorporate, or push, the concept of sustainability into their brands. Their methods are still flawed, however, especially those of athletic companies. Make no mistake, these large athletic companies have a lot to answer for when it comes to the use of plastics and synthetics, as well as how much product they are contributing to global landfill.
Can you elaborate on the term ‘neo-luxury’; how did it come about and what does it mean to you?
We consider our goods to be ‘neo-luxury’ goods. It’s a term we developed to describe an evolution of consumerism and production, moving away from volume and excess towards quality, sustainability and the pursuit of product integrity.
How have your personal values and life experience shaped your work?
Personally, I always like a challenge. I like to swim against the tide and go against the grain, hence my desire to be at the beginning of things—not in the middle of its evolution or at the end. As a result, I’m always trying to catch what might be interesting next: what people are thinking, and what areas may evolve in which to challenge myself. In its name, positioning and concept, FEIT (fight) is a very clear reflection of this personal characteristic.
“FEIT believes that producing products by hand from natural materials creates a superior product and wearing experience.” Walk us through the making process; how do you ensure FEIT shoes stand the test of time and function best for customers?
When starting FEIT I constantly asked myself one question: how do I improve this process and product? Every time, the answer ended up being a natural solution. FEIT shoes are lasted by hand, sewn by hand, shaped by hand and finished by hand. To extend the life of each product, FEIT shoes are all repairable and resoleable.
Handmade is a term used a lot today. People consider products that are held in someone’s hand while run through a machine to be handmade. This is not what FEIT considers handmade. In our eyes, ‘handmade’ is when the key steps of a process are executed by hand, with little to no electric machinery involved. In order to finish FEIT products, the end of the process involves sitting on the last for five days in order to shape the shoe.
“FEIT shoes are lasted by hand, sewn by hand, shaped by hand and finished by hand. To extend the life of each product, FEIT shoes are all repairable and resoleable.”
“FEIT adheres to a strict policy of using biological materials and natural treatments where possible.” What are the benefits of working with leather (a byproduct of the meat industry) and how do you minimise your environmental impact at the materials level?
People eat meat and, while they continue to do so, the animal skins are an available byproduct of the meat industry. These skins can either go to waste or be used. At this point, I see no better option than making use of what would be waste if not turned into leather.
Each step of the FEIT product is undertaken in a slow and considered manner. Vegetable-tanned leathers also have a slow and deep product creation cycle. Yet almost all footwear today is designed and built with the opposite in mind. How do we make this more quickly? How do we make it without human involvement? How do we make this at a cheaper price?
The end result of each approach is vastly different. You could compare it to a McDonald’s burger versus a farm-to-table, grass-fed piece of meat. Unsurprisingly, the experience of each product is entirely different for the wearer. Using natural materials means the products mold and shape to the foot and breathe naturally, as skins do in nature.
What are some of the most significant environmental and social issues typically found in the footwear supply chain?
The major issue for me is the use of oil-based synthetics. As you can see in recent years, plastic has become a bigger and bigger issue. Most athletic footwear is built from plastics. In order to create plastics, one needs to a use oil and a huge amount of energy. These synthetic products can never be broken down, and they end up as landfill. Not only do natural materials require a lot less energy and oil to create compared to synthetic materials, they’ll also eventually biodegrade.
“Each pair of shoes is signed and dated on the inside of the tongue by the master craftsmen who built it.” We have been encouraged for years to separate ourselves from those behind our purchases; do you think there is a growing interest in the stories of makers and, if so, what do you think has influenced this shift?
There has 100% been a shift. For years we have been separated from the makers of the products we purchase, but there’s now a growing interest in those makers. There is a desire in people to go back to an experience, a deeper connection to process. Companies tend to hide their makers because their products are mass-produced. At FEIT, our products are crafted by people who take pride in their work and who have a very high level of skill. So why not have a direct connection between maker and customer? We find it benefits both parties.
The business model is such an important key to driving long term change in companies and the way that they operate. What aspect of FEIT’s model do you think other businesses should consider adopting?
Less is more. Take your time, find what you love, and do it with passion. But you should know that, ultimately, you will be spending your time in the area of management, growth, and sales, and not in areas that are creative and from which joy can be derived—unless your key interests are money and profit. If you love money and that’s your ultimate goal, then you you’ll enjoy a very optimised growth-based business.
Do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry without changing their core business model?
To be honest, it’s a bit of a joke. It is primarily a marketing ploy. These companies continue to damage the environment and the world, but they try to do it in a manner that seems slightly less damaging. These businesses are based on a model of ‘fast in, fast out’ at high volumes. And until that’s addressed, or until they create biodegradable products with a truly minimal impact, they will remain the culprit.
“For years we have been separated from the makers of the products we purchase, but there’s now a growing interest in those makers. There is a desire in people to go back to an experience, a deeper connection to process.”
When looking to the future of the garment industry, what systemic change would you like to see take place and why?
I’d like to see a holistic consideration of the entire cycle, and an understanding that quality needs to be a central and first priority when creating products, with profit and growth running second or third.
“I commit to continuing to make footwear built to enhance the wearer’s connection to the ground he walks on.” What continues to drive this mission? What excites and/or daunts you most about the future of the garment industry?
I’m very excited about the progress being made in the areas of 3D printing and bio-technology. I believe that technologies will ultimately come together and provide a sustainable solution to the creation of products at a high volume and at a reasonable price, but that’s still a fair way off.
Today, almost everything we touch is synthetic. Our household items, our phones, our computers, our clothes—in some cases, even our body parts. This disconnection from the natural affects the level of respect we are able to have for both the planet and for life. It’s very much a ‘Mars is our next home’ view. I live on Earth, and my kids live on Earth too. We live here with other people, creatures, plants and trees. I think we will do best as a species if we remain connected, look after the home we have, and if we chart new territory at the same time.
Photography Hannah Roche
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Sub Editor Reb Mery
Pictured Co-Founders Tull and Josh Price