5 Minutes with Blake Mycoskie . . .

We sat down with TOMS Shoes founder and chief shoe give Blake Mycoskie at Holt Renfrew to talk fashion, altruism, and a truly unique business model.

Kwaku Alston Photography

Kwaku Alston Photography

Kwaku Alston Photography

What are the 3 things that sum up your style?

Hmmm, 3 things, I would say, found objects. So I have a lot of things that I find and have been given to me along the way. They just become part of what I wear. I would say I’m very classic, I don’t really have a lot of . . .  I have the same shirts since I started TOMS and the same jeans.  Even when I was trying to shop here I was like, “Hold on, I’m buying a shirt that looks exactly like the shirt I have”.  I have a classic approach to fashion and I don’t really have the latest this or that, but more the same tried and true simple things, like a v-neck tee shirt, a pair of blue jeans, a pair of black jeans. The other thing about my style, people would say I’m really colourful. I like interesting coloured sweaters, I have a collection of plaid pants, so I wear a lot of colour.

What was the pivotal moment when you knew your idea was taking off?

Well, I think the pivotal moment was the LA Times wrote an article in the newspaper that was only about this big (makes a gesture with his hand indicating approximately an inch high).  It came out on a Saturday, we’d only be doing this for 3 or 4 weeks, and we sold 2,200 pairs on our website that day. And I only had 140 pairs in my apartment so I had to go back to Argentina, figure out how to make more shoes. It was crazy. I mean that was the first moment I was like this isn’t just a small little idea.

When I knew it was going to work, really work, in a long sustainable way, was really when I started seeing people in the street wearing them, you know, not just friends or family. But actually seeing different people wearing them, all different ages of people, and often times, and that was about two years ago.

How old is the company now?

Four and a half.

If there’s one thing–one quality–to which you can credit your success in fashion, what would it be?

Good question, one quality . . . I think it’s the simplicity of our shoe. I think what we’ve seen in the last few years is gone back to a more basics, less logos, less bling. Kind of a preppy, more classic look, and our shoe, this silhouette in a sense, even though our shoe is new, has been around for hundreds of years in an espadrille. So, we took something that was really simple and clean lines and it’s comfortable too. That classic look is what’s really been our success and the reason we’ve maintained that success is that we haven’t deviated from that, we’ve kept it really simple.

Reason for tweeting?

(Laughs.)  That’s a good one.  The truth answer is ‘cause my head of marketing tells me to (laughs).  Why does anyone tweet? I mean honestly, there is no reason to tweet. I tweet because they give me a hard time when I don’t, and it’s easier to tweet than to argue with them.

What is your favourite piece for women this season?

You know, I would say the Cordones that we are doing. I think it’s really cute on women with a pair of skinny jeans. The wedge I mean is great for spring and summer, we do sell some in the fall and in the winter . . . but we have some really great materials (in the Cordones) and then we have a couple others, (flipping through the Giving Report booklet to point out fabrics), this is our giving report, so not a lot of product, but this purple felt is really nice, and the check is really nice, they just came out for holiday.

What would like to receive for Christmas? What are you planning on giving?  

Well I’m planning on giving . . . I do a big holiday gift to all the people who support me and friends . . . and this year I’m giving a CD with a special song called “Truth”. It’s by a band called Balmorhea and it’s out of Austin, Texas and this one song has spoken to me probably greater than any song in five or ten years and it is so powerful that I felt like everyone in my life should have it. I ordered 300 copies and I’m sending it out to everyone.  And all I want to have for Holidays is just more time with my friends and family.

Fave trend of all time?

I think (laughs) the best trend of all time was the pet rock. They sold people rocks. I mean it’s one thing to sell people a bottle of water but selling people rocks?  I mean that is a goooood business person.

What about the worst trend of all time?

Crocs (laughs).

What’s the one thing you’d like to change about fashion?

Oh, definitely, I’d say fashion and retail, I can’t stand that we have to design and ship our stuff so far in advance of when people actually wear it. So like Fall ships in July?!  But in Texas in July it’s 100 degrees, no one wants to wear Fall clothing in July. I just don’t understand why they just keep pushing it up, up, and up. They want new stuff, that’s the retail environment so you end up shipping Holiday in October and it’s still Fall.  And you ship Spring in January and it’s still Winter. So I don’t understand the shipping cycles at all for fashion, it makes no sense to me.

What’s your biggest fashion regret?

Well my funniest fashion thing, it’s not really a regret because it all worked out but the first time I met Karl Lagerfeld I had no idea who he was. And he asked me to . . . this is then 3 months from starting TOMS, Karl Lagerfeld spotted me at a hotel and asked me about my shoes and his assistant said he loves them will you send him some to wear this summer and I didn’t send’em to him ‘cause I didn’t know who he was.  

And he knew about your shoes already?

No, he didn’t know, he just saw because I had a bunch of them at a table, I was showing someone. And so my biggest regret was I didn’t send them to Lagerfeld.  Later, his assistant called my friend and said why did Blake not send the shoes? Karl wanted them. And then she called me and yelled at me because obviously that had been a huge deal. So then I sent him some and everything is good.

How has the One for One movement grown/evolved/changed since the beginning?

It really hasn’t. I mean we are very focused on still every pair of shoes we sell we give one away. I’d say the biggest thing that’s changed is so many people have joined us in doing things, like the ‘One Day Without Shoes’ that we do in April every year where people go barefoot to raise awareness for shoeless people. We have people who are hosting events like this (referring to Holt Renfrew where we sit chatting). There’s a lot of people that have gotten much more engaged than we ever anticipated and it helped grow the movement but the actual model has not changed one bit.

What kind of collaborations would you like to see/do?

We did a really cool collaboration with Ralph Lauren a couple years ago and I would like to do some more. I think you have to be careful especially in footwear because you see so many collaborations. I think we’re really establishing who we are right now so collaborating is not necessarily something that we’re really that keen on doing right now because we’re really trying to just keep defining who we are as a brand right now.

Why is the sustainable/social responsibility aspect key to you?

The main thing was to give a child a pair of shoes once is not really gonna help them because they’re gonna grow out of them and then their feet are going to be used to wearing shoes and then it’s gonna be worse not having shoes. It’s really important to have a recurring way to continue to give shoes and that’s why we created the business model as a business and not as a non-profit so we wouldn’t be dependent on donations. So that’s why it’s important to me so that we can continue keeping kids in shoes once they start.

If not TOMS, what would you be creating/building?

If not for TOMS I’d be working in the micro-finance area.  I’m really fascinated with the power you have to change someone’s life through a small loan.  A tiny little loan can make the biggest difference in someone’s life. That’s what I’d be doing is trying to find ways to help empower people and get them out of poverty through micro-finance.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Really, you’d think the obvious answer would be the giving but that’s not necessarily the answer. The answer is actually that it’s so diverse. I get to spend two weeks in Ethiopia giving, then I get to come up here and host a fun party tonight, and then tomorrow I’ll be in the design studio designing the next collection. So I get to do so many different things, that’s what’s really the best thing, that it’s never the same.

What can’t you live without?

Probably my journal. I write in it every day. I have a very specific journal that I got in Argentina years ago that I keep replacing the paper.  Writing for me is key for keeping my sanity.

From where you are now, what advice would you give your younger self, say 16?

Don’t ever work for money, seriously you’ve gotta do what you love. If you are good at it and you love it, the money will follow but don’t ever take a job just for money.

What’s your biggest indulgence and why?

The sport of polo. I love horses, I love adrenaline rushes, I love being in Argentina, I just love everything about it but it’s definitely an indulgence.

How do you see the shoes themselves and the brand evolving? i.e. what’s next?

Doing the boots now that we have are great and the wedges and the new styles. I think that’s really the evolution in the coming years, adding new styles that can be worn all year long and by different types of people.

I see here that you’ve donated to 20 different countries and wondering why those ones? How did you go about choosing those and are there others you’d like to add?
It’s mainly based on do children need shoes to go to school or to prevent foot disease?  So if the answer is yes to one of those two questions then that’s a high probability that we would like to donate there and then if we have a good partner then it really works out well.

What kind of partner?

An NGO partner that can help with the distribution and the sustainability.