Highsnobiety

It's well known that all major sneaker brands are grappling with their undeniable environmental footprint. The resonating call for sustainability has permeated culture, promising reduced waste, lower emissions, and reimagined production, with few tangible results to show from these grandeur statements.

Acknowledging that shoe production is one of the most significant contributors to global pollution, sustainable lifestyle brand Proto Collective avoids making any huge promises, instead remaining transparent about its growth and iterative processes within an industry dominated by established giants.

Amina El Kabbany, Amina El Kabbany

Founded in 2020, the US-based footwear and lifestyle label finds purpose and motivation from practice, completely dismissing the notion of perfectionism. The primarily female/BIPOC-led collective is focused on implementing practical methods that prioritize style and function without compromising the planet.

"We don't believe in perfectionism." shares Jillian Ricciardi, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Proto. "We all know that the journey is what's important. We're in practice every day."

Bolstered by a team that includes Ricciardi, CEO Katie Longmyer, and footwear OGs Jeff Staple and Jeff Henderson, Proto possesses a wealth of knowledge and experience across multiple industries. The formidable base empowers the fledgling brand to think about more than just sneakers, building a future defined by mindful innovation.

Amina El Kabbany, Amina El Kabbany

"We’re still at the beginning now, but our approach is unique," states Proto investor and WeWork founder Miguel McKelvey. "It may sound basic, but from what I see in the company and from what I see in the people, I believe we can shift the paradigm."

Guided by this ethos, Proto debuts its first signature shoe, the Iris-D, and an accompanying reversible bucket hat as a testament to the fusion of design prowess and sustainable principles.

Amina El Kabbany, Amina El Kabbany

Designed with a styled monogram knit upper made from 98 percent recycled yarns, a cushioned insole crafted from repurposed factory scraps and foam waste, and U.S.-made shoelaces produced from recycled materials, Proto's inaugural sneaker showcases an alternative way to think about and execute design, paving a path toward responsible production practices.

In honor of the shoe's launch, the innovative brand partnered with the storied Sunset Beach Hotel to put Proto's forward-thinking methodology to work. Outfitting the entire front-of-house staff in the dynamic sneaker for the entire 2023 summer season, Proto took over the Shelter Island resort, welcoming in luminaries like actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, stylist Taylor Okata, and celebrity photographer Tyler Joe for weekend showcase of sustainable luxury.

Immersing ourselves in the world of Proto, we caught up with Longmyer, McKelvey, and Riccardi during the weekend-long event ahead of the brand's official launch of the Iris-D:

What elements makeup Proto?

Katie Longmyer

I come from the nightlife community. That community is about creating a space where we feel seen and can cultivate our own creativity and share our resources. So much comes out of that community that ends up cutting into the cultural fabric as it bubbles up out of the ground level.

That's what's important to me, and that's woven into the fabric of the brand, from the sustainability to who owns it to who's working here and everything in between.

Miguel McKelvey

I was surprised when I learned how much of the profit from the footwear industry has gone to people who don’t necessarily represent the consumer base. Soon after, I became really curious about how to play a role in changing that. How to contribute to supporting amazing, creative people who can bring new things to life but also share in the ownership and share in the return on all of that time invested.

So Proto is a new kind of energy, a new kind of spirit, a new kind of approach to this industry.

Jillian Ricciardi

I think, as a team, we're all pretty aligned on why we're here and what we're doing. This isn't new; it's normal for a lot of us. So Proto has really become a place where people can come and share ideas and innovate and figure out a new way to make something that people really care about.

How does a project involving so many different people with such different backgrounds come to life?

MM

It started really with the moment of me reaching out to Jeff Staple and saying, "Hey, is there a company like this that's sustainable, made in the Americas, and owned by not just white guys?" So to bring something like that to life is a big challenge; the next step was to go out and find amazing people who could make that happen. I think it takes a certain kind of mindset to build a company that does things differently, and historically, it hasn't been women at the top of these companies who are building the industry. That's a huge differentiator for our team.

Being that you guys are female/BIPOC-led, how does it change the way you operate? What opportunities do you feel you’re afforded?

KL

Being a minority in a multitude of ways, I don't know any other way to be, and most people who are in minority communities also don't. But there are shifts happening, and it's really powerful and beautiful. Everyone on the team have different corners of minority experiences that we come from, but it very much shows up in how we create, how we brainstorm, how we problem-solve, and how we mediate amongst ourselves. It all feels fairly effortless, and I think that actually is the advantage.

Amina El Kabbany, Amina El Kabbany

With a buzzword as big as sustainability going around, how are you guys differentiating yourselves from the hype?

JR

We're definitely not claiming that we know the best answer, there is no silver bullet. But I think sustainability can mean so many things, and there's a multitude of ways to address it right now. To us, it's really just a consideration at every decision level. From the type of materials we use to how the product is constructed to providing living wages for manufacturers to the end of life of our product and everything in between, we’re thinking, “is this sustainable?” And I think that's why it has become a buzzword because there are so many definitions around the idea.

So why are shoes the best avenue to execute this kind of work?

MM

First, we had to find a product with a lot of space to actually move around and iterate, where the margin is wide enough that you could say, "Hey, can we innovate within that space in terms of how it's manufactured or in terms of the sustainability aspects." and that ended up being sneakers.

Overall, though, we wanted to make a product that people would be proud to wear, and shoes are a great place to start because you're literally going to make that choice to express yourself in a specific way every day.

JR

Footwear is a huge industry that hasn't really been disrupted for quite some time. It's something that shifts culture and is a catalyst for a lot of different conversations. So, if you can create something impactful and at scale, then you have a real seat at any table.

Amina El Kabbany, Amina El Kabbany

Talk to me about the “Practice Is Perfect” tagline you guys use.

KL

We're iterating all the time. We're not trying to beat you over the head with one thing that is “the solution.” We believe in learning, we believe in growing, we believe in the conversation, and that's practicing.

JR

For our team, it has created this ability for us to adapt and be flexible. But also, because everyone's in practice, we only surround ourselves with people who are open to learning and growing. We're in practice every day. We don't believe in perfectionism; we all know that the journey is what's important.

How have you guys put all of these ideas into action with the new Iris-D shoe?

JR

There are little incremental things, but this is the first iteration of our product, our “prototype.” We always thought from the beginning we wanted to be a big bad business but do it differently and show that there's a new way to do things, that you can actually center people and the planet and make decisions while also continuing to make a profit; they don't have to be exclusive.

So the Iris-D represents the beginning, a platform for the next iterations of our products.

Amina El Kabbany, Amina El Kabbany

Looking big picture, what does the future of fashion and footwear look like through the lens of Proto?

KL

Our future is an entire product line that evolves from here; take this release and apply it to what's coming next. We're engineering to evolve the brand as a whole with different types of sneakers and garments to piece together. We really want people to understand the considered and sustainable story.

JR

If it's a lifestyle brand, you have to give something for every part of your life. We want to make sure that if you're wearing our shoes, you're not going to go wear them with a fast-fashion top. You have to be aligned in everything, right?

MM

We’re still at the beginning now, but our approach is unique, and the people we’ve assembled are special. It may sound basic, but from what I see in the company and from what I see in the people, I really believe we can shift the paradigm.

Shop the Iris-D and the new Proto Bucket Hat at protocollective.com.

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