Dec 10, 2023
by Karl Smith
by Karl Smith
Dec 10, 2023

At the risk of stating the obvious, it has been a year. A year of new releases, new innovations, new advances and new legislation. A year of change. Yes, it’s safe to say a lot has happened since we introduced our projects of the year list back in December of 2022 – which is great, because it’s kind of hard to make a list without anything to write about – and, as an industry, we’ve covered a lot of ground in what feels like a pretty short space of time.

Yes, there have been setbacks and there have been disappointments, but above all else there has been progress – and, from our perspective, that’s what matters most.

We’ve seen major movement toward a world without plastic, toward processes that prioritize the Earth and the environment, and we’ve seen fashion and footwear that challenge long-held ideas about materials, motive, quality and consumption. Plant-based products have practically become mainstream and big-name brands have followed in the footsteps of innovation-led startups, pushing the idea of wholesale systemic change into the spotlight. There has been new legislation introduced and new leaders in the space have made themselves known.

Again, it’s been a year. But, hey, time flies when you’re having fun.

And with all the in mind, we’ve put together a list. It’s not exhaustive by any means – in a year of near-constant news on the innovation front, this is only a hand-picked 10 – but we think, in terms of their breadth and their impact, the projects on this list give a pretty accurate picture of the kind of year that 2023 has been.

Between now and the end of the month, we’ll be updating this list. So, if you’re not seeing 10 yet – luck you, there’s plenty more to come. And, if you are, well happy holidays. Here’s to the New Year.

#10 – The Nike Re-Creation Program
Having initially launched in Los Angeles back in 2022, 2023 was the year that Re-Creation went global. A celebration of zero-waste working and the creative potential of upcycling, Nike linked with the likes of Greater Goods, Transnomadica, and – most recently – Paris-based label Starcow, showcasing the work and the artistry of the people and brands who are making an impact on the industry by lowering their own. Coming in at #10 on our 2023 list, I think it's fair to say that – if you're reading this – you're aware that Nike isn't perfect. But, in throwing its considerable weight behind a project like this, the Oregon-based sportswear giant is doing something good and signaling a willingness, perhaps even a desire, to be a part of the conversation moving forward.
#9 – PANGAIA x Zellerfeld "Absolute" Sneaker
In a year that's really seen 3D-printed footwear come into its own – not only as a process for production, but also an art form and a mode of creative expression – Zellerfeld has established itself as the go-to platform for labels looking to experiment with the format. From cult-favorite brand Pleasures, to Danish minimalist outfit Rains, to high-end names like Moncler, Zellerfeld has found itself producing shoes of all shapes and sizes in 2023 – all made to order, all fully recyclable, and all without the need for anything like a traditional factory. This entry is a nod to all of those brands and to Zellerfeld itself, but – ultimately – the number nine spot here goes to PANGAIA's "Absolute" Sneaker: the design is sleek, minimal, and – released in April – set the tone for other brands to follow in its footsteps. More than this, though, the concept fits with PANGAIA's central ethos in a way that doesn't feel like a reach so much as a natural extension – a testament to the ways in which the materials science brand was already walking the walk.
#8 – Copenhagen Fashion Week
This might seem like an odd choice: Fashion Week isn't exactly a new concept and, on the whole, Fashion Week isn't something we tend to celebrate. In fact, as a traveling showcase for the industry, with its huge carbon footprint, massive wastage and penchant for excess, Fashion Week highlights some of its very worst qualities. As a beacon of progressive thinking, however, Copenhagen Fashion Week dares to ask one simple question: "What if it didn't have to be this way?". Imposing strict rules on exhibiting brands – with a goal of reducing waste and pollution, and increasing positive social impact – CPHFW also applied those same rules to itself, switching transportation to favor electric vehicles, severing ties with single-use plastics, removing meat from the catering plan, and banning the sale of high-volume merchandise such as T-shirts. After all that cutting, what we're left with is a forward-thinking Fashion Week, attracting likeminded brands keen to focus on Earth-friendlier projects.
#7 – On x LanzaTech CleanCloud "Pace" Collection
Swiss sportswear brand On is probably best know for its running shoes – and, in particular, for the cloud technology which elevates the power and performance of its soles above so many of the label's peers. Second to that, however, On has a well-earned reputation for forward-thinking – for Earth-friendlier takes on tech that isn't traditionally quite as kind to the planet. Having last year debuted CleanCloud technology in collaboration with the materials science company LanzaTech, On has taken a huge leap and advanced the carbon capture system from a single footwear prototype to a full-on capsule collection. Where other sports performance brands are still leaning on virgin, petro-based plastics to deliver their required specs, On has taken the baton for sustainability and, well, run with it.
#6 – GANNI x Modern Synthesis Bacteria-Based "Bou" Bag
Our understanding of bacteria is constantly evolving. Not so long ago, it was something to be avoided at all costs. Then we found out about good bacteria and guts all around the world breathed a sigh of relief. Now, though, things are moving to a whole other level and it's not just human stomachs that are feeling the benefit. Revealed earlier this year, 2023 saw materials science company Modern Synthesis and sustainability-focused fashion label GANNI come together to show what's possible without the use of animal-derived or fossil-based elements. Opting to switch out the mix of recycled leather, polyurethane, recycled cotton, and polyester that previously formed the construction of the brand's iconic "Bou" Bag, the pair used Modern Synthesis' innovative bacterial nanocellulose material instead. Created via fermentation and described as "a particularly strong and fine form of cellulose," the bacteria-based Bou Bag makes a strong case for how the future of fashion – without animal cruelty and always with the Earth in mind – might look. Change, it seems, is brewing.
#5 – Drew Veloric MIRUM Eames Chair
Classics are classic for a reason, but sometimes something that once felt innovative can lose its sense of progressive joy de vivre in the face of new developments. Such is the case with this Herman Miller Eames Chair: a true icon of Twentieth-Century design – imitated by many and replicated convincingly by basically no-one – some might say there's no good reason to mess with perfection. But, of course, they'd be wrong. Reworked by forward-thinking designer Drew Veloric, this Eames chair was restored using innovative and progressive materials – forgoing leather, in favor of MIRUM (Natural Fiber Welding's plant-based and plastic-free alternative), and using a combination of coconut and natural rubber for the cushion. Veloric calls this 1-of-1 restoration project "historically accurate," which is certainly true in the aesthetic sense – but in terms of what the designer has accomplished here, this piece of history is now very much a part of the future.
#4 – MYCOAUDIO Mycelium Speakers
Now, speakers aren't exactly an innovation in and of themselves. The fact is, we've had them for a while and – while there have been some upgrades to quality – the "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" rule has held up pretty well. Then, earlier this year, MYCOAUDIO came along and pointed out that we just weren't looking hard enough for the parts in need of change – or, more accurately, that we just weren't getting creative enough with the new technologies at our disposal. The speakers shown here – a collaboration with the Montreal-based brand EDEN Power Corp displayed at Forza Gallery – are works of art in their own right, using the traditional Japanese firing technique of Raku to create a unique and semi-abstract finish, but they're also an innovative, Earth-friendlier upgrade. In replacing the usual interior acoustic foam – heavily dependant on fossil-derived materials – with reishi mycelium roots, which share a similar structure but occur naturally, MYCOAUDIO points to a sense of harmony, a resonance between people and planet.
#3 – Space Available x Brain Dead "Mycelium Network" Exhibition
Speaking of mycelium – and, for that matter, of exhibitions in North America – 2023 also saw an impressive gathering of forward-thinking fungi specialists, hosted by radical recyclers Space Available Located at Brain Dead's studio space in Los Angeles, "The Mycelium Network" functioned as a showcase for mushroom-based design – opening up a much-needed discussion of which everyday items could or should be reimagined in natural forms. From lamps to soccer balls, sofas to speakers – essential elements of modern living to pure design objects – "The Mycelium Network" offered up a dual perspective: a focus on functionality and creativity, on working toward a better Earth and working toward better art.
#2 – Nike ISPA Mindbody
It doesn't necessarily bear repeating twice in a Top 10 list that Nike isn't perfect – it does, however, warrant reminding that there are elements within the Beaverton mega-brand which are focused solely on a more progressive future for the sportswear giant. And chief among them is Nike ISPA – almost fifth column-like in its mission to upend the parent company's status quo. Here, in a single shoe, ISPA – which stands for Improvise, Scavenge, Protect and Adapt – made a case for what Nike could and should be doing to push footwear into a more considered and more conscious space. Forgoing to the traditional and environmentally detrimental process of gluing, the Mindbody is held together by stitching and a single-cord system; designed, at its end of life, to be ripped apart and easily recycled in a lower-impact process. Beyond the facts of its innovative construction – which also features recycled yarn Flyknit down to the footbed – it's also worth noting that, in the "Barely Volt" colorway, ISPA was able to incorporate Living Ink's algae-based pigment making for another push in the right direction. The call for progress, it seems, is coming from inside the house.
#1 – Sean Wotherspoon x adidas Hemp and Mycelium Gazelle
When it comes to Earth-friendlier design, Sean Wotherspoon knows what he's doing. Between a penchant for vintage products and a knack for plant-based creativity, the LA-based designer has taken on some hefty projects and worked with some big names in the last year. None of which, perhaps, is bigger than design, adidas. Inherently problematic, the German sportswear brand is not a paragon of progress – much like its American counterpart, the sheer scale of its infrastructure and levels of production really prevent any attempt to categorize it as such – but this collaboration with Wotherspoon does hint at a willingness to try something new; a tacit admission, perhaps, that the status quo is no longer working – even for adidas. And, while there is no is ISPA equivalent, in Wotherspoon the brand has a design partner who is not only driven by a set of clear principles but also a genuine sense of curiosity – a desire to find out what it looks like and what it feels like to reimagine a classic sneaker like the Gazelle in Earth-friendlier materials like hemp and mycelium. It's an imperfect project, of course – the mycelium element is crafted from Bolt Threads' now-defunct MYLO material and thus will never be replicated at scale – but its very existence points to cogs turning at one of the world's biggest and most recognizable brands. And, of course, they look good. Progress, as always, over perfection.
Honorable Mention
And now for something a little different. Following the tradition we began last year with Mission Deadstock we're handing an honorable mention for 2023 to to our project with Champion. Using the brand's reworked Reverse Weave sweatshirt – made using more sustainable fibers from part recycled materials – as a canvas, we enlisted the help of artists and embroiderers to create a product that functions as a totem for Earth-friendlier progress and for real, artisanal craftsmanship. With all of this at heart, we put together a capsule – printed on deadstock and seconds – made to our own exacting specs. And then, as you may be lucky enough to know, we gave every single one away.