Of all the words in the English language, few hold the power of “unless.” Yes, it may appear unassuming – just one of those everyday, throwaway words – but, stop and think, and it’s really so much more. “Unless” is a word imbued with untapped and unexplored potential – it signals a choice. Another way. Possibly even a better way.
Perhaps, then, this is why co-founders Paul Gaudio and Eric Liedtke – along with Tara Moss and Maarten Teijsse – chose UNLESS as the name of their brand back in 2021. Both adidas alumni, the new venture – focused on progressive, Earth-friendlier materials and production methods – made for a distinct departure from the mass production and corporate culture of the German sportswear giant. Not only another way for the veteran Liedtke and Gaudio, but – perhaps – pointing to another way for the footwear and fashion industries.
Essentially, in founding the brand, Liedtke and Gaudio were saying – to themselves, to their colleagues and peers, and to consumers – that, without real change, things are destined to say the same and, if they do, we’re all in trouble.
“We had been working over the years in big companies and as is often the case, began to think about doing something together, something smaller and more personal,” explains Gaudio, asked about the brand’s beginnings. “Much of the work we had been doing together was design, innovation and story-telling in the ‘sustainability’ space,” the Creative and Innovation Officer continues, acknowledging the possibility to do good work before noting that there is always a trade-off. “We were able to do some amazing things given the budgets, talent, scale and reach of the big brands,” he tells FVV, “but we quickly realized that business constraints would always stand in the way of meaningful transformation.”
Such is the essential dichotomy of working for a leader in any space. With that kind of infrastructure at your behest, it’s certainly possible to make progressive choices that smaller brands aren’t capable of making at anything like the same scale. But, with the machinery of an organization like that comes not only bureaucracy but also questions about whether progress is in the company’s best interests.
Out on their own, however, Gaudio and Liedtke were free from those barriers, given room to experiment, and now able to tackle those problems with the industry that they deemed most pressing.
“We decided to narrow our focus and solve for the problem of plastic in the fashion industry,” begins Gaudio, “We explored recycled plastics, plastics diverted from rivers and oceans, and even closed-loop plastics – all are important, but ultimately this plastic would still end up in the ground.”
This trial and error, of course, is standard practice for any upstart business – it does, however, reflect the magnitude of Gaudio and Liedtke’s aims for the brand. “Solving the problem of plastics,” might sound clear and simple, but the reality is far from either.
It’s one thing, after all, to swear off virgin plastics or pumping out a product that uses polyurethane as its base; it’s another entirely to go cold turkey on plastics completely when they’re so omnipresent in the industry. Even “vegan” brands, or brands who like to call themselves “sustainable,” have a tendency to use plastics somewhere in the production process.
“Our goal is to make good dirt. This drives all material and process innovation. If it can harmlessly return to the earth at the end of its useful life, then we like it.” – Paul Gaudio, Co-Founder and Creative and Innovation Officer at UNLESS
But, this is why Gaudio and Liedtke founded the UNLESS project to begin with: a way to find workable solutions that diverge from the status quo. And it’s in this philosophy that they found like-minded collaborators who could help propel their vision forward.
Partnering with the materials science company Natural Fiber Welding, UNLESS released its first sneaker at the end of 2022. Using NFW’s MIRUM, CLARUS and TUNERA materials alongside cotton and coconut-based textile, the “DEGENERATE” comes with the unique distinction of being made entirely from plants.
The clearest expression of the founders’ mission to-date, the “DEGENERATE” sneaker set a new bar for the brand and, effectively, a new bar for the footwear industry. Here was proof that it could be done and that, in not doing it, other brands were making a choice. More than just an exercise in experimentation, however, the shoe’s success wasn’t limited to material innovation: that the sneaker sold – and, in fact, sold out – is a clear message that a more progressive way of working is not only possible but also, essentially, viable.
What does the future of fashion and footwear look like? Granted, no-one knows for sure. But, if anyone has some idea, it’s probably Paul Gaudio. After all, he’s been right so far. And, with this in mind, we spoke to the UNLESS co-founder and former adidas man, digging into his vision, his predictions, and his process.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did UNLESS first come to be?
Paul Gaudio: We (the founders) had been working over the years in big companies and, as is often the case, began to think about doing something together – something smaller and more personal.
Much of the work we had been doing together was design, innovation and story-telling in the “sustainability” space. We were able to do some amazing things given the budgets, talent, scale and reach of the big brands, but we quickly realized that business constraints would always stand in the way of meaningful transformation. So, like many start-up stories, we decided to go out on our own.
Because sustainability is such a massive and confusing concept, especially to consumers, we decided to narrow our focus and solve for the problem of plastic in the fashion industry. We explored recycled plastics, plastics diverted from rivers and oceans, and even closed-loop plastics – all are important, but ultimately this plastic would end up in the ground.
So we started there – at the end – by asking ourselves what harmlessly returns to the earth? The obvious answer was natural materials, and more specifically plants, so we set out to create footwear and apparel from plants and not plastics.
Beyond the long-term aim of pushing to phase out plastics from the industry and the shorter-term aim of creating without them for yourselves, what was your goal in starting the company?
PG: We had three objectives when we started. First, can we make great products that can be returned to the earth at the end of its useful life? Second, can we make good dirt? Can we demonstrate a regenerative creation model by successfully transforming our post-consumer and post-production materials into safe soil products through industrial composting and use it to grow new plants? And, third, can we stand up a brand that brings this story to life in a consumer relevant way, serving as a lighthouse for others to follow?
These goals haven’t changed, as much as some of our strategies and tactics might have.
“It feels like most designers, marketing and product development people want to make “sustainable” products, tell stories about doing things better, but they face challenges doing so at meaningful scale.” – Paul Gaudio, Co-Founder and Creative and Innovation Officer at UNLESS
How is this different to your previous work with (some might say) less environmentally conscientious, larger-scale companies?
PG: Most big companies really want to do the right thing. Brands are made up of people, and these people really want to find better ways to do what they do. So there is momentum and passion from within management and the work-force. Consumers also quite often look to big brands to lead in social/cultural areas and have also been demanding they take responsibility for the things they make and the way they make them.
Of course there are bigger financial forces – shareholder pressures and installed operational/sourcing/supply-base challenges – that prevent these companies from simply pivoting on a dime. It does seem that most big brands are relying on material suppliers and next-gen tech companies to drive these solutions forward, but the material suppliers are relying on the demand signals and investments from the big brands to succeed.
It’s fair to say that this is a bit of a dance. It feels like most designers, marketing and product development people want to make “sustainable” products, tell stories about doing things better, but they face challenges doing so at meaningful scale.
With that in mind, what changes have you seen in the industry at-large over the last few years?
PG: This is only a feeling, but it seems like big brands are stepping back a bit from sustainability stories and innovations. Maybe this is because of the growing accusations of greenwashing, the internal investments without immediate return, or even consumer confusion and fatigue.
Maybe consumers simply expect products to be made responsibly and they don’t want to have to compromise their taste, or performance for their values? Suppliers have been making gains in new material and process innovation, but can’t quite get to competitive price or performance, as a result, many of these companies struggle to get to scale.
Our industry had been going great-guns for a decade or so, but coming out of the pandemic it feels like things have slowed down. It feels like “hype” has cooled and Athleisure isn’t the growth driver that it once was. Innovation seems to have slowed in general – perhaps due to the cuts in innovation funding during and after the pandemic?
And, following on from that, what do you feel hasn’t changed yet but definitely should?
PG: That’s a really tough question. Where to start? It feels like much of the action around diversity and inclusivity that was promised during the “me too” and George Floyd moments has quietly fizzled or even met with outright derision. I wouldn’t just put this on our industry, as this remains a problem in society generally. Inclusivity fuels diversity and diversity fuels innovation. Innovation fuels growth.
Because of business pressures, it is easy to see how investing in a more sustainable future can be a challenge for our industry. It’s easy to understand that there is a massive flywheel effect that makes changing direction hard. But we can’t put this problem on the backs of consumers as we have been doing – brands need to take ownership in building a roadmap to a better way. Brands need to invest in next-gen material and process innovation, and they need to solve for end of life.
That being said, we can’t put all that on the shoulders of public companies who have promised growth and profitability. Government needs to step up too. Legislation will drive change and growth because innovation and adaptation will be required to overcome any newly-imposed restrictions.
But, we – the consumers, citizens, employees, executives, etc. – need to vote for politicians that have the courage, will and vision to make that happen. This isn’t a political statement: we believe, as do many of our partners, that “good for people, and good for the planet, also means good for business. There is so much opportunity here. (Tesla, anyone?) So, it looks like it’s back on us.
Just as there is no “away,” there is no “they.”
“Innovation comes in many forms, not just science and technology. Sometimes it’s just a different way to build something.” – Paul Gaudio, Co-Founder and Creative and Innovation Officer at UNLESS
Coming back to your own work specifically, it feels like UNLESS is focused more on material innovation than other “sustainable” brands – working with Natural Fiber Welding, rather than just using “vegan” polyurethane for example – is that a key part of what sets you apart?
PG: As I mentioned previously, our goal is to make good dirt. This drives all material and process innovation. If it can harmlessly return to the earth at the end of its useful life, then we like it.
Sometimes this leads to simple solutions like cotton, linen, tencel, hemp, etc. In other cases, real innovation is required to solve for specific applications or use cases – and this is where our partnership with NFW is so critical. We couldn’t simply pull plant-based footwear materials off the shelf as they could not break down in the way we wanted, leaving zero-plastic waste behind.
The material-set that they were developing wasn’t even in production when we began working together, but was clearly the unlock for us. We collaborated to test and commercialize the rubber materials required to build footwear, and then be ground up and composted once they were worn out.
Innovation comes in many forms, not just science and technology. Sometimes it’s just a different way to build something, a once traditional material that has fallen out of use, or a model to take post-consumer product back and turn it into healthy soil.
When you’re designing for UNLESS, what are the core principles?
PG: Built from the elements, to be worn in the elements and safely returned to the elements, UNLESS is rooted in the Pacific Northwest. It all starts there, as we draw inspiration from our home – influenced by the evergreen sensibilities of workwear combined with the utility and style of skate, snow and cold-water surf.
We focus on streetwear essentials – high quality, everyday pieces that are built to last. Once you’ve worn them to death, send them back to us and we’ll return them to the earth.