It comes as no surprise to learn that Samuel Baruch, the man behind experimental sneaker design studio Igwe, grew up dreaming of running a conceptual sneaker brand that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in footwear. We recently dialled into a locked-down Paris to talk to Sam about experimentation, Igwe and his passion for the planet. An interview by Emily Ellis of Public Fibre.
Sam views sneakers as a work of art, and like most great artists he has spent time honing his craft under the stewardship of some of the best designers and brands: from time at Puma working on KERING inter-group collaborations (including Fenty and Alexander McQueen) as well Veja, who he joined in 2017 and where his love of design was matched by a new passion for sustainability.
My first question to him was, why sneakers?
“For me, there’s no end of creativity you can have with this product. I love to play with laces, you can do so many things with just one element. I love taking one detail of the shoe and playing with it just enough to make a difference.”
He elaborates by talking about how his background in graphic design and love of two-dimensional imagery inspires his different aesthetic.
“I try to not look at any other shoes when I’m designing so that my mind isn’t influenced. I take inspiration from prints, graphic design, and other 2D things.”
Sam’s desire to do his own thing was born out a hunger to explore different approaches to design and a frustration about the lack of differentiation within the sustainable sneaker category. In his words… “I just started to think…. I’ve seen the same thing a thousand times. Just because it’s sustainable, doesn’t mean it needs to be simple.”
Refusing to play by the category norms is what makes Sam and Igwe so interesting. What appears at first glance to be clean cut, minimal design is supported through an intricate composition of individual pieces – with some designs using up to 100 elements (rather than the industry standard of 30.) The complexity of the innovation may be subtle, but the paired back aesthetic that sits somewhere in between streetwear and luxury appeals to the more refined audience.
As a sustainable brand, I was curious to hear what Sam’s view was on using leather, as it’s such a popular debate in these circles. His response was direct and to the point: “I guess it depends… what is your fight? It’s admirable to fight for animals, but I’m fighting for the planet, and for me the best thing for the planet is to produce less new things.” He also points out that leather is a natural waste product of the food industry and that much of the harm to the environment comes in the treatment process as well at how with Igwe he’s conscious to only use chrome free leather.
The concept of creating products that last a long time is one that’s very important to Sam, and you can see why, sneakers have to be designed to withstand far more than most garments. “The benefit of creating durable, hard-wearing footwear” Sam tells me, “is that people need replace them less often and to buy less overall”. This might feel incongruous coming from a sneaker brand, but Sam is defiant in his desire for what he calls “very slow fashion.” Despite his insatiable appetite for design exploration, he’s determined to limit himself to only 1 or 2 product releases per year, a statement against hyper-consumerism and the never-ending stream of “must have” drops entering the hype machine: the footwear industry alone pumps our 24 billion pairs of shoes, much of which end up in landfill1.
The fixation on quality is one of the reasons why Sam is so particular about his supply chain. Each product is made to order in Portugal, a decision that’s been made to eliminate any kind of waste but also to ensure the high-standard that only a hand-finished garment can command. “When people buy the shoe, I want them to know that there are 5 people in a factory in Portugal that are making the product just for them.”
Images Courtesy of Igwe
Up to 95% of the production process is done in Portugal, with a fraction of the material being sourced from Spain or Italy. This is so that Sam can guarantee fair working conditions and a reduced carbon footprint from transportation of his sneakers. They may cost more to make this way, but for Sam it’s worth it.
“Everybody says that sustainability is expensive – and it is, it is more expensive than plastic. It’s really expensive now because nobody is doing it. But if the big brands caught on tomorrow, the price would go down… In my opinion, to make true change, the price for sustainable products has to be lower than it is for non-sustainable.”
So, what’s next for Igwe? At Public Fibre, we’re on tenterhooks to see the release of the latest model Binary that’s due to launch in 2021. Whilst Sam may have been kept away from his factories with the global lockdown, it hasn’t stopped him from reimagining what may be for the sneakers of the future. As he signs off, he teases us by saying “Long term? my goal is to do something different. I mean, I would love to do something really different for the market, but I don’t know if the market is ready for it…” to which I can only reply, “try us.’
Interview by Emily Ellis from Public Fibre
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