Designed To Help: A Pair for You, a Pair For the Needy

Among the big-name architects, graphic designers and fashionistas who were honored at the National Design Awards in New York this week was a guy who never went to design school and had never designed a thing until 2006. That's when Blake Mycoskie, a tech entrepreneur on a sojourn in Argentina to learn to play polo, found himself in a village so impoverished that none of the kids had shoes. He got the idea for "TOMS: Shoes for Tomorrow" by adapting the local Argentine alpargata—a canvas shoe with rope soles like an espadrille—and making it sturdier with a rubber sole. The shoes were comfortable and looked cool (the polo players all wore them off the field), and Mycoskie figured he could manufacture the shoes there, sell them inexpensively in the United States (they cost about $40 a pair), and for each pair sold give a pair to a needy child. In just 16 months TOMS has outrun all expectations: with more than 60,000 pairs sold, Mycoskie has given away 10,000 pairs in Latin America and is about to leave for South Africa with 50,000 pairs to donate. In online voting TOMS Shoes won the People's Design Award, beating out 300 other nominees, including the i-Phone. Mycoskie, 31, calls his win "incredibly flattering and humbling."
 
Sure, the shoes are cute—they come in a variety of colors and patterns—but what's brilliant about the design is the business model. Mycoskie took an incredibly simple idea-sell one pair, give one pair away-and promoted the shoes by making customers feel good about what they were buying. Each shoe has these words stamped on the insole: "For every pair you purchase TOMS gives a pair to a child in need." Mycoskie was wary of starting a not-for-profit organization that would have to depend on fund-raising to keep his idea alive. "The business itself will sustain the charitable object," he says. "That's what's revolutionary about the model." The shoes are available online (www.TOMSshoes.com) and in boutiques and some department stores. TOMS is thinking about developing an upmarket shoe for stores like Barneys and Saks-which would mean at least a two-pair giveaway for each pair sold. The company is also developing special-needs shoes: next June it will launch a giveaway of rubber boots for kids in Ethiopia, where the moist soil is host to debilitating disease.