Hi Katy, thanks so much for speaking with me. Could you start us off with a little intro?
No worries! So, my name’s Katy Forster; I’m the Head of Product at Vivo Barefoot. I started my career as a designer at a company called Pentland, who are a large brand management group, attached to a lot of sporting & footwear brands. At Pentland, I moved from being a Junior Designer in what’s called the ‘Design Pool,’ completing monthly projects across different brands, to Trend & Product Manager for a brand called Ellesse.
I then moved to Vivo Barefoot as I wanted to focus more on fashion, health & wellness, and so was interested in the health proposition of barefoot footwear! I first started as the women’s footwear designer just over two years ago, and here I am.
How was the transition from Design to Product?
As the designer, my role was very creative every day, from new shoe design, trend research, to colour & material application. However, I was always interested in designing the shoes as a range; ‘How does all that fit together? What does it look like on the shelf?’ So transitioning into a management role gave me the ability to take responsibility for the full collection.
But the transition doesn’t stop – our roles are constantly evolving at Vivo! The footwear industry is rapidly changing in response to environmental concerns and so product management is having to adapt to cover additional scope — it’s not necessarily just about good looking shoes anymore.
As Head of Product, I’m now responsible for managing how our product, design, and development function adapts – challenging how we design our products and how we manufacture them. Realising this next step in our strategy requires a whole new level of creativity, (which is where my design background helps!) it’s motivating to think differently and challenge the norm.
Could you expand on VivoBarefoot’s has some amazing sustainability goals and customer care ethos?
Our sustainability goals really are at the heart of everything we do. In my opinion, this stems from the personal motivation of many of my colleagues, this creates a culture of ‘doing things better’ from the core of the business, it is infectious.
Both our founders Galahad and Asher have driven this agenda from the very beginning. I’m also very lucky to work alongside our very talented Head of Sustainability, Emma Foster Geering. She brings a world of sustainability knowledge, high energy, and a sharp greenwashing radar to challenge every department at Vivo.
Brands can plaster any sustainability goals on their website, but it is ultimately the belief of the employees in the business that will only make them happen!
How does that ethos expand out into your own culture at Vivo?
Vivo’s overall ethos is to be a truly regenerative business. Not just in how we make the shoes, how we run business, but also our staff believing in and living our values.
We all feel passionate about not just ‘doing less harm’ but that Vivo truly gives back. We’re working hard this year to become a Bcorp certified business and we’re also starting the Vivo Foundation to make sure that we can provide a positive impact to all countries that we source and manufacture products from. You can’t say you’re a health brand, and then not pay attention to the health and wellbeing of your own staff.
You’ve set some pretty ambitious sustainability goals for 2020-2021; could you tell us more about those?
For us, ‘sustainability’ is not enough, we need to do more than just sustain. We want our products to regenerate. In 2021 we’re working towards a lot – 0 Virgin plastics, 100% Wildhide leather sourced from free-roaming cattle, and to make a significant reduction to our material library and suppliers these are sourced from.
For example, with our Vietnam sourcing, in 2021 we’ve reduced our suppliers by 50%. With fewer suppliers, our sustainability team can gain full transparency on our supply chain and environmental compliance. Providing this information directly to our customers!
We design our products to 3 material categories; Natural, Recycled, and Biosynthetic. We aim for our products to be pure as possible in these categories. This helps us with the end of life solutions of either being recyclable (mechanically or chemically) or
compostable. We’re also ensuring that all products are repairable, to increase their length of life and opportunities for refurbishment, repair, and resale.
How do you bring together ‘science and technology’ when designing health-conscious footwear?
We believe your foot has all the technology you need – the less shoe we design, the better! So, we focus on innovating in shoe materials & processes. I’m lucky to have an extremely talented team leading the charge here with a variety of backgrounds.
Our Sustainability Manager, Charlotte, brings a background in ‘Chemistry, Forensic Science and Sustainable Economics. Lucy, our footwear developer’s background is in Aerospace Engineering, and our Innovation Designer Lee brings all innovative ideas to life in our roadmap of new shoes!
Is there an ‘ideal foot’ for a VivoBareFoot shoe?
So, in shoe design, we use a ‘last,’ which is a kind of classical object that you build a shoe around. Most companies create a different last for each design, based on the aesthetics of the shoe that they want to create, which essentially forces the foot to fit that shoe shape, rather than allowing for the shoe to fit the natural foot shape.
During April, we will launch our second campaign in our Shoespiracy series. The key message: the short term comfort of foam and air is having a long-term effect on our health. At Vivo, our founders have spent the last 10 years perfecting wide, thin and flexible shoemaking to enable natural healthy movement, to celebrate this we plan to open-source our last so that any company in the world can create a VivoBarefoot shaped shoe because we don’t think that sustainability or healthy shoemaking should be competitive.
We like to say that orthopedic intervention is just an industrial solution for problems created by bad shoemaking, advances in technology have simply interfered with, rather than helped, the foot. Your foot has all the technology you need!
How is the Vivo team structured?
We’ve scaled quickly, from 25 to 60 heads in the last 2 years. Vivo is led by our two founders, and cousins, Galahad Clark (CEO) and Asher Clark (Design Director) who are both seventh-generation member of the Clark’s shoe empire.
My role reports to Galahad and represents product within our leadership team of 9 function heads. Within product right now we’ve got Lee, our Innovation and Footwear Designer, Finn, our Junior Footwear Designer, and Lucy our Innovation & Footwear Developer. We’re looking in the future to fill gaps in Product Management and Colour & Material Design in our team!
What is the best, or most significant, thing you have learned as a team in the last year?
We’ve been reflecting on that a lot recently with a Happiness Index survey! In a fast pace and often uncertain environment, there’s a lot of ‘grey’ in terms of communication, and
how fast things move, so we’re still establishing process, whilst also growing… I think the most important thing we’ve learned is how important it is to maintain culture & strong communication if you’re going to maintain growth!
Pun totally intended here… what’s the next ‘step’ for VivoBareFoot?
Our main aim is to expand beyond just making shoes — we want to build on and communicate the values that reconnect people to their feet, their health, and the planet, as well as putting together a link between footwear and experiences. That’ll mean hosting events, taking Vivo on the road, and spreading the word!