Erin Bornstein: On developing the first design-lead footwear collection at Timberland
Footwear designer, Erin Bornstein shares how she created the rare opportunity to have full control of the design vision without direct input of other product managers or merchandisers, for a new women’s Timberland collection, which will be available at retail this fall. Erin says her new footwear collection has a kick-ass attitude, just like the woman she’s designing it for. Erin also talks about Timberland’s stand on sourcing sustainable materials and commitment to social initiatives.
Erin’s Interview Transcript
Nancy: Hello. I’m Nancy Fendler, and you’re listening to Material Wise, your podcast on material matters. It’s my chance to talk to designers, product developers, and other guests in the outdoor, fashion, home furnishings, and other industries, about what inspires and influences them to create, why and how they select the materials they choose, and the relationships they’ve built with their customers and industry.
I’m pleased to introduce my guest, Erin Bornstein, women’s footwear designer at Timberland. Erin is working on the company’s first design-led footwear collection for women, a rare opportunity in product development, to have full control of the vision of design without direct input of other product managers or merchandisers. So Erin, thanks so much for visiting me on Material Wise.
Erin: Thanks for having me. This is fantastic.
Nancy: I like to ask all our guests, what did you want to be when you were growing up, and did you dream of being a footwear designer?
Erin: You know, when I was growing up, I was always into fine arts. Even at a young age, it was something that I really loved, and my parents supported me with, but I wasn’t keen on living the starving life of an artist in my parent’s attic, so I decided to go to school for graphic design, to be able to enhance my fine arts with some computer skills. I thought this would lead to a job kind of doing brochures maybe, for a law firm or something, but I actually ended up getting a job as a graphic designer at a footwear company, on their marketing department. From there, that really opened my eyes to the product world, and led to my career in product design.
Nancy: Wow. So mixing art with design, and then footwear. That’s great. So where do you find your design inspiration?
Erin: You know, people-watching is by far the best design inspiration. I really love traveling, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to go to Europe and to Asia with my company, and nothing really compares to seeing people in their own element. I remember traveling to Asia for the first time, and seeing how differently people dress there, and it’s something that I could just sit on a bench and watch people for hours.
Nancy: Do you sketch at all when you see, or …
Erin: Yeah, you know, I do a lot of hand sketching in my current job, but I don’t know that I sit on the bench and draw, but definitely take a lot of inspiration from that.
Nancy: Yeah. So I understand you’re launching your own design-led women’s footwear collection at Timberland. Who is she? Who is this customer, and what do you think she’s craving?
Erin: I’m currently working on this design-led collection, and it’s been extremely empowering to be the decision-maker, and similarly, I really think that’s what this girl is craving. My collection is really about being bold and creating kick-ass product, and I think that is exactly who she is. It’s about women’s empowerment, in this kind of don’t apologize mentality. It’s really about having an attitude and an edge, and I think that’s what this girl has as well.
Nancy: That’s great. Is it more athletic inspired, or fashion, or …
Erin: It’s actually more fashion and high design, and it’s got that kind of boot casual feel to it, so you’ll see that coming out, hopefully, in September.
Nancy: Ah, looking forward. So what do you want your customers to feel when they wear your products?
Erin: You know, I really want the woman wearing our products to feel comfortable first and foremost. I think comfort’s not just a physical attribute, but I think, you know, even style can be considered a level of comfort in what someone chooses to wear. I really want women to feel their most confident in what they choose to wear, so I really hope my footwear offers that perfect option for her, so really offering a range of products that she can pick from if she really wants to stand out, or even that perfect casual boot if she wants to fit in.
Nancy: I’m curious, if a particular material inspires you to design a product in mind, or do you first have a product in mind and then find the material?
Erin: You know, I think inspiration goes both ways. There are many trends occurring in the footwear market, and you really have to analyze those trends when designing the product. Material is definitely one of them, and it can play a key role in designing the product. You know, as consumers are getting more knowledgeable about the products they buy, they’re becoming not just aware of what goes into the products themselves, but what the company’s mission is, and I think the material choice that you choose really can go a long way in supporting that mission.
Nancy: Yeah. Me too. Does a brand name or consumer-recognized material make a difference, do you think?
Erin: I definitely think so. You know, brands that come to mind, such as Gore-Tex or Smartwool are definitely known for delivering on their quality and performance, and I think these are just some brands that make a difference in the consumers … When they look at the shoes and see their labels, recognize them, and trust their quality, and that definitely goes a long way in the footwear business.
Nancy: Do you think customers have become more savvy about the materials that go into the apparel that they buy?
Erin: I definitely think so. Consumers have information at their fingertips, and with the simple touch of a button, they can look up anything they want to know about the products they’re buying. I think millennials and the youth consumer are particularly more conscious about the products they’re purchasing, and do that research before buying any kind of product.
So, you know, some brands have been capitalizing on that right now, and even listing things such as their nutrition facts, is what they like to call them, to be able to have that full transparency with the consumer. I think this is something the consumers are really responding to well, and they’re looking to have that relationship with the company.
Nancy: Yeah. I’m seeing more and more of it as well. Consumers appear to be more conscious of where and how their apparel is made. Do you feel the same, and how are you incorporating these values into your products?
Erin: Yes. I definitely believe products are interested in the materials that make up the products they’re buying, but I also think it’s really about how the product is impacting the environment as well. Consumers really want to be part of something, and if they know that the product they’re purchasing is contributing to the greater good, then it’s something that they can really feel good about. So, I’m always trying to design with these types of values in mind, and I definitely believe it’s a part of my job to design responsibly.
Nancy: I understand Timberland is currently working on minimizing the carbon footprint of its leather goods. Can you share a bit about this?
Erin: Absolutely. You know, at Timberland, we really strive to be Earth keepers in everything we do. We work hard to make our products responsibly and protect the outdoors, and serve the communities around the globe. Timberland has always been making their shoes with this kind of green attitude in mind, and we’ve done it in quiet ways, for example, using recycled rubber content in our boots with rubber outsoles, but we’ve also done this by contributing to our community service, and employees have contributed over a million hours of service to communities around the globe, and have planted over 9.2 million trees worldwide since 2001, in an effort to protect and preserve the outdoors. So it’s really something that’s close to our hearts.
And we additionally make other efforts by doing collaborations, in order to have a greater impact as well, which is really exciting. This includes some of our newest work with Thread. Thread is a Grounds to Good fabric that’s harvested from plastic bottles that litter the streets in landfills of Haiti. So this Thread fabric is not just contributing to a greener planet, but it creates thousands of jobs for developing nations. So the work’s not just important for harvesting the material itself, but for making a difference in the community of Haiti, and I think that’s really important, and things like that really resonate with our consumers, as well as to us. I think we are always striving to have a greater impact on the environment.
Nancy: That’s really interesting. I’ve not heard of Thread before.
Nancy: So, that’s fabulous.
Erin: That’s a new material that came out last spring, and we continue to work with them into the next upcoming seasons.
Nancy: So, what do you think makes a good material partner?
Erin: You know, we have great relationships with our suppliers, and this is built from working with them over the years. We really trust the quality that they bring. They meet our deliverables. They know our capabilities, and they know our standards for our materials. These, I think, are all really important to having a great textile partner. You know, if we have special requests, our best suppliers are able to work with us and customize for our needs and meet our demands on time.
Nancy: Where do you turn to for the latest design trends?
Erin: WGSN is my main source for the latest news in product design. They do a great job in highlighting macro trends, and they also offer reports on more focused trends, such as materials, colors, and footwear silhouettes, so I love looking at the latest catwalks on their site as well, and seeing what the designers are doing on the runway. And other sites that I love are Trendstop and HYPEBEAST, to just keep up with the latest street wear and trends in that regard.
Nancy: Ah, not aware of those. I’ve got to check those out.
Erin: They’re great sites.
Nancy: Yeah. So, what is your favorite Timberland product?
Erin: Right now, I’m loving the Sutherlin Bay boot collection. It’s a new collection that will release this fall, and it’s actually a low-heel boot that offers comfort technology, and it feels like you’re not even wearing a boot. It’s great. It’s super casual, and I practically wear it every day, especially because I’m not usually a heel-wearer. So, it’ll be coming out this fall, so keep an eye out for it.
Nancy: I will. I will. So, is there a product that you may have loved, but just bombed?
Erin: Well, I definitely have had a couple of those, and one of them has been a mid-heel boot collection. And it was really progressive for Timberland at the time. This collection was leveraging some new technology, and it was a lightweight casual boot, that kind of used some sneaker cues into it, to make a kind of sneaker-boot, I would call it.
Nancy: It’s like never get rid of your castaways. I think that’s it. Never get rid of your castaways.
Erin: Some of the best ideas are reinvented-
Erin: … out of old ones.
Nancy: That’s right. So, what professional challenges keep you up at night?
Erin: Oh, that’s a good question. Throughout my career, I’ve been working on finding my voice, and I think that’s something that makes for a really strong designer. I’ve personally been trying to find my voice through not just my design work, but also within the office. It’s something that comes, I think, with a lot of time and practice, and you know, sometimes I’ll be up at night, thinking about things I might have said or didn’t say, and it’s hard to turn off that voice, especially when you’re passionate about your work. So, it’s been a challenge, but it’s something that I’m continuously learning from and working on every day.
Nancy: Always works in progress. Always learning. So, in times of self-doubt, how do you build yourself back up?
Erin: In particularly hard times, I always turn to family. I think they’re such a great support system, and I’m extremely lucky to have them. My husband and my father are always focusing on the silver linings, and that really helps me to see things a lot more clearly.
Nancy: Thank goodness for family.
Erin: Thank goodness.
Nancy: Yeah. So what are you most proud of?
Erin: You know, my latest design collection is something that I’m extremely proud of. This is a new approach to design that Timberland is piloting for the very first time, and it feels so amazing to be part of such a big initiative. And in order to get picked for this project, I had to pitch my idea to a panel of VPs, and the best way to describe it was like an episode of Shark Tank. It was extremely intimidating, but it was one of the biggest challenges that I’ve been able to overcome today.
Nancy: Oh boy. That sounds like it, but again, you were using your voice, and it allowed you to express something that you were really passionate about, and confident in.
Nancy: So congratulations.
Erin: Thank you so much.
Nancy: Yeah. So, what’s next for you?
Erin: You know, I’m always up for a new challenge and new opportunities, and this season, I’ve actually had the opportunity to start designing some sport leisure product. When I normally work on casual product, I’ll be working on some sneakers for the first time, so it’s been really exciting. It’s a brand-new category for me, and it’s something that’s been really fun to work on. So I’m looking forward to learning more of the nuances of the sport leisure product, and kind of gaining some new momentum in this category.
Nancy: Just thanks so much, Erin. I look forward to seeing all your products in the market, and thank you so much for coming on Material Wise.
Erin: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
Nancy: Okay. Take care. Bye.
Erin: Thank you.
Nancy: Thanks so much for listening to Material Wise. I’d also like to thank the incredibly talented Woods Creative for their help in producing this podcast. Jake Nevrla mixes our episodes, and our theme music is by Activity Club. For more information on Material Wise, please visit materialwise.co, and please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again, and until next time, take care.