In 2019, Eric Liedtke was at the top of his field.
He was one of the most powerful executives at Adidas, tipped as a potential candidate to be its next CEO. As the company’s global brands director, he’d been a key player in the German sportswear giant’s turnaround from fading relevance to cultural juggernaut, steering its wildly successful approach to celebrity collaborations, including its work with Kanye West’s Yeezy brand and partnership with Beyoncé.
Then he left.
Now he’s launching his own label, a streetwear brand that bills itself as zero-waste, zero-plastic fashion. The goal is to develop a new business model that tackles the millions of tonnes of polyester-laced apparel that currently end up in landfills every year.
Ultimately, Liedtke said, it was the realisation that a juggernaut like Adidas would never be able to drive such a transformation that prompted him to leave.
“We’d talk about it in my old job, but you couldn’t get there because you have a $26 billion business to run and you have responsibilities to shareholders,” Liedtke said. “But as a start-up, I can shake shit up.”
At Adidas, the executive was involved in efforts to reduce the company’s environmental impact, launching its partnership with Parley For The Oceans, a nonprofit that works with brands on products made from recycled ocean plastic. Liedtke now sits on its steering committee. But fossil-fuel-free fashion that can simply decompose at the end of its life is the “holy grail,” he said.
Unless, which launches Tuesday, is targeting a potent consumer sweet spot. Environmental concerns have leapt up the cultural agenda over the last few years, alongside extreme weather events that serve as increasingly visible reminders of the impact of climate change. Meanwhile, streetwear has moved from a subculture to the mainstream, influencing both fashion trends and business models. VF Corp bought Supreme in a $2.1 billion deal last year, while drop-based product launches have become standard.
“We’re trying to build the next Supreme or Yeezy, but from a sustainable standpoint,” said Liedtke.
It’s a bold ambition in a crowded market. Direct-to-consumer brands like Reformation, Allbirds and Pangaia have enjoyed rapid growth by wrapping good-looking products in an eco-friendly narrative, while fashion’s biggest brands are increasingly vocal about their own sustainability claims. At the same time, consumers are becoming more wary of loud eco-marketing messages with little to back them up.
But Liedtke sees an opportunity to address concerns about waste with a simple message led by design. The label’s tagline is “Don’t Feel Bad.”
It’s launching as a “plant-based” brand (translation: its tees, hoodies and shirts will be made entirely from fabrics like cotton and tencel, a material made from wood pulp). The commitment extends to trimmings like threads and buttons, which are particularly tricky to replace with plastic-free alternatives. The goal is to design clothes that will decompose at the end of their life.
The concept has the backing of Connect Ventures, an investment partnership formed last year between entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency and venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. It led a $7.5 million seed funding round that valued Unless at $30 million, Liedtke said. Co-founders include former Adidas creative director Paul Gaudio, who left the company last year shortly after he posted a controversial comment on social media, and Quiksilver’s former global marketing director, Maarten Teijsse.
Exactly how Unless will deliver on its zero-waste promise is still a work in progress, particularly as it plans to expand into more complex products like footwear down the line.
In practice, there are some tricky logistical hurdles to overcome. For starters, there’s an infrastructure gap for recycling and composting textiles. Consumers aren’t in the habit of returning clothes at the end of their life either, creating another hurdle to effectively dispose of old garments.
One option Unless is considering is establishing its own industrial composting facility, Liedtke said. And he’s planning to draw learnings from the streetwear market, whose most engaged audience is used to thinking about products in terms of resale and secondary markets, to incentivise customers to participate in a circular system. For instance, shoppers who send back items when they’re done will earn credit towards the company’s next limited-edition drop.
The gamified shopping experience is a “Trojan horse” to persuade consumers to send back products in a way that’s compelling to them, Liedtke said.
The brand’s first drops this fall will include graphic T-shirts, a flannel overshirt and a hoodie, produced in collaboration with local artists and businesses in Portland, Ore. It’s planning to follow up with limited edition products linked to other cities across the US, including Atlanta for Spring/Summer 2022 and Los Angeles for the fall.
The company is working to launch shoes sometime next year, Liedtke said. Plastic-free footwear is an even trickier proposition because synthetic ingredients show up in everything from the glues that hold most sneakers together to their soles.
“No one’s doing it because you have to innovate the entire supply chain,” Liedtke said. “Because I’m a free agent, I can go out and try and create these things, or die trying.”