Most are familiar with religious garments: the yarmulke of the Jewish faith, the vestments of the Catholic priest, and the various headscarves in Islam. However, not many may know of a brand of non-religious clothing. Atheist Shoes is just that. This shoe brand, based in Berlin, pride themselves on using high-quality materials, following Bauhaus principles, and having the comfiest shoes around.
After seeing their campaign on Kickstarter (now funded many times over), I reached out. I had the unique opportunity to conduct an interview with founder David Bonney and chief designer Nana Baumann:
Atheist Shoes started when you realized all your team members were atheists. How do you think your brand name has affected success?
David: To be honest, we’re all atheists. And it only started because we had the idea to do a Christian shoe brand, but then didn’t feel very good at doing something we didn’t believe in… so we thought, what if there was a brand that aligned with our biggest ideals. I was fresh from the advertising industry too, where I was sick of brands talking about having “purpose” and “missions” and being “higher order values”… yet also being too scared to stand for anything that genuinely mattered to people or provoked a conversation. So it was also an experiment in post-modern branding… let’s try make the most polarising brand we can, knowing that we’ll appeal intensely to a niche audience, even if it means we alienate everyone else.
So it was the blueprint for our success from day 1, to deliberately target a long tail niche, vs appealing to everyone and being bland as a result.
And I think it worked. We went from anonymity to moderate awareness overnight, and the name has a pulling power that a less provocative name would not.
Ultimately, I’m sure the brand has limited our success too, and turned off would-be customers. But it’s definitely been a good way to start the business…. getting from zero to something is the hardest part. And now we find people come for the atheism, but stay for the shoe. Repeat purchase is big for us, and now we have a shop we find the name matters less, and the quality of the shoe is talking for itself.
Nana: The brand name has definitely affected our “success” – a lot of our customers find us / come to us because of the Atheism and then stay for the comfy shoes.
So far, we think our brand name has allowed us to talk about our beliefs very openly and encourage people to do the same. It adds to our brand and we feel we’re more than just another fashion brand. Our customers see that.
Some shoes you offer have names like Das Kitten Testicle and Smashed Frog. How would you describe the company culture and what steps do you take to maintain it?
David: Alcohol is responsible for those names. But also a little irreverence, and a desire to cut-through. I think it’s in our personalities, the irreverence… though it’s not an OTT adolescent style of rebellion… it’s a little more subtle and British black humour style. And we like that our inelegance and tongue-in-cheek contrasts so much with the all-too-serious fashion industry. The whole fashion world is appallingly dumb and sheep-like… we do all we can to distance ourselves from it.
Nana: Our “philosophy” is to deliver a high-quality product, but without all the seriousness of the fashion industry. We are the “Life of Brian” of shoe companies. We like what we’re doing and we hope we can bring that across in our products but also in our names, branding etc.
We produce fair, slow fashion – we want to create shoes that last a long time and our customers can enjoy for a long time. So it’s all about the quality of materials, production and service.
We have a very close relationship to our manufacturers, which we also regularly visit and check in. We don’t accept every “NO” – when someone tells us something isn’t possible, we usually try to find a way to make it possible, rather than work around the issue. It’s fun – sometimes hard and stressful, but always worth it.
How does your brand separate itself from other “big” casual shoe brands?
But also our quality is far superior. We only sell direct to end-customer, which means we don’t share profits with middle men and can spend more on the kinds of leathers other shoe companies would never dream of paying for.
We think being a small company allows us to interact with our customers on a very personal basis – be it in person or via email. Everyone from our leather suppliers, to our stitchers, the DHL person and the end customer all get the same treatment.
We care for the product and the customers that wear it.
We don’t have middle men – we “see” who our customers are. We have personal interactions, not a customer service team… we want to be the best version of ourselves, not the biggest.
Why is following Bauhaus principles important to Atheist Shoes?
David: It’s a gap in the market.
And it’s really cool. I think the rationalism and understatement of the Bauhaus fits the brand but also our personalities.
Fashion and Bauhaus never really hit it off, which is nice too.
Nana: “Form follows function” just makes sense to us. A product (a shoe) can only really be good if the function works. But also the simplicity and minimalism is a big inspiration for our shoes. We don’t need fuzz or extras as long as the shoes work and feel comfy.
You call your shoes the most comfortable shoes in the world. How do you manage to balance style and comfort?
David: It’s not like they’re mutually exclusive. Honestly we just use better materials and our design and last shape just happen to be more comfortable.
Though I also don’t think our shoes are especially stylish… we look funny to most people… and we never want to be in fashion, because then we never have to worry about falling out of fashion.
This is tricky… We think we got lucky 🙂
And now we don’t dare to change our lasts too much, because we don’t want to mess with the comfort.
But a lot is possible and as long as we follow a few little rules we’re golden (but yes, we’ll never make a high heel).
Your first Kickstarter campaign was in 2012. Now you’re back this year as a part of Kickstarter Gold, with more than six times your $15,000 goal already raised. Have you learned anything new from Kickstarter this time around?
David: Not really. I think we guessed that a more conventional shoe design would appeal to more people. And our sneaker design is like something people have seen before, whereas our shoe design isn’t. So they’re less cautious with the sneaker.
Nana: Kickstarter is always a very good chance to get to know your brand and your customers again. We all get a little bit blind for our businesses after working on them for so long.
Doc Brown comes to Berlin, stuffs you and your team into a DeLorean, and you find yourself in 2012, before Atheist Shoes existed. If you were to start over, would you do anything differently?
David: Absolutely. I’d charge more for the shoes from day 1… it took us a while to realise our prices should be higher, and that people were willing to pay more for quality.
Also, there are two factories in Portugal which I would avoid working with. We lost about 100k euros on our first major production, working with a factory who looked great from the outside but essentially rushed the production and didn’t put the effort in. The result was a lot of shoes we weren’t willing to sell. And if I had my time again, I would have given them smaller test productions to see how they really work, rather than trusting their reputation and what other people say. It’s easy to be a great shoemaker until you actually have to make the shoe. Then it gets really, really tough.
If I could go back to 2012 and immediately have the shoemakers we work with today, things would have been easier and I might not have the grey beard I have today.
Or maybe… we might have started out with fewer colors to make our lives easier but that’s about it. And maybe we should’ve made an easier product – like T-shirts or socks… or coffee 🙂
Where do you see Atheist Shoes in 10 years?
I don’t. I’m totally sure we’ll exist, but I have no vision of where and how and at what scale. Maybe I should have a vision, but I’ve given up trying to compare our journey to the journeys of other companies. That’s the worst mistake you can make.
E.g. we hired a very experienced fashion industry early on in the process, because we felt we should, if we wanted to be big. In hindsight, though, it was our lack of fashion experience that was working for us. And so we’ve just followed our own instincts since then. (I’m going off-topic a little.)
But we’ll be millionaires and shit. No doubt. Or maybe just happy.
Nana: We see the brand still going – still a little shop front in Berlin, but maybe also a shop in SF, one in London, etc etc.
We’d love to keep going the way we do now and naturally/organically grow our business. That would be a dream.
Could Atheist Shoes ever roll out a new line of footwear, specifically for broke teenagers?
David: Sure. But the quality would suck. So I’m not sure how good I’d feel about it. We don’t need more junk in the world. I’d maybe rather just be an incentive for said broke teenagers to do well in school, get great jobs and be able to afford our shoes sooner rather than later.
Haha, we hope so!
Even if it doesn’t look like it, we’re always working on new ideas. It just takes a long time to realize them – if we even get that far. But yes, hopefully one day we’ll have a broader range of styles. Fingers crossed.
Lastly, do you have advice for clothing-minded entrepreneurs?
David: Yep. Don’t.
I think fashion is one of the worst industries for trying to innovate or make a profit. It’s too competitive, there are too many mank sharks willing to steal ideas and lie about quality. And the world really doesn’t need more clothing startups. Unless your idea is truly odd, I don’t know what the point of it would be.
Don’t do shoes. It’s complicated and no one ever really knows what exactly they are doing.
Just kidding. I guess the best advice would be to find your own style/handwriting and stay true to yourself and your look. Fight for what you think is good and don’t let fashion/trend/producers dictate what to do. We have enough fast-fashion-cheap-brands on the market. So we think its more important to be unique, have personality and quality.
And in the end it’s the same whichever road you’re going: you try, you fail, you try again etc etc. and then, maybe you succeed…
It’s hard work and not always (or maybe never) as glamorous as it might look.
Learn more about Atheist Shoes:
< Buy shoes on their website
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