Toms founder Blake Mycoskie is known for pairing fashion and causes.
Hand-painted, colorful striped sunglasses. That’s the second chapter of Toms Shoes’ one-for-one business, revealed last week after months of mystery.
“With every pair purchased, Toms will give someone sight,” Toms founder Blake Mycoskie said.
Meaning that for every pair of sunglasses purchased, sight-saving medical treatment, prescription glasses or surgery will be donated to a person in need, a model that goes well beyond Toms’ original archetype of donating one pair of shoes for every pair purchased. Instead of offering glasses for glasses, “one person buys a pair of Toms glasses, and one person receives the eye care that he or she needs,” Toms’ website explains.
That website was swamped last Tuesday, the day the contents of mystery boxes distributed to 90 locations around the world were to be simultaneously opened to reveal Toms’ latest project. At the same time, Mycoskie made the official announcement in front of a crowd that organizers estimated at more than 1,000 at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica.
In less than 48 hours, some styles of the sunglasses had sold out on the website and in stores, and were on back order. “The demand has far exceeded our hopeful expectations,” according to a spokeswoman.
The sunglasses sell for $135 to $145 and come in three shapes and 22 color combinations. The 101s are a classic Wayfarer-like style, while the 201s are oversized, round, Jackie O glasses, and the 301s are aviators with wood accents. Toms sunglasses are recognizable by the three painted stripes on the sides, which represent the one-for-one giving concept.
The scene in Santa Monica was part rock concert, part political rally. Mycoskie made the announcement on stage in front of the Victorian-style museum building, with food trucks nearby and radio stations broadcasting live. Many in the crowd gathered on the grass to hear about the company’s next step wore Toms’ signature colorful canvas shoes.
“From this day forward, Toms will no longer just be a shoe company, it will be a one-for-one company,” Mycoskie said, before unveiling a video made in Nepal, with local people talking about the need to address visual impairment — cataracts and blindness in particular.
The medical treatment and surgery will be administered by a Toms partner, the Seva Foundation, which has helped give eye care to more than 3 million people in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. A leading global initiative to reduce blindness and visual impairment for the last 30 years, Northern California-based Seva also works with academic institutions in developing countries to train eye care specialists.
“Most every place that sells Toms can or will sell eyewear,” said Mycoskie, adding that he plans to roll out two new eyewear collections each year and envisions doing collaborations with artists and/or fashion designers on future styles.
In less than five years, the young, shaggy-haired, rope-bracelet-wearing Mycoskie has turned into a visionary business leader who hobnobs with Bill Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. Since 2006, he’s given away 1 million pairs of shoes in the United States, Argentina, Ethiopia and South Africa, working toward his goal of eradicating podoconiosis, a deforming foot disease caused by walking barefoot in silica-rich soil.
The shoes are sold at more than 500 stores nationwide and internationally, including at Nordstrom and Whole Foods, and many of Toms’ existing retailers bought the eyewear collection sight unseen.
“It’s fair to categorize [Toms] as a phenomenon,” said Pete Nordstrom, executive vice president and vice president of merchandising at Nordstrom, who attended one of 30 events Nordstrom hosted Tuesday at stores around the country to celebrate the rollout of the new product. “In my career, I’ve only been attached to two other things like this — Beanie Babies, which had a shelf life, but was more like a fad, and Uggs, which have proven to have longevity beyond what people imagined.”
This year to date, Toms is one of Nordstrom’s top-five selling shoe brands. “It’s grown from being an interesting item to being a big volume item that moves the needle in terms of business. When a Toms shipment comes in, we have a good day,”
Regarding Toms new eyewear category, Nordstrom said it is too early to tell how customers will respond. “With the shoes, the hook and the connection is simple, but this isn’t literally one to one. It’s close but not quite as clean,” he said, adding, “I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who showed up on Tuesday, because it’s not easy to get people to come to the store for a new product launch. But Toms has mindshare and credibility.”
Mycoskie, a serial entrepreneur who quotes Richard Branson and the like, started with a college laundry service in 1997. It was so successful that he dropped out of school to run it and followed it up with a billboard company, which he sold to Clear Channel. A failed reality-show network was next, then a successful drivers-education website.
In 2002, he and his sister Paige came in third on reality show “The Amazing Race,” and afterward they made a point of revisiting some of the places the show had taken them. In 2006, Mycoskie returned to Argentina for a vacation, and in a bar he met some aid workers who were there to distribute shoes to the needy.
They were giving children old, ill-fitting shoes, but Mycoskie had a better idea. On that trip, he had fallen in love with the locally made canvas alpargatas, or espadrilles. Why not build a business around the laid-back shoes, he thought, selling a pair and donating a pair? He started with $500 and 250 prototypes, naming the brand Toms after the concept of shoes for “tom-orrow.”
Now the Toms-wearing world will have shades to match.