Toms Shoes founder is literally keeping a lid on it

By Booth Moore
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie is one of my favorite Angelenos, if you can call him one, as he spends so much of his time traveling on shoe drops in South America and Africa and giving speeches about his One for One business model (for every pair of shoes sold, a pair is donated to someone in need).

I caught up with him over tea at his Santa Monica, Calif., office recently, and even though I had to use my BlackBerry, I wanted to take a picture of his wonderfully wacky outfit.

He was wearing a nubby Edun cardigan with pants he picked up at a market in Nepal and carrying his journal, purchased at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires.

He was also wearing Toms, of course, from the latest collection, inspired by the journals and images left by activist Dan Eldon, the young photographer who was killed in 1993 covering the war in Somalia. (The shoes have a fingerprint-print, which Mycoskie took from Eldon’s passport.)

It’s appropriate that Mycoskie looks a little like a guru, because thousands of people from Seattle to Tampa and points between followed him Tuesday in spending a day without shoes to raise awareness for those who do not have a choice.

AOL employees, including Arianna Huffington, went barefoot, and so did the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Charlize Theron and Russian model Anna Vyalitsyna.

It was quite a turnout, especially considering the brand isn’t yet 5 years old.

Mycoskie recently commissioned studies to measure the effect of the million-plus pairs of shoes that Toms has donated worldwide. Not that he’s anywhere close to completing his goal of stamping out foot diseases that can spread from the ground to bare feet.

To that end, on June 7, he’s announcing a new product that will guide the next phase of growth for his business.

But he’s keeping that product shrouded in mystery – literally hidden in a box, which he presented to an audience for the first time last month while giving the keynote speech at a South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

I tried to play 20 questions with him. Is it bigger than a breadbox? Will it sell at the same stores as Toms shoes?

Is it a product in the fashion space? But he wouldn’t budge.

He says his staff doesn’t even know what it is. He asked retailers to purchase the product sight unseen.

“If they open the box and don’t think (the product) is a fit for them, they can send it back to us,” he said. “And I do believe it can be sold in 50 percent of our stores, and that it will open up new doors, and new places. Our first big retail account was actually a furniture store,” he pointed out.

The plan for June 7 is to distribute 200 of the mystery boxes to influential people around the world, and to have them open the boxes simultaneously. (Which could be exciting, considering the folks with whom Mycoskie keeps company _ such as Bill Clinton and Morgan Spurlock.)

Until then, we’ll just have to keep guessing.

From a fashion perspective, it’s incredible how many people are wearing Toms, which seem to be almost as popular as flip-flops.

In June, the summer collection will land in stores, with a new crochet style. And for fall, Toms has collaborated with the Row on a collection of shoes designed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Mycoskie is also putting the finishing touches on his first book, titled “Start Something That Matters,” out Sept. 6.

“It’s the No. 1 question I get asked: ‘I have an idea, how do I get it started?’ And I think I have some ideas to help people with that,” he said.

Part of the book is about challenging people – to volunteer at a homeless shelter, start a nonprofit or start a giving program at their for-profit business, he explained. “It’s not only an entrepreneurial book, it’s personal.”

The book also makes a case for simplicity – simplicity in design, message and in how you live.

“People are addicted to stuff,” said Mycoskie, who lives on a houseboat to keep his stuff in check.

“They think they can’t live without it. But intellectually, they also understand how not having a lot of stuff to keep, and take care of, lets you lead a more free life.”

Except that Mycoskie sells shoes, and he doesn’t want you to buy just one pair.

“That is a dilemma,” he acknowledged. “But everything has its flaws.”

At least Toms don’t take up a lot of room.