This post was sponsored by BAABUK. All opinions and editorial direction my own.
Of all the slightly obscure interests I’ve harboured over the years, one I can never shake is my fascination with subcultures. Maybe it’s the academic in me (try the essay ‘publics and counterpublics’ by Michael Warner if you’re similarly inclined), but I am endlessly intrigued by why people group around niche interests and lifestyles, and how this happens. Over the years my interests have varied, including the UK punk scene, the grunge movement and skate culture, but more recently I’ve been thinking a lot about society and sneakers. Or, as we say in England, trainers.
The first trainers can be traced back to the early 19th century, but became widely available after the 1920s. Whilst these shoes are great both for sports, which they were originally created for, or fashion, which they’ve grown to become pivotal within, they also come steeped in a long history of politics, identity formation and meaning making. Jesse Owens at the 1936 olympics, James Dean as the young rebel, the New York hip hop community… over the years trainers have represented many social and political meanings for all types of people. There’s a sense of pride or esteem that owning certain shoes can seemingly bestow, something which even I have experienced over the years in a more sustainable sense. I own quite a few pairs of trainers that I enjoy wearing because of their unique aesthetic, but every single one was purchased in a charity shop. It’s like some sort of niche magical power, where I’ve managed to acquire secondhand trainers in a variety of rare forms, including tartan, silver, neon, and all black Air Jordans that cost £7. While I’m not at all bothered by brands, each of these designs I’ve never seen again, on anyone. And it’s fun to feel unique in our clothes.
“the cultural meaning behind sneakers is a constantly evolving dialogue between the people who produce the sneakers and the people who wear them.” (source)
Whilst I’ve never been involved in the sneaker culture of collecting and owning the ‘right pairs’ I know people that have, and I can understand it somewhat. The whole reason I started secondhand shopping was so that I would have clothes that no one else had, in reaction to my teenage frustration at everyone wearing the same things all the time (I’m an enneagram 4, can you tell). At the same time, through my years at school there was a poster in one of the classrooms that stood out to me. It read:
‘Every year Tiger Woods is paid more by Nike than their entire Indonesian workforce’
I saw this poster nearly every day between 2004 and 2009 (sources to support this claim here and here), so it’s unsurprising that this took root in how I chose to purchase my trainers, almost exclusively avoiding buying first hand. Whilst trainers have carried serious cultural meaning through the years depending on who has worn them, we also can’t forget that the people who produce them are part of that story too.
I hope that as we move forward with an increased knowledge that ethical and eco-friendly manufacturing is actually possible, we’ll see a new phase in this subculture: the rise of the sustainable trainer. The options are becoming available, and I hope that people will come on board to support them. That it won’t just be about owning the pairs the look right, but also about seeking out pairs that were made right. And one of my favourites in this new space is Baabuk, a Swiss company that brings together tradition and originality in a new sustainable trainer, the Urban Wooler.
Founded in 2013 by couple Galina and Dan, The Baabuk journey began when Galina’s parents offered a pair of traditional Russian boots, known as Valenkis, to Dan. These shoes were originally invented as a way to deal with Russia’s cold climate, as peasants came up with the idea of using sheep’s wool to produce felted boots that could withstand the freezing temperatures up to -40 degrees C. Having grown up in Russia herself, Galina was instantly interested in using these Russian designs to create something new, especially as wool was a natural, renewable and biodegradable material. And so Baabuk was created: uniquely preserving the old Valenki traditions of handcrafted shoe making whilst utilising new innovative design processes and sustainable materials. Like Valenkis, Baabuk shoes are also felted in one piece, which makes the shoes both unique in their creation and more durable and comfortable to wear.
When it comes to production Baabuk is now a certified B-Corp, meaning they have to meet strict standards when it comes to supply chain, environmental impact and transparency. Their Urban Woolers are manufactured using Portugese wool, sourced from the natural park Serra da Estrela where sheep are healthy and properly cared for. The shoes are then produced in Portugal, due to the country’s expertise and experience in shoemaking. Baabuk also partner with manufacturers in areas struggling with unemployment due to rural exodus, working to bring these regions back to life and develop the local wool industry to create jobs. The entire shoe, from wool to the sole, is produced in a radius of 500 km from the Porto region in Portugal, maintaining an easily traceable supply chain, and reducing emissions by creating everything in one country.
I have a pair of Urban Woolers in mint green which I’ve been wearing for about a month now, and I’m pleased to say that they are incredibly comfortable. Wool is breathable and antibacterial so you can actually wear these shoes without socks, which will be great if it ever stops snowing in the UK. They also naturally regulate body temperature, meaning that my feet have been nice and happy on every wear. These shoes are incredibly durable, to the point where they still look like I’m wearing them for the first time, as well as being water repellent and machine washable, making them incredibly easy to care for and maintain. The mint colour goes with nearly everything in my wardrobe, from colour to muted neutrals, and the distinct versatility of these shoes makes them a super easy go-to option with nearly every outfit. I’ve received compliments on them from various people ranging from my parents to people I’ve just met. I’ve been proudly sporting these out and about to many an occasion, and I’ve been satisfied every time.
So, as you can tell, I’m really happy with these shoes. They’re unique but adaptable, meaning I can get a ton of wear out of them, and most importantly they’re comfy. Like, really really comfy. Whilst I do love my secondhand trainers there is a noticeable dip in quality over time, inevitably making them less comfortable too. These trainers are standing strong and only seem to be getting better with each wear, which is the kind of sustainability that I’m on board with. I love that they’re made in Europe, as I’m a bit proponent of supporting local, and I think these are going to be with me for a long long time. Just as I hope to see trainer culture evolve in years to come, I also hope that Baabuk will be one of the brands that becomes synonymous with the rise of the sustainable trainer. Not only because they tick the boxes when it comes to materials and responsible manufacturing, but because seriously, they’re just so comfy.
Photography by Gianna Scavo
Wearing secondhand jumper and trousers, obviously.