Alterre, a women-owned luxury footwear brand, has been making waves for its innovative and sustainable approach to shoe design. The company’s unique offering is its interchangeable shoes, which allow wearers to customize their footwear to match different occasions by simply changing the straps between heel heights. This provides versatility and promotes comfort, as each design is personally tested to ensure it doesn’t cause blisters.
But Alterre‘s commitment to sustainability and ethical practices truly sets it apart. The company is Butterfly Mark Certified by Positive Luxury, an organization that drives innovation and encourages luxury brands to act more sustainably. The Butterfly Mark is a globally respected trust mark awarded to brands that meet the highest standards of verified ESG+ performance. It serves as a promise to consumers that their purchases have a net positive impact on the environment.
Alterre’s dedication to sustainability extends beyond its product design. The company consciously uses sustainable materials to lower their impact on the planet and ecosystems. They work with suppliers to limit plastic packaging and have successfully cut out 90% of single-use plastic from their supply chain. Furthermore, all Alterre shoes are produced using a fair labor manufacturer, Pacific Shoes, located in Sapiranga, Brazil, ensuring ethical labor practices.
The brand’s commitment to social responsibility is also evident in its philanthropic endeavours. Alterre donates 5% of their profits to Restore NYC, a long-term rehabilitation center for victims of trafficking within the United States. Additionally, they donate returned shoes to Soles4Souls, a non-profit organization that distributes unwanted shoes and clothing to people in need worldwide.
Alterre’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Positive Luxury has recognized the company as a Real Changemaker for meeting independently verified higher sustainability standards. This recognition is a testament to Alterre’s commitment to creating an inclusive, innovative, and responsible business that protects the environment and supports the global community.
Today, we bring you an exclusive interview with two trailblazers who have seamlessly merged these elements in their venture. Meet Harmony Pilobello and Shilpa Iyengar, the dynamic duo behind Alterre, a revolutionary modular footwear brand that creates a range of interchangeable shoes.
These female founders, who first crossed paths at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, have combined their expertise in footwear and sustainable design to create a brand that is as unique as it is impactful.
In this candid conversation, they share their journey, from their initial meeting to the creation of Alterre, challenges, triumphs, and vision for the future. Join us as we delve into the world of Alterre, a brand that is not just creating shoes, but also sustainably making strides.
1. Harmony and Shilpa, can you share with us the story behind the creation of Alterre? What inspired you to start a modular footwear brand?
We were both avid travelers living in tiny New York apartments. We wanted to create something that took up less space in our closet and had maximum versatility. That led us to the idea of making interchangeable straps. We initially were thinking of modular heels, but ultimately decided to prioritize comfort. From a design perspective, you cannot change the pitch of a heel without impacting comfort and we both walked long distances in heels.
2. You both met at Parsons The New School for Design. How did your educational backgrounds influence the creation and development of Alterre?
Harmony: Shilpa initially studied footwear and eveningwear so the majority of our initial designs had to be drafted by her. My background was in menswear with a focus on sustainability. It was important for me to bring sustainability to the table from the beginning.
3. Alterre is known for its commitment to sustainability. Can you elaborate on how you incorporate sustainable practices into your business model and product design?
We’ve spent the past 8 years moving the needle as much as possible for a small business. We initially started with a focus on fair wages at our factory. It wasn’t feasible for us to pursue new materials or certifications yet.
Since starting in 2015, we’ve removed 90% of single-use plastic from our production process. We’ve increased to 75% of our leather suppliers being LWG-certified or CICB (Brazilian certification for sustainability). We’ve also reduced our use of leather by increasing non-fossil fuel-dependent vegan alternatives like deadstock fabrics from the garment industry. Our packaging is made from recycled paper printed with Algae Ink. At the end of life, we’ve started exploring collaborations that would use unsold products, like our Agent Reclaim x Alterre upcycled leather handbag collection. We also donate lightly worn shoes to Soles4Souls.
Many people don’t know that the footwear industry is still dominated by men on the manufacturing side. From a DEI perspective, we prioritize women-led businesses across the supply chain and our third parties. We’re truly committed to empowering women every step of the way. That includes donating 5% of our profit to Restore NYC, a 501c(3) that provides long-term rehabilitation for survivors of sex trafficking.
That’s honestly only the very surface of our commitment to responsible business and design. We are also proudly certified the Butterfly Mark by Positive Luxury for our continued commitment to sustainability. Pretty soon, we’ll have an interactive feature on our website for customers to see how we rank in all the different areas (such as environment, innovation, etc.), which is a goal that we’ve been working toward for some time.
4. Your brand also emphasizes comfortability. How do you ensure that your shoes are not only stylish but also comfortable for everyday wear?
Harmony: There are a few key things we do to prioritize comfort. One way is through design. We intentionally do not design anything over 3 inches without a platform. We also have padded foam insoles and extended toe boxes on any pointed shoes. A nice benefit to our interchangeable straps is the ability to size up or down. For example, I’ve always struggled with ankle straps that fit me. I have proportionally very small ankles. With our straps, I’m able to order one size down which means I don’t slip out of the shoes or twist an ankle if I’m running in platforms.
5. You’ve managed to secure a fair labor factory that aligns with your ethical standards. Can you share more about this process and any challenges in finding a suitable factory?
Finding the right factory was a two-year process with a lot of trial and error. At the time, we faced a lot of discrimination for being young women in the industry. As mentioned earlier, the manufacturing side of the footwear industry is still heavily male-dominated. We struggled to find a place that would take us seriously, and we’re very fortunate to have been connected to the factory in Brazil through Shilpa’s father-in-law. We flew down there to meet in person and immediately loved the ease of communication. It was easy to ask questions about anything including wages, paid time off, and water usage.
6. Alterre donates 5% of all proceeds to Restore NYC and you both serve as Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. Can you tell us more about this partnership and why you chose to support this particular cause?
Restore NYC is near and dear to us. We were first introduced to the organization by a fellow Parsons alumni and the mission resonated with us. As children of immigrants, we both grew to deeply admire our mothers for their gumption. They came to America with hope for a brighter future and were able to achieve that in many ways; so when we see survivors at Restore who are predominantly immigrant women of color, it hits home. As Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, we get to connect with clients of Restore NYC and provide resources that otherwise would be non-existent. It’s been so rewarding to know a percentage of our profit and our time is going toward giving other women a second lease on life.
7. Shilpa, with your background in womenswear and shoe design, and Harmony, with your expertise in trend research and sustainable design practices, how do these different skill sets complement each other in running Alterre?
In some ways, our perfect fit was an accident! We knew ahead of time that we had different skill sets to complement each other, but there are so many unforeseen ways we’ve complemented as well. It helps that we have a clear division of roles and share the same vision. While we both come from a design background and aesthetically like the same thing, we know the other person is looking at a product or problem through a different lens.
8. You’ve received the Butterfly Mark Award for excellence in sustainability, what does this recognition mean for the brand?
So many things! First, it’s been a helpful way for us to build trust with consumers. As a small luxury brand, it can be hard to initially convince people of the quality behind our product, especially when we primarily sell online. People often see the price tag before understanding the reason behind it. Having the certification is a nice way of saying, “We actually mean what we say, and this price represents our commitment to fair wages and climate justice.” Secondly, it’s a comforting form of validation that our hard work is measurable in a big-picture kind of way. Now we have a visible benchmark to improve upon and an open dialogue with the public.
9. Alterre started in NYC but moved its headquarters to West Palm Beach. Can you share more about this decision and how it has influenced the growth of your brand?
The pandemic hit us hard when New York City shut down in 2020. It was a terrifying time to be alive in the city and business came to a halt. We never intended to leave New York, but it was one of the best decisions we ever made. Before closing the office, we were physically shipping and processing orders. If someone wanted a pair of shoes overnighted, we went in early to pack the order and walk it to FedEx. Now, after closing the office in July 2020, we were able to move all of our products to a fulfillment center that costs far less than a 400-square-foot studio in TriBeCa. It also meant that the remaining financial resources could be spent on addressing any cracks in the system. We spent the next year running a lean company and getting all the things done that we never had time to do before… like getting certified for sustainability.
10. Lastly, what next for the brand, and any upcoming collections, news or partnerships on the horizon?
We have some new very shiny shoes coming out for Holiday that are worthy of a remake of The Wizard of Oz. We also have a fun pastel animal print in the pipeline for next Spring.