STYLE AND sustainability don’t always pair well. Each year we throw away mounds of clothes, many of them barely worn fast-fashion items made with synthetic fabrics and materials that will take decades to break down. And yet, even the most eco-conscious of fashionistas still wants to look cute for spring, right?
Enter Hilos, the Portland-based shoe brand founded in 2019 with a sustainable mission: to produce only on demand—i.e., once a customer or client has put in an order. With a focus on “circularity” (creating a fully recyclable product) and eliminating overproduction, Hilos’s guiding philosophy is “how we make things matters.”
And the company is hitting its stride: At the 2022 South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Hilos snagged two top awards at the tech, music, and culture festival's annual pitch event, including one for "innovative world technologies" and the coveted "best in show" title.
“Circularity is just one side of the equation,” says cofounder Elias Stahl, who has a tech background in product development. He and cofounder Gaia Giladi, a School of Fashion graduate from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, were interested in Portland largely because of its storied footwear history, and came here from DC and LA, respectively.
Hilos reduces water usage and waste generation by using 3-D printers to make a one-piece structure fitted with a heel, outsole, and insole made of extra-cushioned, supportive digital mesh. Beyond sustainability, Hilos designs its shoes with comfort and style in mind, with options that are casual enough to be work shoes or dressy enough for date night. And if you need further convincing that style and sustainability can be best bedfellows, the Hilos collection doubles down on durability, forgoing glue to keep the shoes together in favor of a hand-stitched approach.
“We put the Georgia, which was our first product on the website, on a mechanical punishment test to see how long it would last for 300 miles, and it came out without a scratch,” Stahl says. He notes that customers can return worn-out shoes to Hilos’s new facility in downtown Portland for a fresh pair, though “we haven’t actually approached the end of life of our first-generation shoes [yet].”
Currently, the company offers three designs sold directly through hilos.co. The Georgia (pictured below), with what might be the most comfortable heels you’ll ever wear in your life, has a super springy insole, three-inch block heel, soft and buttery leather uppers, and an interchangeable strap (keep it a slingback, or have it wrapped around the ankle gladiator-style). The Grace is a sexier version of the Georgia: strapless, summery, while giving just as much spring in the step. The Aurora (pictured at top), a square-toed, super-flexy slingback mule, is a comfortable and stylish everyday shoe.
Giladi says she named the shoes after her favorite female singers: Georgia Josiena Nott, from New Zealand music duo Broods; Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora; and soul singer Saygrace. Hilos has an upcoming two-inch clog in the works, due to launch for presale in March and named for country singer Brandi Carlile.
Hilos has also been focusing on
collaborations with other brands, like an Emmett slip-on for men, with Texas-based Helm Boots, that launched in November 2021. The result is an excellent airport shoe, as the comfy, closed-toe slip-on mule, in super smooth and soft leather, is just the ticket for sliding off and on for TSA before dashing to the gate.
“We actively collaborate with other brands because our mission is to change the way the world and the [fashion] industry makes [products],” says Stahl. “We want to eliminate waste and overproduction. We’re not going to do that alone.”
Hilos’s downtown Portland facility formerly housed Povey Glass Brothers Co and is still fitted with lots of exposed brick. Here’s a look at the manufacturing process, which begins only after a customer has placed an order.
Hilos uses an additive manufacturing process, which Stahl explains as “any form of manufacturing where it starts from the ground up and only makes what needs to be made.” On the flip side, “subtractive manufacturing is ... maybe you’ll have a block of something and you’ll chisel away or grind what you don’t need away.”
Director of tech and 3-D printing expert Eric Folsom says around a dozen pairs of shoes can be printed at a time, with the sole-heel-outsole combo taking shape inside of a big white block (referred to by staff as a “cake” of “refresh powder”). The residual powder from the cake can later be used to make another pair.
AN HP-brand 3-D printer is used to create the shoe base. Next steps are to attach recyclable thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) for the platform, and then hydro dipping (for a woodlike look) or vapor smoothing (for a glossy black texture) depending on the style, and stitching on sustainably sourced, vegetable-tanned leather uppers.