Saturday, May 25, 2024

After 86 Years, the Iconic Penny Loafer Goes Sustainable With Cactus Leather


For the first time in its 146-year history, G.H. Bass has launched sustainable leather penny loafers, partnering with Mexican cactus leather manufacturer, Desserto.

George Henry Bass began shoemaking in Maine in 1876, forming the G.H. Bass company in 1879. He built a reputation for his mocassins favored by woodsmen. But it wasn’t until 1936, nearly a decade after his death, that the company released the shoe it would become most known for: the Weejun penny loafer.

G.H. Bass has been synonymous with penny loafers ever since. The shoe, dubbed “the preferred shoe for gentlemen,” was modeled after Italian slippers designed to be both comfortable and stylish. But the shoes had a modern twist: they came with slots in each shoe big enough to hold a penny. Why hold a penny in each shoe? Two cents was the average cost to make a call from a phone booth. The shoes were designed to help wearers in the event of needing to make an emergency phone call.

G.H. Bass x Desserto

Times have indeed changed in the eight decades since G.H. Bass first released its penny loafer—and just like we all have upgraded to carrying phone booths in our pockets nowadays, the footwear giant has updated its iconic Weejun loafer, too. The timeless shoe is getting a sustainable makeover thanks to cactus leather.

G.H. Bass has partnered with Desserto, the Mexican cactus leather producer that’s partnered with BMW, Balenciaga, and Karl Lagerfeld, among other companies. The new loafers come in green, red, and black—all made from the eco-leather.

cactus penny loafers
Courtesy G.H. Bass

Only the leather is different in the new Weejuns; the design adheres to the original. The footbed is also made from the nopal cactus leather. The shoes feature the brand’s traditional gold foil branding.

Desserto co-founder Adrian López Velarde says the cactus leather offers an advantage over conventional leather: it’s water resistant. “Although animal leather is very resistant, it is permeable and can even rot or crack if not dried quickly after it gets wet,” he says.

But the biggest benefit of the cactus leather, the company says, is its benefit to the environment. Cactus plants are carbon sinks, with greater CO2 sequestration capacity than other plants.

Desserto says 14 acres of cactus absorb more than 8,000 tons of C02 per year. On the flip side, cattle ranching is a leading cause of emissions and Amazon deforestation; “It is often said that a piece of a hamburger is a piece of the Amazon,” Desserto says on its website. Leather tanning also releases harmful chemicals linked to human health and environmental issues.

The new shoe launch comes on the heels of Balenciaga debuting a hooded wrap coat made out of mycelium—the root structure of mushrooms. The Spanish luxury label worked with Desserto last year on a vegan leather bomber jacket.

Sustainable leather

A recent report from Markets and Markets projects the global vegan leather market with reach nearly $100 million by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 7.5 percent.

“The growing awareness about climate change and animal welfare and the resulting surging demand for sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and clean products are encouraging designers, artisans, fashion brands, and automotive companies to shift from conventional leather and adopt strategies such as collaborations and partnerships with companies manufacturing plant-based leather,” the research firm said in a statement.

Balenciaga's new mycelium leather coat is at select stores
Balenciaga’s new mycelium leather coat is at select stores | Courtesy

The biggest shift has been coming from the luxury sector; Stella McCartney, Hermès, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci have all launched bio-based or upcycled plastic alternatives to leather. Last year, Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of Danish luxury label Ganni, said the company was dropping lambskin and leather as part of its sustainability commitments. “Selling leather products, although highly profitable, will soon be as outdated as smoking on TV,” Reffstrup said.

Desserto’s cactus leather is a first for G.H. Bass, but not a first for shoes. Los Angeles-based Clae launched what it says are the first cactus leather sneakers using Desserto’s cactus leather. Soneha, Carmona Collection, Bohema, and H&M have all launched footwear using Desserto’s leather. Onitsuka Tiger recently announced it is also launching into the sustainable leather category with help from Desserto. In January, the Mexico 66 shoe, one of the brand’s most iconic, will add Cactful, a cactus leather version.

Shop the G.H. Bass shoes below.

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