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How a Shoe Spoke for a Generation and What the Earth Has to Do With It…

Pre-amble… If you’re of a certain age you may remember the original Earth Shoes.  For the younger folks, they were incredibly strange looking shoes that were enormously popular in the 1970s and made a statement for a movement… 

Mick Jagger passing by the store

Mick Jagger passing by the store

On Earth Day 1970, my parents, Eleanor and Raymond Jacobs, opened the first official Earth Shoe store in the U.S. in the storefront of our 17th Street brownstone between Irving Place and Park Avenue South in N.Y.C.  We found the shoes, then called Anne Kalsø Minus-Heels, in Copenhagen, Denmark on a family vacation in the summer of 1969.  A heat wave drove us further north than planned and we ended up in Denmark.  Was this unexpected weather an early warning sign from Mother Nature?

Earth Shoe bus stop ad

Earth Shoe bus stop ad

Stumbling upon the shoes by accident, they offered the promise of salvation for my mother, who had chronic foot and backaches. My father bought us all a pair and within days of wearing the shoes, my mother’s pain was gone.  A week later after her miraculous healing, my parents decided this could be a new business adventure.  My father at the time was a prominent photographer with a perpetual entrepreneurial spirit, and my mom was a painter.

Anne Kalsø, the inventor of these unique shoes, was a 60-ish Danish yoga teacher who tested her new styles by walking 500 miles in the Faroe Islands, located in the middle of the North Atlantic.  She agreed to meet my parents only after receiving their birth dates and having their astrological charts done, and also made sure they had never been in the shoe business.  As stated in my father’s obituary in the New York Times 21 years ago, my parents were “Astrologically correct,” so Anne granted them the U.S. distribution rights.  With the success of the company, she later gave them worldwide rights.

Me, modeling Earth attire

Me, modeling Earth attire

As comfy as the shoes were, they were decidedly unsightly, with an exaggerated “‘negative heel,”’ lower than the toe — which replicated the act of walking barefoot on sand.  Upon returning home on the heel of our trip (no pun intended), my sister, Laura, and I  both were supposed to wear the shoes.  But people would stare—at my shoes, then up to me, at my shoes, at me. The shoes only made me more self-conscious. People’s gawking and staring embarrassed me. I tried to hide my feet under the bus seat.   Who knew at that point that these shoes would become a major global phenomenon and generate a PR frenzy, making it into Time, Rolling Stone, Playboy, People, GQ, National Lampoon, Business Week, and many, many more mainstream and industry media outlets.  The tagline became Kalsø Earth Shoes – For every walk of life.

Opening a retail store on East 17th Street was a calculated risk, as my parents were artists, with no retail experience and Union Square was seedy, filled with empty warehouse buildings that weren’t yet million-dollar condos.  The Michelin Guide referred to our neighborhood as “nondescript.” There was an insurance company, Chemical Bank, a union meeting hall, S. Klein on the Square, and a Mays department store. The most non-nondescript business in the whole area was Max’s Kansas City around the corner on Park Avenue South.  

On April 22, 1970, with a hand-written sign that read Anne Kalsø Minus-Heels, the store opened and my parents anxiously waited for some action.   The block was empty except for us kids playing in the street as if it were our own backyard -- stick ball, hide and seek, Johnny-on-the-Pony, and even the requisite firecracker and cherry bomb experiments, kept us entertained.

Suddenly, the miracle happened. Floods of hippies began wafting onto on our deserted street.  Curious, my mother asked what was going on. “Hey man, it’s Earth Day,” one replied. “Join us in Union Square for a Love In.” Dad was struck by the fateful opportunity and quickly wrote a sign in crayon for the window. “Earth Shoes!”  In that fortuitous instance, Earth Shoes were born.

With that simple sign, instant branding began.  The flower children poured into the store.  Many loved the shoes but couldn’t afford the $27 price. My mother, though, falling back on her art-world business model, said, “Take them for free and pay us when you can.” Miraculously, they came back with friends and not only paid their debt but helped sell more shoes.

Earth Day 1970 was held at Union Square, which was a dangerous park with no outdoor seating or farmer’s market.  The area that is now so nicely paved—with the W Hotel on one side and a Whole Foods on the other -- had a big tent filled with “fresh country air.”  No idea how they got fresh air from the country into the middle of Manhattan, but it was fun to indulge, inhaling deeply in the tent, convinced we felt healthier.

In 1970, the environment, going green, and alternative energy weren’t everyday buzzwords. The Viet Nam War was being protested, “make love, not war’ was the slogan, Jimi Hendrix died, yet the earth and it’s resources were being stressed.  “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson was a book I didn’t read until college but was a bestseller and an early eye-opener that we better start paying attention.  And on this first Earth Day an estimated 20 million people participated.  So how have we still managed to go so wrong environmentally?

Earth Shoes became very successful but of most interest to Laura and me (both entering puberty), were the cute hippie guys who worked there.  We had mad crushes on them all.  As for the women, we did our best to emulate them. Every day, we ran home from the United Nations International School and hung out in the store flirting, doing homework, and helping customers. We were learning about life, love, sex, non-traditional lifestyles, fashion, and, some business. At the end of the day, though, we remained the boss’ daughters, and free-spirited or not, the workers respected those boundaries, as much as we tried to convince them otherwise.

For Christmas one year, the store employees bought our family a macrobiotic chef for 12 weeks. Once a week she came to our house and prepared a gourmet macro meal, although I am still not sure gourmet and macro belong in the same sentence.  She was as dedicated to cooking, as she was to her other life goal:  having 12 kids–one in each zodiac sign.  We listened, we learned, but after the first week we would sneak out to Zookie’s Deli on Third Avenue for a hotdog before the meal so we didn’t have to eat as much of our ‘special’ dinner. 

A perk for employees after three months was free Transcendental Meditation training, which my whole family took.  We would meditate with the employees in the basement on seats from the back of a van. Sworn to the TM secrecy of never disclosing your mantra, it wasn’t until years later that Laura and I learned we had the same mantra.

As the popularity of Earth Shoes grew, we ended up with four stores on 17th Street – two divided by shoe size, the other two for storage.  The floor of the original store couldn’t handle the amount of foot traffic (again—pardon the pun), so it had to be divided.  We also had a large office several blocks away with 100 employees, and that was just in New York. Worldwide, the company had grown to over 100 privately owned stores.  Whenever the line of customers went out the door and down the block, Laura and I served them cookies and apple cider.  As part of my teenage rebellion, though, I wore Dr. Scholl’s, or worse, Birkenstocks.  Neither was any more fashionable, but I was making a teenage statement.

Laura and I were always heartbroken whenever an employee left. It was like losing a family member -- a really cute one.  But over time, capitalism even got to the flower children.  Storeowners wanted to take over management and unionize. The peace and love beginnings of Earth Shoes were transformed into a political statement for unions.  Loyalty and disloyalty to my parents seemed to run equally deep, and my sister and I often got caught in the middle. 

We were still young, only in high school, so we didn’t fully understand what was going on and the change of attitude toward us.  We were labeled indirectly as “the enemy” that couldn’t be trusted.  It was devastating for my whole family, especially my dad.  Sadly, although Earth Shoes was built largely on trust between my parents and their employees and store owners, the brand’s commercial success had driven a wedge between them. Ultimately, it was Chemical Bank, from which the business had a line of credit, that forced this private, profitable, and industry-changing company into closure in 1977.

Time has passed; shoe styles have come and gone (many claiming to do the same things that Earth Shoes delivered).  But here on this Earth Day 46 years later, I recall the rise and fall of Earth Shoes - the fun, inspiration, motivation, innovation, free spirit, trusting environment, and family adventure that we experienced throughout our formative years.

May all of these positive, forward-moving sentiments, help carry us through the coming years of critical repair that we must do to preserve our Earth and well being for all. Although undoubtedly, there are other lessons in what became of Earth Shoes, I pray it’s not some prophetic metaphor for either Earth Day or planet Earth. Neither one should be viewed through any sort of simplistic lens of hind-sighted irony—about the counterculture, or capitalism, or people who truly believed that even just a shoe might bring about something as grand as social change, social awareness, and a greater respect and care for oneself, life, others, and our planet.

As goofy as Earth Shoes may have seemed (certainly to a teenage girl), as naïve and unimportant as Earth Day may appear to others — then and now — I’m no longer embarrassed by that shoe, and realize how vital and necessary Earth Day is – today, more than ever.

Happy Earth Day!