Chris Smalling interview: Roma star unveils Nike’s Happy Pineapple trainers
The footballer explains why he invested in pineapple leather
Pineapple trainers? It’s not as odd as it sounds and certainly Nike doesn’t seem to think so. The sportswear giant has just released its “Happy Pineapple” collection counting six trainer models that use a material called Piñatex® derived from the spiky tropical fruit. The collaboration marks the first time in its history that the brand has used a bio-material in place of leather.
A.S. Roma footballer Chris Smalling, a committed vegan and former Manchester United defender, is an investor in the company that has developed the product. Based in London’s Somerset House, Ananas Anam is the brainchild of Dr. Carmen Hijosa who wanted to find a sustainable alternative to leather having spent 15 years in the design and manufacturing of leather goods. Remarkably, she founded the company in her sixties having completed a PhD in textiles at London’s Royal College of Art as a mature student. She soon attracted investors, including footie star Smalling who’s also proved to be the perfect high-profile ambassador, asserting his influence on Nike, a loyal sponsor of his for many years.
Although parts of the trainers are fashioned from Piñatex, it’s a positive step towards a more sustainable solution for this footwear type, notoriously bad for the environment. According to Business Insider, more than 300 million pairs of trainers are thrown out annually and some plastic soles can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.
The good news is that Piñatex is part of a bigger move towards more sustainable textiles in fashion derived from plant-based products, resulting in fashion items that are not only more eco-friendly, but fair trade, providing a valuable source of income to poorer communities who are able to make use of raw materials that would otherwise be discarded.
In March, luxury leather brand Hermès released a travel bag made out of mushroom “leather”, or more precisely the mycelium fibres found in fungi. The French maison rechristened the textile “Sylvania”, and created a prototype of its Victoria briefcase cast in this supple material, which was treated in the same tanneries as the label’s leather handbags. The project, a collaboration between Hermès and biomaterial company MycoWorks, is part of a three-year contractual agreement, so it’s safe to say that Hermès will be releasing more ’shroom bags in the near future.
As for Piñatex, the future looks bright: Nike’s involvement will no doubt shine a spotlight on this innovative company which already works with an impressive 800 global brands, providing faux leather for accessories and shoes that is both durable and tactile. Aside from Nike, big name fashion clients include H&M and Hugo Boss, which goes to show that the company is ripe for the picking.
In an exclusive interview, The Week spoke to Chris Smalling about his unusual business venture which he hopes will lead to more fashion and footwear innovations, possibly on the pitch with performance boots crafted with a tropical kick.
Why and how did you get involved in Piñatex?
About four years ago, I started the transition to veganism. My wife was already a vegan, but for me it was a slightly slower process. I started to see the health benefits of a plant-based diet early on, but I was still only eating vegan food at home. It was when I considered the animal welfare aspect of this lifestyle, that I fully converted. In terms of discovering Ananas Anam, it actually started with another pair of trainers. I had read about Hugo Boss’s Piñatex trainers and I really wanted some. I came up to London and bought a black pair. Believe it or not, I contacted the company on Instagram and asked them if I could somehow be involved in their journey. Before [embarking] on a football career I had planned to study financial economics [at Loughborough University], so I’ve always had an interest in start-ups. This seemed like the perfect match given my beliefs, plus the sustainable angle really appealed to me.
How is veganism perceived in football?
Luckily there’s a lot more awareness about plant-based diets, especially since [Netflix docuseries] Game Changers started airing. Even in Rome, a lot of the team end up tucking in to my dishes! They ask questions and genuinely want to know how my lunches are made.
How important is it to you that trainers become more sustainable?
Players get through a lot of [football] boots, so ultimately the goal would be to create a fully sustainable Piñatex model for the pitch. That’s the beauty of the material, the innovation is there to develop performance shoes as well as kit in the future. Piñatex is hardwearing and trainers [made from this material] last for years, much longer than leather.
I heard there’s a vegan hotel room furnished by Ananas Anam…
That’s right, the Hilton Bankside in London has a vegan suite with upholstery and furnishings made from Piñatex. I actually stayed there not so long ago with my wife, which was great. It’s a really cool thing to buy a pair of [Hugo Boss] trainers and then follow a project like this on its journey as it progresses on to bigger things, from furniture to Nike trainers!
Did you facilitate this Nike project?
Nike has been my sponsor for years and I have always felt supported in my [lifestyle] choices. I suggested the idea of a collaboration, starting with trainers and working towards football boots. There were lots of discussions about launching [a biomaterial range] and I certainly pushed for Piñatex. The [development] team sampled a lot of different materials, so I was thrilled when they settled on us.
Are you planning to later become a sustainable start-up tycoon?
I actually have seven or eight investments in different sustainable businesses at the moment, so maybe! I do feel this will be my calling later on, after I’ve given football my all. After 15 or 20 years [as a player], I’m not sure I’d want to be a manager, but I definitely want to play an active part in the game. One of the charities I support is Football Beyond Borders which supports kids in sport and that’s an area of huge importance that I look forward to dedicating more time to.
You’re going to be a big hit with the kids when you tell them you have pineapple trainers…
Haha! Yeah right... And the little pineapple logo is pretty cool too!