Julie Lewis was a stay-at-home mom with an undergraduate degree in Biology and a Masters in Nutrition and Biochemistry in 1991 when she came up with an idea to help avoid leaving a world of garbage for her children to deal with when they grew up. That idea turned into Deja Shoes, based on sandals she had seen made from automobile tires in the developing world. The Deja Shoe uppers were made from industrial waste (everything from salvaged jeans to recycled bottles to disposable diapers) and the soles were made from cork and car tire rubber. Even recycled coffee filters, neoprene wetsuits, and hemp came into play in the making of the shoes.
"I was frustrated that the markets for recycled materials was basically non-existent back then, and I felt like there needed to be something sexy made of them as away to educate people that solid waste was a real issue," says Julie. She discovered that a regional government agency was giving a grant specifically to create markets for recycled materials. A friend advised her to call the founder of Nike, Bill Bowerman, who lived close by. She looked him up in the phone book and called him. Bill invited her to his Eugene, Oregon ranch to discuss her idea in more detail. When they met, he pointed out how he himself walked with a limp and told her, "I have a limp because I have been inhaling toxic shoe adhesives since I made the first 'waffle stomper' using my wife's waffle iron in my garage. I want to help someone who is trying to do something good for this filthy industry."
Bill proved to be an invaluable teacher and ally in her crash course to quickly learn everything about how shoes were made. Julie learned that the outside of her childrens' disposable diapers was made using a plastic resin called polypropylene, which was also used sometimes in textiles in footwear. She found a company which made polypropylene textiles and contacted them to see if they would make textile out of post-consumer disposable diaper coverings. "They said, 'Polypropylene is already a recycled material as it is a by-product of petroleum production...and who are you anyway? Some housewife in Oregon?' and they hung up. When I told Bill he said, 'Well, you just tell them Nike is calling!'" So she did. And the rest, as they say, is history. She got the grant and Deja Shoes was born.
The company thrived for five years until going out of business in 1996 for a number of reasons. "Seduced by large retailers who took back inventory when it did not sell through, too many high paid executives running the business before we were profitable, some product failure - when we used wild rubber from the Amazon that was vulcanized in the sun onto used sugar sacks, as a way to give an economic reason to keep the rainforests alive - we tested it for strength and durability but did not check for how it was affected by UV light," remembers Julie. "It began to melt off the shoes in store windows in the sun. This forced us to recall thousands of pairs - and the shoes were, frankly, ugly."
Julie recently went back to the drawing board with an entirely new concept - shoes that have technology in them that will actually clean the air as they are being used - and pulled together a team of footwear industry experts around this concept. They're currently in the process of raising capital to make this idea a reality. And in the meantime, since she needed to continue making a living, she came up with another recyclable product: Deja Movie Film Bags through her new company, Jade Planet. "My daughter being a videographer in Los Angeles got me thinking about film...movies are often times destroyed and thrown away after their run in theatres. Since the 1980's, polyester has been the resin film is made of instead of celluloid or acetate which was flammable and not very durable." Since handbags take a lot less capital - no sizes, molds, and so on - she decided to see if there was a market for this new item.
The bags are fashioned using strips of 35mm movie film, which has sprockets on the edges. This makes them a perfect source material to be crocheted together into a sheet and then fashioned into a bag. The crocheting is done by a women's cooperative in the Philippines which was formed to offer employment after a major earthquake left many without work. The bags are lined with a clear film leader for extra durability and also to allow viewing of the movie frames. They come in several different sizes, and are available as a wallet, a purse, a shopping bag, or an over the shoulder pouch. Besides carrying on the tradition of using completely recycled materials, the source materials are 100% vegan.
Julie recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make more bags while getting the word out about the product, in effect getting them into the hands of those who love them most in exchange for a small pledge. There's one more day left on the campaign, which ends the evening of Tuesday February 15. It's also possible to order the bags via her company website, just in time for Oscar season parties, as it's sure to be a conversation-starter. People enjoy trying to figure out what movies the film scenes are from. The marketing possibilities would seem to be endless here; imagine a limited edition bag made from Harry Potter film strips, or The Green Hornet. If I were a studio executive, I'd be making that call - seems like a win-win all around. Meanwhile Julie Lewis continues to change the world, one film sprocket at a time.
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