Penn State Senior Changing Shoe Game Forever, Preparing To Debut Sustainable Line At New York Fashion Week
A lot of people are interested in shoes. Buying shoes. Wearing shoes. Collecting shoes. There are entire conventions dedicated to rare sneakers, and a pair of Yeezys can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. When a professional athlete signs a deal with a major shoe company, it makes national headlines.
While a lot of people may like shoes, not many like them so much they decide to create their own from scratch. That’s where Nick Unis comes in.
A Penn State senior, Unis started his footwear company, Unis Brands, as a freshman at Penn State Altoona through his involvement in the Sheetz Fellows Program. Before college, though, he had had an interest in sneakers ever since he was a freshman in high school, where he and his brother would buy special edition Nikes and sell them at higher prices. This progressed into customizing pairs of shoes, which is where it started to get interesting.
“We did one [custom] shoe with a rapper named Riff Raff,” said Unis. “And he decided to put it on eBay. It was supposed to be a profiteering model, so we’d split it 50/50. In twenty-four hours it hit over $1 million.”
This excitement was short-lived, however, as Unis and his brother were quickly sent a cease-and-desist order from Nike because they had customized a pair of Air Jordans. However, this proved to be the catalyst for the creation of what would one day become Unis Brands.
“That’s where I wanted to be able to make my own shoe,” he said. “And be able to do that with other artists and other organizations, and not get sued for it.”
Four years and one campus switch later, Nick Unis has created a shoe company that operates very differently from other major companies like Nike and Adidas: Every single shoe is 3D printed and made out of entirely recyclable material.
Although the process for making each pair of shoes is definitely not easy, Unis makes it sound pretty simple and straightforward.
“We essentially design everything on the computer first,” he said. “Completely digitally. Then from there, we’re able to split it up into components and either 3D print or 3D knit the shoe.”
He learned how to fully utilize a 3D printer to grow his company during his time at Altoona where he realized that there weren’t really any 3D printers out there that were capable of affordably creating a flexible fabric. As most 3D printers dealt in using hard plastics, Unis decided to design his own model.
“It costs us about $500 to make the machine [I created],” he said. “It’s really cheap compared to some of the other 3D printers they have, which can range from $5,000 to $100,000.”
Creating his own machine and using his own software has allowed him to fill an entire office space, which is located just outside of Pittsburgh, with 3D printers. Unis employs Penn State Beaver students to engineer his shoes; each one takes about five hours to make per pair.
With sustainability and ethics in mind, Unis uses ground-up plastic bottles and natural rubber to create his shoe. By melting down the plastic, he’s able to force the material into a thread, which allows him to create the fabric and laces he uses. From there, each part of the shoe is 3D-printed layer by layer, with the outsole being covered in the rubber.
Because his shoes are made from 100-percent recyclable material and are completely eco-friendly, Unis is able to guarantee that his products won’t end up in a landfill or the ocean. Beyond helping the environment, he says this opens him up to cobranding, where he would design a shoe in partnership with another major company, cause, or celebrity.
“I’d absolutely love to do something with THON,” he said with a smile. “The kids could design their own shoes, wear them, promote them, and see other people wearing their design. Then, [when we sell them] all the proceeds would go to THON.”
While he hasn’t secured a deal with the Four Diamonds foundation yet, he has found success elsewhere, securing a contract with New York Fashion Week, which begins next week. There, he will debut his new line of shoes, the Yin and Yang collection.
“I wasn’t really prepared,” Unis said, describing his reaction when Fashion Week contacted him. “We weren’t even 100-percent sure we were ready to release this, and then they said, ‘Not only would we have your stuff on the runway, but you can have a pop-up shop as well,’ so we jumped at that opportunity.”
During Fashion Week, the Yin and Yang collection will be worn by models on the runway, while Unis also has the opportunity to run his own pop-up shop on location. Citing his dedication to sustainability, Unis Brands only prints a pair of shoes when one is ordered, so his team will only be bringing a few different pairs for potential buyers to try on for size. One month after they place orders, their new purchases will be shipped in recyclable tubes.
New York isn’t the only place to cop a new pair of Unis Brands shoes, though. Their contract includes Fashion Week in Paris, London, and Milan as well, offering Nick Unis a potentially big opportunity.
“We’re looking to expand, push our product out there, and really give Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour a run for their money,” Unis said. “Because a lot of the ways they produce their footwear and their apparel isn’t sustainable or ethical.”
Unlike those big-name companies, Unis doesn’t want to buy into fast fashion and ultimately have his shoes produced in sweatshops. At the end of the day, he wants to reach his success in a way that isn’t harmful to the planet or underprivileged laborers.
As Unis Brands continues to grow and reach new heights for success, Nick Unis hasn’t forgotten what got him to this point and is extremely encouraging to other young entrepreneurs who are looking to get their own ideas started.
“If you really want to start a business, being a Penn State student you have a lot of resources. There’s a lot of different places where someone will help you,” he said. “I think a lot of people have an idea or want to start something, but don’t necessarily know how to get there, and there are a lot of people connected to Penn State that will be willing to help. We wouldn’t be where we are without a lot of the help from Penn State.”
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