Brian Metzler delivers exclusive insights on the upcoming shoe and apparel brand.
At the 2011 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race, Kilian Jornet was moving at a fast pace with the lead pack of runners in the middle of the night, when he surged ahead on a long ascent up a mountain pass. The other runners figured that was the last they’d see of him until the finish line back in Chamonix.
But instead, they encountered him at the top of the pass with his headlamp off gazing in wonderment at the star-filled sky. Later in the race, he made a similar surge up another high mountain pass, but this time he took a break to search for edible mushrooms, a skill he learned from his parents when he was growing up in the Spanish Pyrenees. He’s also been known to stop to feel the texture of a tree’s bark, smell wildflowers or quietly watch water trickle over rocks.
While Jornet is known the world over as an elite trail runner, ski-mo racer and mountaineer, his love and respect for the natural world have always been what has defined him the best.
When the news broke two weeks ago that he was partnering with family-owned Spanish footwear company Camper to launch NNormal, a new brand of footwear and apparel focused on sustainability, it was a natural next step in his progression as a uniquely positioned athlete and leader in the outdoor community. And it could eventually become as prodigious of a move as his statement wins at the Hardrock 100 and UTMB and the FKTs he has set on the world’s highest mountains.
In what came as a shock to many, Jornet ended his sponsorship arrangement with Salomon last December, even though the relationship had seemingly been a perfect match for more than a dozen years. As a teen, he had been a rising star in trail running and ski-mo racing, but he developed into a global persona from the massive spotlight Salomon shined on him with video storytelling, innovative gear development and the support and promotion of his Summits of My Life quest.
The relationship made Jornet an international icon, helped globalize trail running and also made Salomon a lot of money as one of the world’s prominent outdoor gear companies. But Jornet was always an outlier, someone who would have achieved greatness even without a big brand supporting him.
If you’ve read anything about Jornet, followed him on Instagram or watched any of his YouTube videos, you’ll realize that his joie de vivre is all about his ability to immerse in the mountains and closely tied to his reverence for the natural world. That combination of joy and respect is what’s made him special and what’s helped impact and change the sports he’s been involved in.
Brands and trail runners frequently spew pro-environmental fodder, but do we all fully live it by trying to minimize our carbon footprint on a daily basis? Jornet (and his wife Emelie Forsberg) have built their life together about living as sustainably as possible. But being tied to a huge brand like Salomon, they’ve seen first-hand how big gear companies and the entire outdoor industry operate.
And look, Salomon is an upstanding company built on solid principles, and, like most brands, it has done its due diligence to make changes toward a greater ethos of sustainability. Jornet’s departure from Salomon had little to do with Salomon and a lot to do with being in charge of his own destiny along a more sustainable path
For Jornet, it’s about making changes in an industry that’s been rife with overproduction, waste, a business model of planned obsolescence, and manufacturing predominantly with non recyclable and non compostable materials. When you’re privy to how shoes and apparel are designed, built and transported, it’s impossible not to realize the huge environmental cost of a single pair of shoes.
In 2020, Jornet took a first major step with his project called the Outdoor Friendly Pledge — a promise for events, athletes, retail stores, brands, sport federations and anyone else tied to the outdoor recreation business to “promote a more sustainable practice of outdoor sports.”
“This means we all have an important role to play in the sustainability of the sport and protection of the environment where we practice,” he said at the time. “It isn’t about being perfect environmentalists, rather about walking towards a greener sports model. With this pledge we aim to share ideas and actions – from the simplest to those complex – to make outdoor sports more sustainable.”
Now, with the launch of NNormal, Jornet is once again ready to lead the sport in an innovative direction. Starting a company just to build his own line of vanity shoes would be a wasteful endeavor. He wants to break the mold and create an entirely different approach – one that starts with environment responsibility at its crux.
“Our design approach and innovation is based in finding new solutions to build products with our mindset that less is more,” he told UltraSignupNews in an exclusive interview last week. The bold aspiration of the NNormal business model is to change design, manufacturing, and production practices that have been bedrock to almost every gear company since the beginning of time. This begins with fewer SKUs and less consumption overall.
“We will work on preventing overconsumption, making timeless designs, using unisex colors to use less references, working on the multifunctionality of all our products to have a small range of products and mostly to have timeless products,” he said. “So we don’t create a product every season, but only if we find better materials or more functional solutions.”
Imagine if you bought a pair of trail running shoes that you could keep running in for many years instead of just wearing them for one season and then discarding them. Imagine if the pair of shoes you bought last fall could be repaired, enhanced or updated without simply sending them to a landfill after a few hundred miles. If you can envision that, you start to get the idea of what NNormal — and ultimately Jornet — is all about.
“Our DNA is to work on functionality (our products are made to be used in multiple activities, to be worn), durability (to ensure that with this functionality they can last the maximum) and repairability, to prolong the life of each product. And our end goal is to work towards real circular products, leaving no trace in our path.”
Jornet grew up in a small mountain hut with a family that lived frugally, not only because they didn’t have a lot of money for new or better gear and clothes but because they respected, took care of and repaired what they had and despised wasting anything. If they didn’t have exactly what they needed for a particular hike or ski session, they made good with what they had or improvised. That’s how Jornet has lived his life and also how he found a life connection with Forsberg and what they have already started to instill in their young daughters.
“Creating my own brand means being able to explore new ways to do things,” Jornet says. “I have always been pretty geeky when it comes to gear so what’s better than having your own?”
Jornet had been considering these ideas for years, but it was only when he became acquainted with the Fluxa family behind the Camper brand that it started to come to life. They realized they shared many of the same values for what they wanted in a brand, especially when it comes to environmental and social responsibility.
NNormal intends to be as conscientious and transparent as possible when it comes to its manufacturing materials, process, and locations. “Making a product is always a compromise…we have strict red lines when it comes to the use of some chemicals and materials. We work with our providers to find the most sustainable solutions.”
This balancing act applies to manufacturing and pricing as well. While its footwear will initially be produced in Eastern Asia, where the vast majority of running shoes are made, Jornet said the long-term goal is to produce in Europe. However, first they must invest in the infrastructure, the know-how, and consider the entire environmental footprint of transporting materials for production.
Jornet understands that to make a real difference, the shoes must be accessible to the widest range of consumers. That said, NNormal doesn’t intend to develop high-priced, premium models but instead more consciously manufactured products that fall into the average price range of existing shoes.
“It is also important that all, or at least a big part of the main products, are average and low price with a high sustainable standard, so that way people won’t need to choose because most of the products will have a very good environmental and social responsibility,” he said. “Then we will have a major impact.”
Ultimately, this is how change will happen, even though it will take time. After years and years of doing things the same way, it takes an outlier to make a daring and perhaps disruptive shift that others can follow. The first NNormal models are expected to debut in Fall 2022.
“In NNormal we want to respect our values and we have a clear mission,” Jornet said. “Our ambitions are big. We are just at the start of this journey, and we are excited for what’s to come.”
Russell: If you want minimalist cushioning, you obviously are under 50 years old and probably are not running very far. Super lightweight shoes also typically are not very durable and not suitable for many of the technical trails in New England. Let’s hope for a realistic and durable shoe, with great traction (wet & dry).
As a huge Kilian fan (and someone who also grew up in a frugal, environmentally conscious environment) I applaud his endeavor with NNormal. I will almost definitely buy a pair of these shoes when they are released. Making shoes is harder than one might think, though, as evidenced by many of the smaller outdoor and ultra shoe brands. Many of the first Altras had awful fit and Hokas still fall apart if you look at them the wrong way just once. Making good lasts is hard. Making lightweight, durable semi-cushioned shoes is also very hard. I am keeping my fingers crossed that NNormal will not just be able to figure all of this out but will also be profitable in the end. Charge more for the shoes, if needed, in order to make a superior shoe. People already don’t have a problem dropping $200 on a pair of carbon plated racers which don’t last any longer than it takes to say “carbon plated racers”. If NNormal shoes will last for several years then they can cost a little more, too. Making a profit is necessary for businesses to thrive. You can always donate the profits to environmental causes if you feel like you are getting too rich too quickly (hoping that NNormal will make any profits at all).
[…] we feature the independent ethos of two trail runners committed to their unique vision. First, an exclusive Q&A with Kilian Jornet on his journey leading to the NNormal launch. And Devon Yanko, fresh off her outright win at Umstead […]