This shoe brand that uses upcycled wine corks wants to stand up to Birkenstock

Founded by Meghan Whitney Higney and launched in April, Message works with suppliers in Portugal to create comfortable and affordable slides in limited runs.
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· 4 min read

As a young soccer player, Meghan Whitney Higney also loved having a comfortable pair of slides. However, she realized the only two viable options were the high-end luxury variety that cost over $300 or outdoor performance brands that were under $100.

Birkenstock, Higney told Retail Brew, was the only middle option that treated slides “like the category it was,” offering something stylish but durable.

The former president of leading skin care brand True Botanicals, however, wanted to build an alternative to offer consumers another option. With Message, launched this year, she set out to build a brand that was affordable, stylish, and versatile. “‘Can I wear it to yoga, and also with a wide leg trouser, with a slip dress…to the pool, but also with their joggers, and also with a linen pant?’” Higney told Retail Brew. “I really wanted to tackle this idea of style from a versatility perspective.”

Message made its debut in April after years of research and a unique take on sustainability.

Not only is the new brand trying to bridge the gap between luxury and performance footwear, but the products are also made with upcycled wine corks sourced from Portugal.

“When I was in Portugal, and really getting to know the cork industry, [I] fell in love with it because of just how sustainable and…how functional the material is, particularly for shoes, because it’s water resistant, sweat and odor resistant, [and] impact resistant.”

Cork it over: Studying the cork supply chain, Higney learned that more than 70% of the cork goes to the wine industry.

“They use the highest-quality cork for the wine industry,” she said. “It’s this preservation mechanism for them, and the remainder is available for alternate use. That’s what we use, as well as the discarded corks if they don’t pass the quality test because it’s a really high bar for quality.”

In addition to being able to use the discarded cork, she said, an added benefit was that the material is carbon negative and can be upcycled.

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Currently available in limited quantities at about $160 each, the slides use about nine corks per pair. The entire project has been about two years in the making. Of course, Higney said, that time was not without hiccups, including the challenge of creating a “cork on cork” footbed.

“Cork is used in the Birkenstock footbed. They use an insole that is a leather suede. Other shoe brands that you see that use cork, they use various different linings for their insole, and I was really clear that I wanted the customers to actually come in contact with the cork,” she said.

Long road ahead: While Message’s production partners struggled to figure out how to create the footbeds, Higney spent several trips trying to find people in the manufacturing industry who could figure it out and understood it was a hands-on process. Of course, the process has been expensive, which also explains the product’s slightly elevated price point and limited run production model.

Overall, the journey has been “pretty scrappy, pretty minimal,” said Higney, who invested half a million dollars of her own to kickstart the brand and has since brought in a few angel investors and raised under a million dollars.

At the moment, Message is available for purchase in the US and will also be selling out of a few specialty boutiques in Brooklyn, but Higney plans on expanding that reach to multiple specialty boutiques and also e-commerce sites.

“I’m trying to take as little capital as possible to do this profitably, and to retain our own autonomy,” she explained. “I don’t necessarily want to capitalize the business in a way where we need to sprint to an exit in five years. This is a very long, evergreen opportunity to really transform a category.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.