MAIN STREET — TOMS Shoes, a Santa Monica-based company that provides footwear to underprivileged children in foreign countries, announced Tuesday that it will expand both its product line and charity to fight another global health problem — blindness.
The company’s founder and Chief Shoe Giver Blake Mycoskie unveiled the newest product, a line of designer eyewear that TOMS will use to further the “one-for-one” model it established with its shoes.
For every pair purchased, a person with vision problems will receive care that they could not afford before.
“In 2007, when we’d sold 10,000 pairs of shoes, we realized that the one-for-one model was working,” Mycoskie said. “We also saw that there were many more needs that were not being met.”
It didn’t hurt that TOMS shoes became popular with the young, hipster set.
Four years and 1 million pairs of shoes later, Mycoskie and his band debuted three styles of designer sunglasses, with the tagline “Every Stripe Tells a Story” for the pattern built into each pair.
The sunglasses, which are made in Italy, sport three hand-painted stripes, two blue sandwiching one white.
The first blue line represents the purchaser that provides a critical eye service to the recipient, depicted in the second blue line. The white line signifies TOMS, which connected the two.
Mycoskie decided to venture into the realm of eyeglasses in 2007 after delivering the company’s shoes to a rural village in Nepal. He and his fellow volunteers noticed how many people in the village had vision problems, or were completely blind.
“Vision seemed to be the next most obvious choice,” he said.
Mycoskie announced his intention to expand into other kinds of products at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, but left the direction a mystery.
People questioned the business decision, saying that it was “risky” to change course when the shoes were not only doing well commercially, but providing such a valuable service to the needy.
“I thought the big risk would be to not do something else,” Mycoskie said.
Six months ago, after coming up with the design for the glasses, TOMS approached the Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit Seva Foundation.
The Seva Foundation combats vision problems in developing countries. In the last 30 years, it has served nearly 3 million people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
It was a natural partnership, said Seva’s Executive Director Jack Blanks. The organizations worked together for six months to ensure that the financials on the one-for-one model would work out before taking the plunge.
It was really TOMS that put its neck out, Blanks said.
“They made the leap,” he said. “They said they were going to commit a certain dollar amount, which is what we think will come out of the launch.”
As a result of that advance, Seva will be able to begin providing free eye care services at the same time as TOMS eyewear hits the market, rather than waiting for the money to come in as the glasses sell.
Sales will fund three categories of care: medical treatment, prescription glasses and surgical intervention.
According to the company, 284 million people suffer from visual impairments. Of that, nearly 80 percent can be treated in some way.
The money coming in from TOMS eyewear will be spread across treatments as simple as eyedrops, to cataract surgery. All of it will be completely free of charge, Blanks said.
Seva already has plans to expand its services in Tibet, Cambodia and Nepal as a result of its partnership with TOMS, Blanks said.
TOMS’ new role shows just how far the company has come since Mycoskie and his friends were making shoes in his Santa Monica apartment, not far from the site of the announcement.
“TOMS is not just a shoe company or an eyewear company, but a one-for-one company,” Mycoskie said. “This addresses another need, but it will not be the last one.”