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Thursday, March 30, 2023

With an Eco-Friendly Sneaker, Rothy’s Treads on New Ground

In a basement in San Francisco, Lavion Gibson circles tiny imperfections on the soles of shoes with a red marker. The blemishes he's identifying are barely perceptible to the naked eye—a small pock, or an inconsistency in the finish. But to Gibson, the senior design manager of shoemaker Rothy's, those little pocks are what could make or break the shoe.

"See? It’s shiny here," he says, pointing to a sole that looks perfectly fine to me. "You don’t see it, but we see it."

Since launching two years ago, Rothy's has gone from a wild idea—women's flats made from recycled water bottles—to a colorful line of shoes that pop up constantly on Instagram and Pinterest. First came The Flat ($125) and The Point ($145). Then the company rolled out The Loafer ($165) and a line of girl’s flats ($65). It opened its first brick-and-mortar store in San Francisco earlier this year. And today, it announced The Sneaker ($125), a sturdier slip-on made from the same sustainable materials as the other shoes.

“We’ve known from the beginning, if we’re making the essential deck for women, there’s probably a sneaker in there,” says Erin Dempsey Lowenberg, Rothy’s creative director. “It’s not that lightning struck. We’ve just known that we needed it.”

For the tenderfoot company, The Sneaker represents a big step forward. It's Rothy's chance to show the world it's more than a one-hit wonder, a company that can do more than just dainty flats. It's also a way to court a younger customer, and hopefully introduce a bigger market to the Rothy's ethos. But if it's going to convince people to drop $125 on a shoe that looks more or less like a pair of Vans, it has to prove that The Sneaker is more durable, more comfortable, and more beautiful than anything else out there. It has to prove that it's perfect. So Gibson, in the basement of the Rothy's office, keeps circling all the little details standing in the way of success.

When Roth Martin and Stephen Hawthornthwaite founded the company six years ago, they had no idea how to make shoes—let alone eco-friendly ones. It took four years for Hawthornthwaite, a former investment banker, and Martin, a designer by trade, to figure out how to turn crunched-up water bottles into yarn; how to dye that yarn in ways that wouldn’t compromise its stretch or shape; and, well, how to knit it into shoes that people could actually wear.

Their idea was to reduce the excess in the traditional shoemaking process, where about 15 percent of materials become waste in the cutting process alone. The Rothy’s model, on the other hand, tries to reduce waste in every step. The insoles on all of Rothy’s shoes contain recycled foam; the rubber soles are made without environmentally stressful black carbon. The yarn comes from plastic. Even the packaging’s made from post-consumer recycled materials.


While sustainability is sewn into the brand, Rothy’s is first and foremost a design company. Its headquarters in San Francisco (formerly’s Martin’s mid-century art gallery, which he flipped into an office when he co-founded Rothy’s) is littered with samples, sketches, shoe prototypes, and other artifacts of constant reinvention. Its shoes didn’t become popular because they’re made from recycled materials—they gained a following because the electric patterns and eye-popping colors stood out on the street or in an Instagram feed. The eco piece is important, yes. “But not at the expense of the core thing,” says Lowenberg. The promise of a Rothy’s shoe isn’t just that you’ll save the planet. “It’s that you’ll look beautiful.”

The Sneaker follows that template. It’s a slip-on, similar to the silhouettes of Rothy’s earlier shoes, with the same sock-like fit. For now, it comes in nine solid colors: black, steel gray, sand, bright white, teal, garnet, navy, washed pink, and electric lemon. “I don’t think it’s groundbreaking in terms of the silhouette,” says Martin. “It’s groundbreaking in terms of how it’s made, its comfort, its durability.”

Like all of Rothy’s shoes, The Sneakers are made primarily from a proprietary material made from plastic water bottles that get broken into chips, pulverized into beads, and finally converted into a yarn. The yarn gets fed into a 3-D knitting machine, a giant printer of sorts that uses a mechanical arm to pull thread back and forth into the right shape. The Sneaker relies on its knit structure to add or remove stretch in various areas; there's no lycra or elastic, and no laces. “Lace shoes are easy,” says Gibson. “If it doesn’t fit that well, you can make it tighter or make it loser. In a product like this, it either fits or it doesn’t.” In total, The Sneaker is made from just five pieces—Martin calls “reduction of design” a key ethos at Rothy’s.

Concessions have been made to ensure that, like all of Rothy’s shoes, these are comfortable right out of the box—no break-in period. Gibson shows me The Sneaker's cup sole, which is rigid and structured in the heel but flexible in the forefoot—something Gibson says gives the shoes more comfort than other vulcanized sneakers when you’re on your feet all day. The company also knits in an adhesive to the toe box, which creates less stretch and more support in the front of the shoe. “The thing the customer doesn’t see is the thing that matters most,” says Gibson.

The company’s also introducing a new component, a removable midsole, to provide varying levels of arch support. At launch, The Sneaker will come with a standard version of this midsole with the option of purchasing a more arched version in the future.

“It gives cushion without adding a lot of weight, fits into the bottom of the shoe really nicely, takes advantage of that cavity in the cup sole,” and lets customers keep their Rothy’s insole, which comes decorated with pattern and color, says Martin. It also allows customers to add or remove cushiness to their liking.

The introduction of The Sneaker comes at a time when the market for sustainable, ethical, and minimalist fashion is on the rise. You can see similar models in Allbirds, the sneaker company that makes shoes out of sustainable New Zealand wool and eucalyptus fibers. Other companies have cropped up to a create a San Francisco wardrobe of sorts: Everlane (minimalist basics made sustainably), Outlier (high-tech clothes to withstand the apocalypse, or Entireworld (androgynous super-basics).

If those companies are like Soylent for fashion—nutritious, but bland—Rothy’s is something else. You don’t buy these shoes because they’re sustainable (though they are), or because you can wear them on your bike commute, into the office, then throw them in the washing machine at the end of the day (though you can do that, too). You buy them because they’re beautiful, because they come in eye-popping colors (persimmon! flamingo!) with dramatic patterns. These aren’t the shoes of the Silicon Valley uniform, where suits are swapped for hoodies and jeans—you could wear them if you worked on Wall Street, or in an art gallery, or if you had to be on your feet all day in a restaurant. As a company, Rothy’s hopes its designs go far beyond San Francisco, convincing people to merge sustainability with a healthy dash of style.

"For an industry obsessed with newness and the latest trends, the fashion system is surprisingly old fashioned," says Clare Press, the author of Wardrobe Crisis, How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion, who writes about sustainability in fashion. "It’s still largely based on millions of garment workers sewing in Dickensian conditions: poorly-ventilated rooms, the foreman demanding unpaid overtime, pressure to meet targets and earning less than a living wage." Technology, she says, has been a catalyst for changing that status quo in the industry. The points to companies like Nike, which uses polyester thread recycled from plastic bottles to create its Flyknit shoes and reduces material waste by using a knitting machine.

But consumer habits can be harder to break. On average, Americans buy seven pairs of shoes per year—a figure that's crept up steadily over the past decades, and doesn't seem to be slowing down. Consumers now want more for less, buying stuff that costs as much as lunch and lasts about as long. By comparison, spending $125 on a single pair of Rothy's flats or the new sneaker seems nauseatingly expensive, even if the shoes last much longer. And while San Francisco companies have gained traction with their sustainable designs, it's not clear that the trend has caught on in the global market.

"It’s going to take time to wean people off their fast fashion addiction," says Press. "If we're going to convince fashion fans that sustainable is the way to go, we need to get the aesthetics right. It's not enough for a product to be worthy or have a good story. It needs to be cool."

Rothy's, which is only a few years old, will have to prove that its shoes aren't just the best to wear around eco-conscious San Francisco. It has to prove they're the best shoes, period—ones you'll feel beautiful wearing, ones reach for again and again for years.

As a company, Rothy’s now counts 50 employees in the United States and more than 400 in a 65,000-square-foot factory in China that the company owns and operates. Each shoe starts with a two-dimensional rendering in the San Francisco office, which is translated into a knit programming software. The file is sent to China, where factory workers load cones of yarn into 3-D knitting machines to create the shoe’s upper. Those workers oversee the knitting process, which takes about six minutes per shoe. Small imperfections are mended by hand. All the other stuff is added—the soles, sidewall stitching, a microsuede heel piece. The whole assembly takes about two and a half hours per pair and involves zero material waste; the only leftovers at the end are the trailer yarns that thread the machines.

Martin says that because Rothy’s controls all of its manufacturing, the company can easily experiment with new designs. If the team wants to make a hot pink sole one day, they can do that—all of the soles are injection molded in-house. And the shoes are more or less made to order, so if one patterns flops or sells better than expected, the company can adjust inventory on the spot. It also primes Rothy's for a future in customization. “That’s where we’re going,” Martin says. Whether customers want an individualized fit or a unique pattern on their shoes, “we want to learn that and learn how we can make one-offs.”

For now, Martin says the company has “a ways to go” before it can move into making individualized shoes. But its manufacturing process already enables the company to continually improve the shoes it already makes, so that The Flat you order today feels slightly better than the one you ordered last year.

“We could still keep going forever until it’s perfect, perfect, perfect,” Gibson says of The Sneaker. “But we have the ability right now to put it in the market, learn from our customers, and then make micro-adjustments that the customer doesn’t know about.”

Eventually, Rothy’s has ambitions to make more than just shoes. There’s evidence of such experimentation all over the Rothy’s office, where prototypes pile up in the corners and Post-It note sketches tile the walls. Martin gets excited about advances in fiber technology, and imagines how Rothy might takes its technical expertise into other apparel categories. It’s a future that feels almost certain at the company. With the introduction of The Sneaker, Rothy’s takes one big step toward it.

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