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用回收塑料水瓶做的女鞋,在美国卖疯了

Shannon Fitzgerald 2019年09月22日

Rothy’s的创始人称,该公司不仅使用了新材料,还设计了一整套新的供应链,因此传统供应链常见的过度备料、生产过剩、运输能耗过剩等问题“几乎不存在了”。

Rothy’s公司的总部设在旧金山杰克逊广场的一个角落里,这里曾经是旧金山著名的巴巴里海岸的一部分,但现在这里被各设计公司和创业公司所包围。该公司窗外总是笼罩着一层厚厚的雾气,当地人甚至给这层雾起了个名字叫“卡尔”。但在房子内部却十分考究,墙刷得雪白,点缀着金色木制家具,一个小团队就在这里从事女鞋的设计和发货工作。值得一提的是,他们设计和生产的女鞋全部是由回收后的塑料水瓶经纤维化处理后编织制成的。他们的产品不仅吸引了全国女性的注意,也吸引了一些大牌投资者的目光。

走下一个陡峭的台阶,再经过很多个房间,你才能找到Rothy’s公司的设计工作室。工作室里摆满了由旧水瓶回收制成的纤维材料和颜色小样。从1月份忙到现在,该公司的创意总监艾琳·洛温伯格和她的团队设计的一款新产品——一款名叫“切尔西靴”的短靴终于在本周上架了。

这家公司一开始主要生产芭蕾舞鞋式样的平底鞋,后来又推出了一款运动鞋。在顾客的强烈要求下,该公司正在研究怎样让顾客全年都能穿上自家的产品。洛温伯格表示,很多顾客强烈要求生产一款能覆盖脚部更大面积的鞋。Rothy’s公司的宗旨是要让顾客把他们的产品“摆在衣柜最前面”,因此,该公司也希望“在下半年更加关注季节因素。”

洛温伯格表示,该公司的设计团队希望通过切尔西靴,证明它的产品不仅实用,而且“可以做到美丽与舒适兼得”。他们在Rothy’s的运动鞋鞋底基础上做了增高增厚处理,同时延续了以前产品的易清洁性和材料的环保性。它没有使用拉链和皮革材料,因此采用了“一脚蹬”设计,鞋帮后面还有一个拉带。同时跟以前的产品一样,这款短靴也没有鞋带,因此它的设计必须是严丝合缝的。

有些人可能会说,Rothy’s的起家赶上了一个好时候。这家公司原本是零售界名不见经传的一个小角色,近两年才逐渐受到了大家的关注。尤其是这几年服装行业不景气,每季都有几百万件衣服鞋子卖不出去,其中有些只能捐给贫困人口,有些干脆进了垃圾填埋场或者焚烧场。而据Rothy’s的创始人称,该公司不仅使用了新材料,还设计了一整套新的供应链,因此传统供应链常见的过度备料、生产过剩、运输能耗过剩等问题“几乎不存在了”。

Rothy’s的创业故事

Rothy's公司创办于2012年,当时,该公司的创始人之一罗斯·马丁正准备从画廊行业转行。他注意到,旧金山到处都能看见有女性穿着露露柠檬(Lululemon)牌的瑜伽裤——不管是在超市里、市中心还是什么地方,甚至连他妻子也爱穿。这种黑色弹力裤已经从一种小众产品变成了人手一件的东西,风格也相当百搭,但是很多女性没有搭配它的鞋子。于是在一次吃晚饭的时候,马丁将这个发现告诉了他的朋友史蒂芬·霍桑斯韦特,并表示生产一款舒服的女式平底鞋是个很好的商机,这款平底不仅要舒服得可以随时穿出去,还得比一般的运动鞋更时尚——而且还得使用创新材料。霍桑斯韦特当时正准备退出金融圈,搞自主创业,于是两人一拍即合。

敲定意向后不到一年,两人便决定,这款女鞋应该用回收的塑料水瓶作为主要材料,这种材料的供给十分充足,但它对于纺织行业来说也不是什么全新的材料——这还得感谢知名运动品牌Patagonia首创的起绒纱线技术。两人决定研发一种以塑料水瓶为原料的无绒纱线(先将塑料瓶溶解成球状物,然后拉伸成柔软坚韧的丝线)。第二步就是如何使用这种纱线了。在这个过程中,他们发现,传统的制鞋工艺存在大量的浪费情况,很多原料在裁剪的过程中被浪费掉了,所以他们决定取消裁剪的过程。如果他们可以研发一种鞋面3D打印技术(这种技术在当时还不存在),那么Rothy’s就可以精确地使用原料,不会有一丝一毫的浪费。

他们花了整整一年的时间,在缅因州的一家工厂里制造了一个又一个的原型产品。马丁表示:“为了保证这个过程的正确,我们花了很长时间搞研发。”不过3D编织技术意味着鞋面完全不能有裁剪,不能有接缝,也不能有额外的结构,而且必须严丝合缝。两人的结论是,要想达到这样的规模和这样的技术,就只能去中国找厂家了。在打印过程中,允许的误差是很小的。整个流程需要精通编程和手工加工的熟练工人,包括鞋底和鞋面的缝合等等,需要在针织机上走55个步骤。这种精密的作业只有在中国才能完成。不过马丁和霍桑斯韦特也知道,他们不应该把整个流程外包出去。马丁表示:“这很难做到,因此我们才必须建立自己的制造流程,而且是一个不容易被复制的流程。”

2015年,他们在东莞开了一家小作坊,有两台针织机和一个程序员。2016年,他们开始在美国网上销售第一批产品,同时继续在东莞建厂。

这款平底鞋一经推出,立即获得了成功。该公司很快又推出了一款尖头鞋,它现在是该公司最受欢迎的款式,然后又是一款乐福鞋和一款运动鞋。Rothy’s公司高技术、个性化和直接面向消费者的模式以及密集的社交媒体宣传使它立即成了网红产品。它的美学和环保理念也相互交织,相辅相成。穿Rothy 's鞋的女性非但不介意,而且很欣赏她们脚上的鞋子是由废旧塑料水瓶做成的。而且这也说明了一个道理——作为一家企业,不管你多创新,多有社会责任感,如果鞋子的样式不美观,消费者也是不会穿的。

打造网红爆款

Rothy 's会不断更新它与消费者的联系,它会定期给消费者发邮件,告诉消费者自己又上了哪些新颜色,有哪些造型和款式的创意。它在社交网站Instagram上有25万余名粉丝。就连Instagram上跟这个品牌有关的几个热门话题,比如各自吸引了几千条评论的#rothysinthewild和#liveseamlessly,都是由它的消费者自发发起的,跟Rothy’s的营销部门没啥关系。

三年过后,穿Rothy’s的人走在大街上看见同好,都会会心地相互点头或者对视一眼。有的人甚至会走过来问:“你穿的是不是那个……”每个拥有一双Rothy’s的女人,都至少有一次曾经脱下一只鞋,邀请那个提问的人穿一下试试。

洛温伯格和她的团队保持着很高的设计热情,基本上每隔几个月就会推出一种新配色或者新款型,同时把一些旧设计打入冷宫。有些旧设计可能还会回来,有的就永远不会了。总之,它的设计一直在不断调整。不过有些经典款还是会一直上架的——比如海军乐福鞋、黑色尖头鞋(也就是梅根·马克尔在新西兰办第一次跨国巡演时穿的那款)等等。今年,他们还推出了一款网眼结构的“蜂巢鞋”。该公司的设计团队很喜欢用新设计吸引消费者的眼球,比如用鸟眼图案、亮珊瑚色迷彩,或者在炭黑色运动鞋上添加一个橙色的拉带等等。洛温伯格表示:“这些亮点设计非常有趣,我们并不指望靠它能带来巨大的销量,但是它能引起人们的情感反应,同时能让我们的网站保持新鲜感,这也是与非编织鞋类品牌相比,我们所能做到的不一样的地方。”

Rothy’s最初的启动资金全靠马丁和霍桑斯韦特自己搞定,但它的产品上架之后,很快就开始盈利了。马丁表示,早期没有太多外部投资,是他们有意为之的。该公司第一笔500万美元的外部融资,还是光速创投在2017年4月主动找到他们提出了融资意向。Snapchat的第一个投资者杰里米·刘也表示,他和他的合伙人之所以注意到了Rothy’s,也是因为他们的同事和朋友里穿Roth’s平底鞋的人变得越来越多了。“它的产品产生了很高了热情和声誉,人们不仅自己喜欢穿,自己掏钱买,还不遗余力地推荐给身边的朋友。”于是光速创投便给Roth’s公司打去电话,虽然Rothy’s当时并没有寻求融资,但光速创投最终还是说服他们接受了它的投资。

2018年,Rothy’s的营收入达到1.4亿美元,该公司总裁兼CEO凯利·库珀表示,公司预期到今年年底,其营收入将在去年的基础上翻一番。2018年底,高盛又向该公司注资3500万美元,使它的外部融资总额达到4200万美元,估值更是达到了7亿美元。

去年5月,Rothy’s利用部分融资在旧金山的菲尔莫街开了一家小小的旗舰店。该公司计划今年秋天在纽约、华盛顿和波士顿等地再开五家店,这些城市也都是编织平底鞋消费者的聚集地。

还有一些资金则被用在了它在东莞的工厂上。Rothy’s在东莞的工厂占地约25万平方英尺,拥有450多名员工和260台针织机,其中20台仅用于产品开发。

美国市场上将近99%的鞋类产品是从国外进口的,其中从中国进口的鞋类产品占到70%。前几年,受政治和经贸因素影响,加之劳动力成本上升等问题,一些较大的鞋类品牌正在缓慢降低对中国工厂的依赖度,同时将一些生产基地挪到印度、孟加拉国等亚洲其他国家,甚至是墨西哥。从9月1日起,美国再次对中国进口产品加征15%的关税,此轮加税几乎涉及了所有鞋类产品。美国时装设计师协会(CFDA)、美国鞋业经销商及零售商协会(FDRA)以及200多家美国公司均呼吁美国政府取消对华加征关税,并表示供应链的不确定性以及成本上升等因素给美国企业和消费者造成的损失将达到40亿美元。

库珀承认,Rothy’s在中国的投入是不遗余力的。虽然受到了关税影响,但公司并没有选择转移生产基地的余地,公司将自行消化这一影响。不过库珀看起来并不十分担心利润率受损的问题。她表示:“对我们来说,中国有很多熟练工人,而且供应链非常强大,我们在中国的生产效率高得令人难以置信。归根结底,我们并不担心关税会影响我们的利润。”

虽然Rothy 's可能是最后一家在东莞制鞋的美国公司了,但该公司是自己建厂的,而不是将生产流程外包出去,这可能也是它成功的最大因素。与耐克、匡威或者凯迪这些大品牌不同,Rothy’s的整个供应链都由它自己拥有和控制,包括材料使用和过剩产品销毁等环节。根据它的DTC模式,它对于应该在哪个市场销售哪个款型、哪种颜色已经积累了多年的数据。Rothy’s每推出一种新颜色,只需要卖上一天,它就能知道今天晚上还要不要继续生产这款产品,因此它生产出来的鞋子刚好能够满足市场需求。

该公司一般很清楚Rothy’s的消费者喜欢什么,但时不时也总会有惊喜。比如令洛温伯格感到十分惊喜的是,今年一款黄铜色的尖头鞋(一种比较适合春天的色调)竟然大受欢迎,销量一度超过了黑色尖头鞋。当然,不尽人意的时候也是有的。比如她曾以为有一款黑色鞋和一款海军迷彩色的鞋会卖得很好,结果却受到了冷遇。另外,同一款色调,基本上都是尖头比圆头卖得更好,但有一款蟒纹色却是圆头比尖头卖得更好。而他们也根据市场的反馈做了调整。

这种调整相比于提前18个月订货,等到销售周期快结束才发现生产得太多了或者太少了,实在算不上什么。今年春天,Rothy 's本打算推出首款非编织产品——一款人造革凉鞋。但是直到离产品上市只剩不到48小时时,Rothy 's才在最后一批样品中发现了质量问题。为了避免上市产品存在质量隐患,公司决定取消产品发布,并且立即发邮件给消费者,好让消费者提前知道消息。该公司采取这样的做法,是很多人都没有想到的。该公司后来提前10天发布了蜂巢鞋的夏季颜色。由于它的解释起了作用,消费者的不满情绪很快消退了。(库珀表示,这款凉鞋仍将于2020年上市。)

对行业的长期影响

霍桑斯韦特今年6月因为健康原因退居幕后,CEO一职目前由马丁临时担任。马丁认为,Rothy’s的鞋子当然是很具有创新性的,但是影响最大的,还是Roth’s的生产战略。他表示:“我们不会把材料用在一些可能卖不出去的东西上,也不会把它们不必要地运到世界各地,也不会生产包装盒去装那些可能卖不出去的产品。这个行业坏就坏在了这些事情上。”

为了设计和可靠地生产一双完美的鞋子,Rothy’s公司付出了4年的努力,终于解决了制鞋行业的其他企业面临的很多挑战。而与此同时,业内的很多品牌仍然在为可持续发展的问题头疼。目前,制鞋行业的中小品牌里,已经很少有像Rothy’s和Allbirds(旧金山的另一家鞋类创业公司,其原材料为利用甘蔗废料生产的纤维和泡沫材料)这样,既坚持使用可持续性原料,又有精工细作的好产品,且业务还在慢慢扩张的品牌了。

在有些人看来,可持续发展虽然说起来热闹,但它的含义却很模糊——可持续发展到底是什么意思?谁来给它下个定义?桑福德伯恩斯坦公司奢侈品市场分析师卢卡·索尔卡表示,目前整个行业已经出现了一种转型的迹象,“今天所有的认证都是自我界定的,而且(各大品牌)负责可持续发展事务的负责人,都是原来公关部门的负责人。”而更好地将可持续发展理念融入上游生产环节,则是鞋类公司向可持续发展转型的唯一“严肃选择”。

美国鞋业经销商及零售商协会(FDRA)高级副会长安迪·波尔克则乐观地表示,小小的一步也会带来巨大的变革。“你必须明确可持续发展对你的品牌意味着什么。”另外企业还需要计算一些东西,比如废料里有哪些东西可以回收,水的浪费情况,能源使用情况等等,然后还应该与供应商、货运公司和仓库进行深入研究。“你要把这个生态系统描绘出来,看有哪些地方可以改进。”美国鞋类企业有90%都是FDRA的会员,该组织也致力于向各大品牌和零售商提供资源和工具,推动他们向可持续发展模式转型。方法之一就是促进行业内的知识分享,波尔克也希望Rothy’s在这方面能做得更多。

波尔克表示:“他们在专注于消费者和讲故事上做得很好。”不过他认为,Rothy’s“有机会成为一个真正的领导者”,并表示希望Rothy’s未来能进一步开放自己的流程,以鼓励其他品牌在必要的地方进行投资,和承担转型所需要的风险。“你知道,水涨起来了,就会抬高所有的船。”

索尔卡也认为,某种形式的透明度对于推动行业变革是很必要的。他还表示,一些业内的小众玩家,通过每一件产品,让消费者明明白白地看见,他们“在工匠精神和可持续发展上是说到做到的”。从而也会迫使那些大品牌向他们看齐。

切尔西靴

与此同时,Rothy’s的切尔西靴已经携8种配色正式上架了,其中3种是有图案的。你可以在这双靴子中看到一双运动鞋的精神。其中唯一显得不那么运动的是,是一款比较古典的白色。洛温伯格表示,她目前最喜欢的是一款,采用的是比较柔和的炭黑色和橄榄色的混合配色,给人以一种现代的中性感。“我喜欢做这种中性色调的产品。我们的客户也喜欢高雅、漂亮的基本款。”

洛温伯格最喜欢的这种配色,被Rothy’s命名为“迷雾灰”,非常适合今年秋天穿——或者是旧金山的全年。(财富中文网)

译者:朴成奎

On a corner in San Francisco’s Jackson Square, formerly part of the city’s famed Barbary Coast and now an enclave of design firms and disruptive start-ups, the fog swirls just beyond the windows that run the length of Rothy’s headquarters. The fog is so thick and ever-present the locals have named it Karl. But inside, surrounded by whitewashed walls and blonde wood, a small team are designing and shipping distinctive women's shoes made entirely of recycled water bottles knitted into a soft, flexible flat. The shoes have captured the attention of women across the country—and some big investors, too.

Down a steep stairway and through a cavern of rooms, sits the Rothy’s design studio. Amidst vibrant spools of thread made from water bottles and mood boards with color swatches, Creative Director Erin Lowenberg and her team have been working since January on a new silhouette: an ankle boot called The Chelsea, which launched this week.

The company that made its mark with ballet-style flats and then expanded with a sneaker is giving its customers what they have been asking for since nearly the beginning, which is to be able to wear their Rothy’s all year-round. Customers gave prodigious feedback about wanting a shoe that covered more of their foot and Rothy’s, which thinks a lot about their product being at “the front of the closet,” wanted to have “more seasonal relevance in the back half of the year,” Lowenberg said.

The design team used the Chelsea boot as inspiration for its version, both for its practicality and as a proven silhouette that “we could make beautiful and comfortable,” Lowenberg said. They began with the Rothy's sneaker’s sole as the foundation, given its additional height and thickness. The team quickly determined that to align with the previous silhouettes’ washability and materials, they wouldn’t introduce a zipper or leather, which meant the boot would need to stretch open and have a pull tab in the back. And which meant like all the previous designs, with no laces or closures, the fit had to be perfect.

Some might argue that Rothy's timing has been pretty perfect as well. The company has burst onto the scene as little known practices in the retail world have come under public scrutiny in the last couple of years, particularly the problem of what to do with the millions of units of clothing and shoes that go unsold each season. Some end up donated, a lot of it ends up in a landfill and then the remainder is—literally—incinerated. Rothy's hasn't just made use of innovative materials, it has designed a whole supply chain that has taken the industry’s traditional chain bogged down with scrapped material, overproduction of product and energy costs on transporting excess down to “virtually zero,” according to its founders.

Startup story

Rothy's was founded back in 2012, when co-founder Roth Martin, who was ready to leave the gallery world, noticed the proliferation of Lululemon yoga pants in San Francisco—on his wife, at the grocery store, downtown, everywhere. And while the stretchy black pants had gone from being a niche piece to a wardrobe staple, swinging from styled casually to more put together, there was not a shoe equivalent. Over dinner one night, Martin told his friend, Stephen Hawthornthwaite, about what appeared to be an opportunity for a woman’s flat that was comfortable enough to be a staple, but more stylish than a workout shoe—and used innovative materials. Hawthornthwaite, it so happened, was looking to exit finance for something more entrepreneurial.

Within a year, the duo had determined that the flat would be made out of plastic water bottles, something in plentiful supply and not entirely new to the textile world, thanks to Patagonia’s fleeced yarn. The Rothy’s pair decided to develop a non-fleeced yarn from the plastic bottles (that have been melted into pellets and then extruded into soft, flexible strands) that could be knitted. The next step in sustainability was in how to use the yarn. They had discovered during this process how wasteful shoe manufacturing could be, how much raw material ends up on the cutting room floor, and so they decided to eliminate the cutting process. If they could develop a 3D knitting process for the entire upper, which hadn’t been done, then Rothy’s would be using only material that went into the shoe, no more.

Another year was spent in a factory in Maine making prototype after prototype—“it was a very long development time to get this process correct,” Martin says. But the 3D knitting meant no cutting at all, which meant no seams, which meant no additional construction, which meant the fit had to be perfect. The pair concluded that the scale and skill to achieve this meant going to China. There is a very small margin for error in the printing process, and the depth in skilled labor with the programming and the finishing work done by hand, including stitching the upper to the rubber sole, in 55 more steps off the knitting machine, was only available there. Martin and Hawthornthwaite also knew they couldn’t contract it out. “It is so hard to do, it’s why we had to set up our own manufacturing process that’s not one that’s easy to replicate,” Martin said.

In 2015, they set up shop in Dongguan with two knitting machines and a programmer. The following year, they began selling their first batch online in the U.S., while continuing to build out a factory in the southern Chinese city.

The flat was an immediate success and the company soon added a pointed toe style, now the most popular, and then a loafer and a sneaker. Rothy’s high-touch direct-to-consumer model and heavy social media made an immediate impact. The aesthetic and the sustainability story are intertwined and interdependent. The women who wear Rothy’s enjoy the water bottle origin story of their shoe, that it telegraphs a message as innovative or responsible as you want, but they wouldn’t wear them if they didn’t love how they look.

On the 'gram

The company continuously refreshes its connection with the consumer, sending regular emails with updates on a color launch, styling ideas or teasing a new silhouette. The shoe company has over 250,000 followers on Instagram and such a developed brand identity that its Rothy’s wearers, not its marketing department, who are responsible for the thousands of posts of #rothysinthewild and #liveseamlessly.

Three years in, Rothy’s wearers acknowledge each other with a shared look or brief nod and are used to being approached in public, “Are those the….?” Everyone who owns a pair of Rothy’s has, at least once, stepped out of their pair and insisted that an inquirer try them on.

Lowenberg and her team keep the interest level high, launching new hues and patterns every few months, while swapping out colors and one-off designs and sending them into retirement. Some might come back, some might never return. It’s a constant curation, while certain classics—a navy loafer, the black point (worn by Meghan Markle in New Zealand on her first international tour)—remain in stock. This year, they launched a “honeycomb” style and added a mesh texture for the summer. The design team likes to surprise and delight with small capsule launches, a birds-eye pattern or a bright coral camo or an orange pull tab on a normally all-charcoal sneaker, capsules that are “fun and they aren’t meant to be massive volume drivers, as much as they’re emotional and they keep our website fresh and it’s what we can do differently than any other footwear brand that isn’t knit,” she explained.

Martin and Hawthornthwaite bootstrapped the financing of the development process, and once they went to market, the shoes were profitable. The limited outside capital in the early days was by design, Martin said, and the first $5 million from Lightspeed Venture Partners in April 2017 was unsolicited. Jeremy Liew, who was the first investor in Snapchat, said he and his partners noticed the brand as the flats proliferated amongst friends and colleagues. “The fact the product generated that sort of enthusiasm, that reputation, not just in people loving the product and buying it, but evangelizing it to their friends.” So Lightspeed called Rothy’s, which wasn’t looking to raise capital, and convinced the company their capital could help meet the demand.

Rothy’s pulled in $140 million in revenue in 2018 and President and COO Kerry Cooper confirms the expectation that Rothy’s will double that by the end of this year. At the end of 2018, Goldman Sachs infused $35 million into the company, bringing its outside funding up to $42 million and a valuation of $700 million.

Some of the funding was used to open Rothy’s tiny flagship store on Fillmore Street in May of last year, and the company has plans to add five more stores this fall, in markets like New York, Washington, D.C. and Boston, where there are large pockets of knitted flats wearers.

And some of that capital has been continuing to fund the real growth-driver that is in Dongguan, China. The Rothy’s factory now is 250,000 square feet, has over 450 employees and 260 knitting machines, 20 of which are used just for product development.

Almost 99% of the shoes in the United States are imported from elsewhere, 70% from China. In the last few years, amid political and trade uncertainties, as well as some rising labor costs, some bigger shoe brands have been slowly reducing their dependence on Chinese factories, diversifying their manufacturing to other countries in Asia, India and Bangladesh, and even Mexico. Now the industry is bracing for the impact of the 15% tariffs on Chinese imports, including almost all footwear, that went into effect on Sept. 1. The CFDA, the FDRA and more than 200 companies, called for their cancellation and spelled out the uncertainty of the supply chain, as well as the equal uncertainty on the shared hit to company and customer of rising costs, as much as $4 billion.

Cooper acknowledges that Rothy’s is all in on China. There is no option to diversify, based on tariffs. The company will absorb the impact, though doesn’t seem terribly worried it will lower the margin. “For us, there is so much skilled labor in China, and the supply chain is so strong that our production in China is incredibly efficient. Ultimately, we’re not concerned about tariffs impacting our bottom line,” she said.

Even if Rothy’s remains the last American company producing shoes in Dongguan, the company’s decision to build its own factory, rather than contract out, might be the biggest factor in Rothy’s success. Because unlike Nike or Converse or Keds, Rothy’s owns and controls its entire supply chain, down to the materials used and the elimination of production excess. Because of its DTC model, it now has years of data about what silhouettes sell in what colors in what markets. When Rothy’s launches a new color, it knows after one day of selling if it will continue making it that night, producing just enough pairs to keep stock in line with demand.

The company generally has a good sense of what the Rothy’s customer likes, but there are always surprises. Lowenberg was delighted that the point in copper, a springtime hue, was so popular it briefly surpassed the black point. On the flip side, a subtle black and navy camo print she thought was going to be a hit got a cool reception. And while points almost always outperform flats in the same color, the round-toe has surged past in the fig python. And so they adjust.

The course correction is much smaller than ordering 18 months out and producing (and shipping) too much or not enough by the end of the selling cycle. When Rothy’s was on the cusp of launching its first non-knitted silhouette in the spring, a sandal made of vegan leather, it only discovered quality issues in the final sample batch less than 48 hours before going on sale. The team decided to pull the launch, better to not go into production if quality was remotely a question mark—and emailed customers, who’d days earlier gotten news of the sandal, to let them know it was called off. It was an unexpected step from the company, who pushed up its launch of honeycomb in summer colors ten days early, that quickly receded because the explanation made sense. (Cooper says the sandal will still make its appearance in 2020.)

Lasting impact

Martin is now interim CEO after Hawthornthwaite stepped back in June for health reasons. He thinks that while the company's shoes are certainly innovative, it's Rothy's production strategy that could have the biggest impact. "We’re not committing materials to something that’s maybe not going to get sold and we’re not committing to shipping it around the world unnecessarily. We’re not committing to making boxes to put products in that may not get sold and the industry is just broken in this way.”

The four-year process to create and reliably produce the shoe’s perfect fit, and which had been such a headache, ended up eliminating many of the challenges the rest of the footwear industry is now facing as brands grapple with how to address sustainability. There are few smaller brands like Rothy’s or Allbirds, another San Francisco-based shoe start-up that focused on using sustainable materials (in their case wool and foam produced from sugar cane waste) to make one product really well with mindful manufacturing and then slowly expanded.

For some, the talk of sustainability is buzzy, but its meaning elusive—what does sustainability mean and who defines it? Sanford Bernstein’s Luca Solca says an industry shift is early in stage and that “today all certifications are self-defined and the heads of sustainability [at brands] are, in most cases, former heads of PR.” The luxury goods analyst believes that integrating better processes upstream in their manufacturing is the only “serious option” for shoe companies to transform.

Andy Polk, senior vice president at the FDRA, is optimistic that small steps will beget large change. “You really have to define what it means for your brand,” he said, and then companies need to measure things like shoe waste and what’s recyclable, water waste, energy usage, and digging in with suppliers, freight companies, warehouses. “Part of the ecosystem of mapping it out and figuring out where you can make improvements,” Polk said, implementing smaller changes and then going further on material and production innovation. The trade organization, of which 90% of the American shoe industry belongs, has turned much of its efforts to providing resources and tools for brands and retailers to shift to more sustainable models. One component of this is sharing knowledge amongst peers, of which Polk wishes that Rothy’s was doing more.

“They have done a great job of focusing on the consumer and telling that story,” he said, but he thinks that Rothy’s has “an opportunity to be a real leader” and be more forthcoming and open about their own processes, which would encourage other brands to invest where needed and take on the risk of transforming their practices. “You know, a rising tide lifts all boats,” Polk said.

Solca also thinks that a transparency, of sorts, is what will drive industry change and that smaller niche players, who “put their money where their mouth is on craftsmanship and sustainability” and make that apparent to the consumers on each product will pressure larger brands to do the same.

And the boot

Meanwhile, the boot is kicking off in eight colors, three of which are patterns. You can see the bones of the sneaker in it, though the antique white of the sole is meant to look less sporty. Lowenberg says her current favorite is a muted charcoal and olive palette that looks like a modern neutral. “I love doing these neutrals,” she said. “Our customer loves an elevated, beautiful basic.”

This one is called Fog Melange. Perfect for fall—or year-round, in San Francisco.

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