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Best Foot Forward

Anh-Minh Le | September 21, 2016 | Story Fashion National

In San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood—behind the light-filled corner spot occupied by contemporary art and furniture gallery Hedge—Roth Martin and Stephen Hawthornthwaite are essentially reinventing the sartorial wheel. This is the headquarters of Rothy’s, their months-old brand that specializes in a chic and classic staple of women’s wardrobes everywhere: the flat. In the office space—where Martin and Hawthornthwaite lead a team of 10—expansive work tables, desks and shelves are ornamented with knitted uppers in an array of colors and patterns; rubber outsoles, from neutral hues to fluorescents; and computer renderings of designs that may someday be added to the collection. Then there’s the intriguing trio of clear bags filled with small gray flakes, 3-millimeter-size pellets and a fluffy white fiber. These bags are what sets the company apart—proof that not all flats are created equal.

Rothy’s shoes are made of recycled water bottles; each is comprised of three bottles, to be exact. The contents of the bags represent the evolution of those bottles, which ultimately become a yarn, similar in weight and thickness to dental floss, but with a soft hand. The yarn, which can be dyed any color, is used to make uppers and insoles. “[The shoes] start life as an idea on paper, which gets translated to a knitting program and is coded; and three-dimensionally, out comes this every six minutes,” says Martin, gripping an upper. “It gets joined to another knit part made of recycled plastic: the sole.

Then that’s joined to a simple rubber outsole, which can take on any color as well.”

By employing computer-generated patterns and 3-D knitting technology, the uppers are knit to the precise shape for each shoe and are composed of a single piece of fabric. That means there’s no seam (which you can usually find on the back of a typical pair of flats) and dramatically less waste than traditional manufacturing. “Historically in footwear, there’s massive amounts of inefficiencies in the production,” says Martin. “We wanted to simplify things from a production and supply-chain standpoint, and that meant really innovating and trying to figure out how to use less material and fewer suppliers. What we ended up with was the convergence of knitting and footwear, which didn’t exist together at the time we started.” And they had an unlikely initial source of inspiration: a kids’ slipper that Martin came across in Europe. “It was basically a sole bonded to a sock,” he recalls. “It had a great deal of comfort, breathability and washability.” Adds Hawthornthwaite: “Roth put the slipper on the table, and we just kept coming back to it.”

The founders met about a decade ago through their kids, who are classmates. Neither of the two men—Hawthornthwaite serves as the chief executive officer and Martin the chief creative officer—have any formal background in fashion. (Perhaps the fact that, on a recent morning, they were both wearing blue gingham button-downs speaks to a shared aesthetic.) Martin, who grew up in Woodside—his great-grandmother Lurline Matson Roth owned Filoli and donated the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1975—opened Hedge with interior designer Steven Volpe 13 years ago. East Coast transplant Hawthornthwaite holds a law degree and spent the better part of his career as an investor banker. The business partners kicked around other entrepreneurial ideas before honing in on what would become Rothy’s. “When we looked at the footwear market, we realized a problem for many women, which is what we call the front-of-the-closet dilemma,” explains Martin. “We saw our wives putting on flip-flops, but that wasn’t always an appropriate choice. They were putting on running shoes when they weren’t going running. Or wearing fancy shoes that were getting ruined. The design brief was to develop something that was at the intersection of all those things: equal parts sport to equal parts fashion, with a sustainable mission behind it.”

The duo spent more than three years working on getting the production just right. Originally, they had set up a factory in Maine, but quality and consistency concerns prompted them to move production to China. Hawthornthwaite’s wife, Erin, is a size 7; since it’s a common shoe size for women and a standard sample size for the footwear industry, she was their first guinea pig. Then they enlisted Martin’s wife, Emily, and other friends to test the spectrum of sizes. “From a customer standpoint, it’s fashionable first,” says Hawthornthwaite. “Then when they put it on, it’s unexpectedly comfortable. Our customers seem to be evangelical about the product. Many have said we’ve completely ruined their ability to wear any other pair of flats. And increasingly, the green, eco-friendly angle is resonating.” When customers are done with their Rothy’s, they can return them to the company. Once the shoes are deconstructed, both the fabric components and the rubber can be reused.

Rothy’s main distribution channel right now is its own website, with other retail options under consideration, including a mobile shop as the holidays approach. (When Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop pop-up landed in San Francisco this summer, she carried the line; her initial order sold out in one day.) While additional styles are in the pipeline, the machine-washable, antimicrobial flats are currently available with a rounded ($125) or pointed toe ($145) in a total of 17 colors and prints. “It’s similar to the price of a pair of running shoes, is the way that we think about it,” says Hawthornthwaite, who declined to divulge sales figures. “But when we set out to do this, we knew we had to do something differentiated. We didn’t want to be the thousandth manufacturer of women’s ballet flats just trying to create a brand. We really wanted to create a great product.” Martin chimes in: “We wanted to do something dramatically different.” Indeed, you may never look at a bottle of water the same again.

Originally published in the September issue of Silicon Valley

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