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Illustration by Andrea D’Aquino for Vox

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How a shoe that looks like a sock became the working woman’s obsession

A knitted twist on the ballet flat is suddenly everywhere.

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Jennie Chen was the kind of person who’d never spend more than $20 on a pair of shoes. She dug through the clearance racks at off-price chains like Ross and Marshalls, unearthing what she calls “really ugly sneakers” for her hobby competing in dog shows, which can have handlers on their feet for 12 hours at a time, running alongside their canine contestants.

“If you’re limping along,” she says, “it’ll affect the dog’s gait.” And because comfort can be the difference between winning and losing, style sometimes takes a back seat.

Crocs were a popular choice in the dog show world even before they hit the mainstream. “Nurse shoes,” too, says Chen. “You know what I’m talking about: the ugliest shoes on the face of the planet?”

Last year, though, a friend visited and introduced her to a brand that made her rethink her footwear philosophy: Rothy’s, a San Francisco-based shoe startup that makes flats with supersoft knitted uppers that come in dozens of colors, textures, and patterns.

The silhouettes are simple — the round and pointed-toe ballet flats are distinguishable mostly by their V-shape vamps (shoemaking lingo for the part that stretches across the top of the toe) — but these otherwise generic flats have selling points that have set them apart. The uppers are knit in a single piece, eliminating seams that rub and chafe, and they’re made from yarn spun from recycled plastic water bottles, creating a fabric that hugs the foot but keeps the structure of the shoe from veering into slipper territory. They’re also machine-washable.

Chen’s friend was a fervent fan. “She was like, ‘These are the most amazing shoes ever.’”

So while the $145 price tag at first made her balk, eventually, Chen relented, reasoning that if she was willing to spend a couple hundred dollars on a Tahari or Calvin Klein suit, plus all the fees to enter a fancy dog show, she should have shoes that didn’t make her cringe every time she looked at the photos.

Besides, she has concluded, “when you think about it, I’m not spending money on a shoe. I’m spending money on comfort.”

Comfort, as it turns out, is worth a lot: Today, she has 12 pairs, and that’s down from a high of 35 pairs a few months ago. (The brand’s frequent releases tend to breed FOMO, and collecting them has become a hobby in itself.)

At her office, she’ll spot coworkers wearing Rothy’s from across the conference room; on the street, she’ll strike up conversations with strangers about the shoes; and on Facebook, she’s joined groups with thousands of other fans.

Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen the Shoe proliferate on the feet of women around you, too. Rothy’s, which launched in 2016, is on track to sell close to 2 million pairs this year, and it’s one of countless brands today offering a take on the knitted ballet flat.

A gif of knitted ballet shoes below a skyscraper. Illustration by Andrea D’Aquino for Vox

In May, Allbirds, the wool sneaker startup and Silicon Valley darling, debuted its Tree Breezer flat, using eucalyptus tree fiber for the mesh knit upper. The same month, Everlane entered the fray with a ribbed, knit version of its popular Day Glove flat. Cole Haan, Skechers, Hush Puppies, Dr. Scholl’s, Anne Klein, Nic + Zoe, Ellen DeGeneres (yes, she has a shoe line), and many brands you’ve never heard of on Amazon and AliExpress carry iterations of the style — some rounder, some pointier; some printed, some plain; none machine-washable or knit from eco-friendly materials (or at least not advertised as such) but most of them well under $100.

The Shoe is not “fashion person” footwear. Its popularity belies (and perhaps is evidence of) its fundamental uncoolness. Unlike other trends percolating today — dad sneakers, kitten heels, naked sandals — there’s nothing intimidating about it, no frisson of risk or potential for offense. It’s feminine and functional and exactly the kind of flat you’d expect Meghan Markle to travel in (which she has, twice).

The spartan simplicity of the shape also makes it an approachable way for women to wear bright colors and bold patterns without stepping too far outside their comfort zones. A marigold-yellow flat was a “surprise runaway hit” for Rothy’s, the company says, and animal prints abound in the brand’s permanent collection. The releases inspire as much fervor as a Yeezy shoe drop, except the hypebeasts are women with office jobs who just want some cute flats they can commute in.

A wardrobe staple transformed by athleisure

In interviews with nearly two dozen fans of the knitted ballet flat for this story, nearly all of them said they bought their first pair in a quest for a comfortable work shoe, an accessory that remains elusive for many, even in a US women’s footwear market worth $33.9 billion annually, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Ballet flats have a long history of pragmatism, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. They became a fashionable accessory for everyday wear in the US in the 1940s, when designer Claire McCardell incorporated them into her collections as a savvy response to World War II footwear rationing.

In the 1980s, as women entered the white-collar workforce en masse, they paired their power suits with low-heeled pumps, which looked much like ballet flats with a few inches of extra height. By 1998, a survey by the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society found that nearly 70 percent of women reported wearing flat shoes to work, including 23 percent who wore athletic shoes, and the ensuing two decades have seen office dress codes become increasingly casual.

The ubiquity of flats doesn’t mean they’re a perfect shoe, though — far from it. Most women who wear them to work have horror stories of shredded ankles and blistered toes, of nursing their feet under their desks and hobbling home while breaking in a new pair. Flats seem like they should be comfortable, but often, these looks are deceptive. They aren’t designed to be worn for running or hiking or doing much of anything, really, and often provide little or no arch support. Plus, you usually can’t wear socks with them, leaving your bare skin at their mercy.

This might explain why the market for flats has lost some momentum with the rise of athleisure, says Jocelyn Thornton, senior vice president of creative strategy at the Doneger Group, a fashion and retail consulting agency, pointing to the relaxation of workplace dress codes and trends that make it acceptable now to wear sneakers with a dress. The brands succeeding in this category now are taking components of athletic footwear and applying them to more refined silhouettes.

”Right now, the consumer shift is moving more toward this comfort-driven decision making,” she says. “If something is comfortable and functional and then has a great aesthetic on top of it, that tends to be where the consumer will gravitate to in terms of purchasing and wearing.”

It’s not surprising, then, that women are pouring money into flats that feel like socks. The technology behind seamless knitted shoes traces its roots back to hosiery (think socks and tights), though widespread use in the footwear industry began earlier this decade. In 2012, Nike and Adidas introduced their Flyknit and Primeknit sneakers, respectively, which blended the feel and flexibility of a sock with the durability and support of a running shoe.

More importantly, the technology promised to drastically cut down on the amount of waste produced in manufacturing, since each upper is knit from a single piece of yarn, rather than cut, sewn, and glued together, a process sometimes likened to making cookies with a roll of dough. “Unlike cookie dough, though, which you can mold back together and re-roll out, historically, those extra little bits of leather were waste,” says Semmelhack.

Knitting also reduces the amount of time and labor needed to produce a pair of shoes by dramatically cutting down on the number of components involved, making it easier to manufacture in smaller batches, and giving designers the opportunity to experiment with new patterns and detailing using only a computer program. Within its first four years, Flyknit became a $1 billion business for Nike and diverted 182 million plastic bottles from landfills. Adidas — despite a drawn-out patent battle with its larger rival — has also expanded its Primeknit franchise globally, this year unveiling a fully recyclable Primeknit sneaker.

The Shoe goes viral

Rothy’s, considered the first in the knitted flat game, began developing its shoe in 2012, after Roth Martin and Stephen Hawthornthwaite quit their jobs in the art and finance worlds to found a company that would make comfortable, all-day-everyday shoes for women. The germ of the knitting idea, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, was a sock-like child’s shoe that Martin saw in Paris, though the final designs bore little resemblance to the one that provided the initial spark.

”There were versions after versions after versions,” says Rothy’s creative director Erin Lowenberg, who joined the company in 2015, after it had set up factory operations in Dongguan, China. “We worked for years before we even launched our first shoe and had come miles and miles from the idea of what knit and socks and that kind of business could ever feel like.”

After a few false starts, Rothy’s launched with two styles, the Point and its round-toe sister, the Flat.

It has since introduced knitted loafers and sneakers, expanded its size range, and next month will add a knitted Chelsea-style ankle boot to the collection, but the original two styles remain its most popular.

Niki Jobst Smith, a university administrator in Des Moines, Iowa, sold all of her work heels after discovering the brand, and now wears the flats almost exclusively. “Men in the workplace have it so easy,” she says. “Their shoes and clothes are all so comfortable, and no one pays attention to what they wear. … The reason I like these shoes is because they are gorgeous and look professional and classy, but the secret is, they feel like tennis shoes.”

Comfortable work flats are such a white whale for most professional women that word tends to spread when someone finds a pair. Notably, while Allbirds, Rothy’s, and Everlane are all digital-native, direct-to-consumer brands with the social media marketing budgets to match, most of the women I talked to said they had heard about the shoes not from Facebook or Instagram but from a coworker — spotting the Shoe in a meeting and asking afterward, “Where did you get those?!”

Robin Ulep, a neurology resident in Charlottesville, Virginia, who’s often on her feet for 80 hours a week, said that when she started working at her hospital, she noticed several female doctors wearing Rothy’s (though at the time she’d never heard of them). Once she’d taken their advice and bought a pair, it was her own doctor who tipped her off to the secondhand styles for sale on Facebook groups and the resale app Poshmark. (Machine-washable shoes score particularly high points in medical environments, as you might imagine.)

Diana Samberg, a physician in Pittsburgh, says practically every woman in her department wears Rothy’s. “It’s funny,” she says. “We text each other and say, ‘Is it okay if I buy the same pair? I really want it.’” Before switching over to the brand, she says, the shoes of choice in the office were Tieks foldable leather ballet flats, which come in dozens of colors and have inspired similar fervor among fans after an Oprah Winfrey endorsement in 2011. (Several women I spoke to say they made the switch from Tieks to Rothy’s because of the price: Tieks start at $175 and can cost as much as $345 for certain prints.)

Allbirds started fielding requests from female fans for a work-friendly shoe almost as soon as it launched in 2016, says Julie Channing, the company’s chief marketing officer. While many tech offices were swarming with the brand’s pillow-soft wool sneakers, men were mainly the people wearing them during the workweek.

”We were hearing things [from female customers] like, ‘I can’t wait for Saturday to roll around again so that I can put on my Allbirds.’ But we didn’t have a product that really fit into their work wardrobe as well,” says Channing. “They were going so far even as to take out our insoles and put them in their other flats.”

Randy Parr was one of those customers needling the brand on social media. The 60-year-old physician assistant in East Moriches, New York, discovered Allbirds while watching a lecture given by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who cited the brand as an example of a company reinventing its industry. (Maveron, the venture capital firm he founded, led a $7.3 million investment round in Allbirds in 2016.) After ordering a pair of the slip-on sneakers, she soon found herself wearing them to work every day, even though she sometimes felt silly wearing the slipper-like style with professional attire.

Once the brand came out with its ballet flats, she bought them in every color, and still asks the company for black and white versions, as well as a wool style for cooler months. “I don’t see a need for any other shoe ever again at this point,” she says, laughing. “It’s just not going to happen.”

For Parr, the knit material doesn’t just look and feel nice; it expands to fit her foot, which sometimes swells due to a hip flexor injury. Before Allbirds, she sometimes found herself buying the same pair of shoes in two sizes and swapping out one during a flare-up. Today, she recommends the brand to her diabetic patients, who often deal with swelling, which can become dangerous with the wrong footwear.

New York-based podiatrist Hillary Brenner says flats devotees, even fans of the knitted ones, still have reason to be wary. “Just like high heels can cause pains and aches in the feet, so can flats,” she says. “Flats can cause plantar fasciitis, they can cause heel spurs due to lack of support.” An insole or orthotics can mitigate the problem, she adds.

“Aesthetically a little too Zooey Deschanel”?

Semmelhack, the Bata curator, sees the proliferation of knitted footwear as a callback of sorts to the way shoes used to be made. In the 17th century, she says, if you wanted a pair of shoes, you might bring the materials to a local shoemaker, haggle for a price, and come back to pick up a bespoke, handmade pair. The Industrial Revolution changed that with the introduction of standardized sizing.

“I think that this move towards knit technology, first in sneakers and now in ballet flats, is an effort to hit the mark and allow for variation,” she says. “And so knit uppers will conform to the foot as opposed to the foot conforming to the shoe.”

This is truer of Allbirds’ flats than Rothy’s, which are soft but not quite stretchy. Everlane’s, too, stretch to fit wider feet and higher arches than its typical shoes.

Everlane’s take on the Shoe is arguably the most fashion-forward of the bunch, with its high vamp and self-consciously understated styling. It’s part of a de facto uniform of many a matcha-sipping millennial, along with cropped wide-leg pants and a crewneck tee. (The Everlane version’s leather detailing also means it’s not machine-washable, making it less suited to the hospitals and kindergarten classrooms where Rothy’s and Allbirds have proliferated.)

Despite the similarities between the various flats, their differences can be enough to make fans of one shoe revile another. To list just a few of the epithets I collected: “granny slippers,” “foot condoms,” “aesthetically a little too Zooey Deschanel,” “water shoes,” and (in reference to the lack of apparent support) “basically those running shoes with the toes.”

A knitted ballet flat with a GIF of grass, plastic bottles, and feathers under it. Illustration by Andrea D’Aquino for Vox

The many versions of the knitted ballet flat have stirred up controversy in the business, too. Rothy’s has two ongoing patent lawsuits against competitor brands: one against OESH, a doctor-designed label targeted toward women with foot pain, which began marketing its Dream Flat in June 2018; and another against Giesswein Walkwaren, an Austrian brand best known for its wool slippers, which debuted its washable, biodegradable Round and Pointy flats in April 2019.

While Rothy’s wouldn’t comment on what makes these look-alike flats worthy of legal action, the lawsuits allege that the brands, or someone acting on their behalf, purchased Rothy’s products in the lead-up to releasing their designs. (In its response, OESH says it was conducting standard market intelligence research.)

Rothy’s president and COO Kerry Cooper said in a statement that the company has 42 patents, with another 39 still pending. “It’s been fun to see different interpretations of knitted flats as more companies play with knitting technology, but we’re confident that our product will continue to lead the category,” she said. “A lot of brainpower goes into everything we make at Rothy’s, so we do file for patents to protect our hard work.”

In each of the suits, Rothy’s calls its product designs “innovative and distinctive,” while OESH contends that because there are so many other flats on the market with similar design features, Rothy’s patents are “obvious and lack novelty.” (Giesswein, whose case is newer, has yet to file a response.)

It’s true that ballet flats are a staple item and many look alike, says Ana Correa, associate editor of accessories and footwear at WGSN, a trend forecasting agency, but, she argues, customers today aren’t just buying for looks alone: “Brands, for example, like Rothy’s — people recognize them not only as the style, but also as the background of the brand, especially now that people are starting to become wiser in where they invest.” As shoppers come to prioritize qualities like sustainability and washability, she says, they’re less likely to settle for look-alike competitors.

Jen Stogner, an attorney in Houston, used to wear Tory Burch flats as an alternative to heels, but found the leather would get cracked and the emblem scratched after a season or two of wear. Now, she says, “My heels don’t leave my closet unless I have a pair of Rothy’s to switch to, whether at work or for a night out. … The design — particularly Flats and Points — is timeless and classic. It’s a very Audrey Hepburn-type shoe.”

Hilary George-Parkin covers fashion, business, and culture. Her work has appeared in Glamour, The Goods, and Footwear News.

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