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How Rothy’s became an “It” shoe

Megan Mahon was feeding her daughter cereal one morning when the 2-and-a-half-year-old spilled her bowl of Special K all down the leg of Mahon’s pants. Before cleaning up, the auto industry executive snapped a photo of her milk-splashed shoes — wine-colored flats with a pointed toe — and posted it to the Rothy’s Addicts Facebook group with the caption: “Does this cereal complement my Orchid points?”

Throughout the rest of the morning, other members of the group — all fellow fans of Rothy’s, the ultra-popular San Francisco startup that designed her shoes — responded with messages of #MomLife solidarity and suggestions of styles that might better go with the soggy cereal (perhaps a pair of gold houndstooth loafers?) They weren’t worried about shoes; the fact that they’re machine-washable is, for many, half the appeal.

The rest of the appeal depends on who you ask: Rothy’s shoes are knit from recycled plastic water bottles, and the company says it has repurposed more than 40 million bottles since it launched in 2016. Beyond its environmental bona fides, it has struck a chord among professional women who rave about the comfort of its work-appropriate flats — a category of shoe that, for many, is usually synonymous with either blistered heels and bandaged toes or else sad, orthopedic styles.

Like them or not, Rothy’s aren’t the latter. They come in a staggering array of colors and prints — 186 new colorways in 2019 alone, and roughly 400 colorways to date — as well as five silhouettes, ranging from The Flat (a round-toe ballet flat) to The Chelsea (a cross between a high-top sneaker and an ankle boot). In 2018, the company sold more than 1 million pairs of shoes and brought in revenue of over $140 million, landing a valuation of $700 million at its most recent funding round. Though it declined to share revenue figures for 2019, Rothy’s said it surpassed 1 million customers in June, bringing in more customers last year than the previous three years combined.

Most of the colorways it releases are limited-edition, and fans scramble to snap them up before they’re gone. The company says this is part of an overall effort to avoid overproduction, but it’s also created ideal conditions for a thriving secondary market.

At more than 16,000 members, Rothy’s Addicts is one of the larger Facebook groups devoted to the brand, though Mahon says she also belongs to about half a dozen others. Most of the groups have a buy/sell/trade (BST) element, but each has its own niche: There are groups for big feet, small feet, and in-between feet, for example, and one group that specializes in “unicorns,” the coveted, hard-to-find styles that can sell for many times their original price point of $125 to $195. In May, the 5,000-member-strong Unicorn Collective group set a new record with a pair of Indigo Giraffe-print pointed-toe flats that sold for $2,000.

There are countless BST groups on Facebook, many for brands with huge cult followings, such as Lululemon and Patagonia. Most of these groups are private, so users have to request to join, a process that generally involves agreeing to a lengthy list of rules. They also tend to be primarily transactional — more akin to specialized marketplaces than they are communities. Rothy’s groups are different, though.

Members post their outfits of the day; compare colorways and ask for advice about which pair they should keep (the answer, inevitably: “Why not both?”); share screenshots of texts with significant others (“Another delivery, babe?”); and show off their “Rothy’s wheels,” in which they arrange their collections in neat circles that are both staggering in size and oddly satisfying to look at. A cottage industry has sprung up around customization, too, as crafty fans have posted pairs they’ve modified with hand-stitched thread, fabric paint, and crystals. There are also countless posts tagged “NRR” (“not Rothy’s related”): life updates, appeals for advice, and questions about other brands. More than once, members have banded together to raise thousands of dollars for a fellow Rothy’s fan struggling with a sick child, a lost job, or a death in the family.

“It’s more than a shoe,” says Brandi Waymire, an administrator of the Finding Bigfoot group, for women whose shoe sizes are 9 and up. “It’s turned into a sisterhood of sorts, which was unexpected.” Waymire has made friends through these groups, attending meetups and running into other fans at the brand’s San Francisco store, its first brick-and-mortar location. (Its second, in Washington, DC, opened last month, and Rothy’s has plans to expand to Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston in early 2020.)

Rothy’s itself doesn’t monitor the groups, according to Elie Donahue, the company’s vice president of marketing, though its customer service team is in touch with the volunteer moderators who manage them. The tight-knit community that has developed around the brand online has been totally unexpected, she says. “As somebody who’s been in consumer goods for a really long time, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen … it’s not just the category. It’s not just shoe addicts. It’s people who truly feel a part of this brand.”

Naturally, having such an avid fanbase has its advantages: Members say the groups stir up such FOMO around new releases that they’ve ended up growing their collections to 20, 50, or even 100-plus pairs.

As Elena Tansy, a nurse practitioner in Terre Haute, Indiana, describes it, “Sometimes your first-gut look at something, you’ll go, ‘Nah, I don’t think I want that.’ And then as people start getting them and pairing them with outfits, or just talking about how different the color looks in real life versus the stock photos online, it totally changes it up for you.”

Karen Shelton, an educational therapist in the San Francisco area, was reluctant to even buy a pair at first because of its price point. When she did, though, she found them so comfortable that she managed to justify purchasing two more. “I don’t even know what flipped the switch,” she says. “I think part of it was I got on some of those Facebook pages, and it kind of stirred the pot a little bit, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know that there were these older styles.’”

Now Shelton has 18 pairs, including a pair of Rose Quartz Giraffe points — a “unicorn” style released exclusively in-store in April — for which someone once offered her $1,000. (She’s holding out for a trade for the Indigo Giraffes, though.) “There’s moments where I have to sit myself down and say, ‘Karen, they’re just shoes,’” she says. “I’ve got a little bit of the fever, but I’m getting ready to do a house remodel. So I’m having to kind of pull myself out of my addiction and say, ‘What’s real? What’s real life?’”

It helps that the women in the groups aren’t professional YouTubers or Instagram stars with sponsorship deals and expertly edited photos. Recommendations from friends and family remain invaluable for brands: They’re trusted by 83 percent of consumers, according to a Nielsen survey. For Rothy’s, “Word-of-mouth continues to blow away all other channels with regards to how people find out about the brand,” says Donahue.

Fans of popular brands have been congregating in Facebook groups, subreddits, and forums for years: In 2015, Racked covered Lululemon’s massive resale market, which was (and is) centered mostly around Facebook and eBay. At the time, the brand’s most coveted products were being sold at markups as high as 1,000 percent, and the company went as far as to ban suspected resellers. Facing customer pressure, it later reversed its decision, but still notes on its website that Lululemon does not condone the practice.

The market for activewear and athleisure, which propelled the stratospheric growth of Lululemon over the past decade, is beginning to cool somewhat, says Romney Jacob, director of consulting at the Doneger Group, a fashion and retail strategy firm. “In its place is not really the opposite, but it’s moving into the space between active and lifestyle,” Jacob says. “To me, Rothy’s really sits there — it’s obviously not an athletic shoe, but it’s a shoe that allows you to move and be comfortable.”

In this case, though, the community that’s developed around Rothy’s may be even more important to its continued growth than the category it’s in. “If you look at the brands that are most successful today, all of them have established a strong sense of connection between the shopper and the brand itself, and have established a strong community amongst all the people that interact with the brand,” says Jacob, who points to Nike and Glossier as examples of such brands.

There are, however, downsides for a brand whose fans congregate in online spaces over which it has no control: Shipping delays, customer service complaints, and quality control issues all become public grievances generating dozens, if not hundreds, of comments, comparing responses from the company and mobilizing others to post on the brand’s official pages. Infighting has led to at least one group shutting down entirely. Several Rothy’s fans say they’ve lost patience with the brand recently due to canceled or unfulfilled orders, miscommunication from customer service reps, and inconsistent sizing — issues the company has attributed to problems with third-party fulfillment providers, unexpectedly high demand for certain releases, and variations between different weaves.

Though a few customers I spoke to say they haven’t had trouble with sizing— and the brand’s website says its shoes fit true to size for most — others say the inconsistency is what motivated them to join the Facebook groups in the first place. There, they could read tips on finding their “Rothy’s size” — often a half-size to a size-and-a-half up from one’s “street size,” depending on the style, though recent releases have run larger.

The innumerable posts in this vein illustrate a common challenge for digitally native direct-to-consumer brands: There are elements of the in-store experience, such as trying on a shoe, that are inevitably lost online. For these, online communities can help fill in the gaps.

For each new release, members post in exhaustive detail, often sharing multiple photos comparing colorways and showing the shoes in different lights, turning the Facebook wall into a sort of virtual fitting room or giant group chat.

Rothy’s, understandably, wants to reclaim some of this process, and in August launched the first phase of its ambassador program, The Collective, by recruiting 19 fans in its biggest markets (the same ones in which it will soon have physical stores) to attend try-on events and collect feedback to bring back to the brand. “We want to start to create communities here, so that when we do have a physical space, we hit the ground running,” says Donahue.

Collective ambassadors are unpaid (at least for now) but receive perks like free shoes, invitations to Rothy’s events, and meetings with top executives. None are professional influencers, which was an intentional choice, says Donahue. Instead, the ideal Collective member is “the tastemaker of her own friend group,” she says. “They’re more genuinely influential, because they are the cool, stylish woman in the office or on the bus or in a book club or whatever it might be, from whom their friends get style tips and ideas.”

The brand took a similar tack for the launch of its Chelsea boot in September, asking a select group of fans to send them the names of five friends or family members who would be willing to post photos of themselves wearing the style on the day it launched with the brand’s #RothysInTheWild hashtag.

As the company continues to scale and ramp up its release schedule — as it began to do in recent months, with its release of the Merino wool collection and a collaboration with Italian designer Marta Ferri — some fans have speculated that the resale market will wane. For now, though, it seems that as long as there are limited-edition, sold-out styles, there will be people willing to buy them, often for a premium.

For Mahon, buying from the Facebook groups is about more than just adding to her collection. More than half of the 30-odd pairs she owns once belonged to fellow members, she says: “You find somebody who wears the same size you do and you just keep in touch with them. It really is like this weird family.”

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