Tim Brown, Allbirds’ co-founder, seems aware of—and chafed by—the insinuation that his shoes are boring, or only for tech bros. “I actually think there is excitement in the simplicity and calmness, which belies an enormous amount of work,” he says of the design. He also says that women have always made up the majority of Allbirds’ customers.
I was having trouble remembering what so many fashion people found threatening. Upstairs from the shop, in an impromptu studio, some Allbirds employees were photographing the simple sneakers against an Instagram-friendly peachy background with giant Monstera leaves as props. On the feet of the young women who worked in the office, the shoes were free of the jarring, swagless business-athlesiure aesthetic I’d always associated them with.
Fashion’s acceptance of Allbirds, like Uggs, Birkenstocks, Crocs, and Tevas before it, has started to seem both inevitable and, at worst, completely fine. All it takes for any particular shoe to make the crossover is for some already-cool people to decide it should. (Case in point: New Balance sneakers are currently having a moment.)
Read: Sneakers have always been political shoes
Silicon Valley has done more than enough to earn knee-jerk skepticism. For all the middle-class conveniences its new technologies and platforms have offered us, its tools have also been used for disseminating propaganda, inciting genocide, and destabilizing whatever notions of privacy most Americans might have had in the 1990s. Allbirds found its first audience on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, so the associations between the brand and internet behemoths were probably unavoidable, even if improving fashion manufacturing isn’t quite as questionable as anything Facebook might be up to on a given day. The fashion industry has long been selling vaguely harmful cultural influence, too, but it benefits from how much people want to be cool, and how well it has managed to be a gatekeeper to the designation.
If you don’t like the idea of wearing the same shoe for all occasions, Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds’ other co-founder, says that you can blame a familiar modern villain: your smartphone. “Everyone works on their phones now, and maybe in different chunks of the day and over the weekend,” he says. “It’s a different experience, and you’d expect the wardrobe to evolve so it can float in and out of those activities more fluidly.” A certain portion of the population doesn’t have an opportunity to go home and change into a dinner outfit after work, or a clear border between work and not-work at all. If your head’s always in the office, maybe you feel like your feet should be, too. And if that’s the case, the shoe isn’t the problem.
On the subway home from work recently, I looked at my fellow riders’ feet, as I had been for weeks while thinking about this story. I spotted a pair of Allbirds on an unfashionable Millennial man in dress pants, sure, but there were also two identical pairs of Gucci loafers on women wearing post-gym mixtures of athleisure and work clothing. Another rider was wearing a pair of Adidas Superstar sneakers exactly like my own. In San Francisco, I had seen plenty of Superstars while I was getting to the bottom of whether new start-ups were conspiring to make us all wear the same shoes.