The Mystery of Business Casual

No one knows what shoes to wear to work. Silicon Valley has an answer.

Two shoes: a sneaker by Allbirds and a flat by Rothy's
Rothy's / Allbirds / The Atlantic

The first time I tried on a pair of Allbirds sneakers, I was in the brand’s San Francisco boutique, sitting on a gently curved wooden stool designed to tip forward in aid of shoe-changing. The stool was created by the same people who design the start-up’s shoes, and it made me feel the same combination of familiarity and irritation: Do we really need tech to disrupt the established technology of stools and sneakers?

My answer, after sitting on the stool and trying the shoes, is a begrudging, contemptuous “sometimes.” The tip forward helped. And the shoes, I silently admitted to myself, were astonishingly comfortable.

Allbirds has been selling sneakers made from environmentally friendly materials since 2016. The brand’s most recognizable style is its Runner, which looks a lot like a logo-free, work-appropriate version of Nike’s popular Roshe One. It’s what a running shoe needs to be in order to fly under the radar in an office.

In theory, I should be the brand’s ideal customer: I hate uncomfortable shoes, I work in an office with a vaguely casual dress code, and I’ve owned several pairs of Roshe Ones. I’m a member of the digital creative class in which Allbirds has found its most dedicated market, which includes the Silicon Valley tech workers often characterized as the brand’s biggest fans. When I look around at work or in my neighborhood in New York City, I often spot a pair.

Instead, for Allbirds’ entire three-year existence, I’ve hated what I believed the company was pushing. I spent a decade covering the fashion industry, and the “noise” the company cut through with its super-simple shoes, I told myself, was actually a vibrant, imaginative world of glow-in-the-dark high tops and snakeskin stilettos. Allbirds seemed like a way for men to intellectualize their way out of personal taste in favor of start-up culture’s efficient sameness. I had, on more than one occasion, referred to the shoes derisively as “Yeezys for software developers.”

Press coverage of the company is divided along similar lines: Some writers praise the brand’s style and functionality, while others lament its popularity as proof that the algorithms are winning. Much of the fashion industry is firmly in the latter camp.

Structurally and philosophically, the fashion industry isn’t great at dealing with change. American life has been casualizing since the 1990s, and nowhere is that clearer than in offices. The trend has left both designers and shoppers confused about what people should be wearing for jobs that were very different (or entirely nonexistent) before the advent of the cellphone.

Now Silicon Valley is stepping into the rift it helped create. Start-ups want to help people get dressed—and they might beat fashion at its own game.

In another time, developing manufacturing or textile technologies and licensing them to existing brands might have been the whole story of these new companies. But the upheaval in the American wardrobe has let outsiders into fashion’s territory, according to the fashion historian Nancy Deihl. “The idea of ‘careerwear’ is so dispersed and a little less determined,” says Deihl, a professor at New York University. “The career office [at NYU] has these little workshops on what to wear to interviews and things because there isn’t this kind of monolithic style guidance out there.”

Not only has the American office gone more casual, but work itself has changed since Dockers started pushing business-casual dressing in 1992. More women than ever before are living full professional lives, and they need shoes that do much more than just look appropriately conservative with a skirt suit.  “It isn’t like, ‘Oh, I wear sneakers while I commute and then I put my heels on in the office,’” says Kerry Cooper, the president and chief operating officer of Rothy’s, a start-up that specializes in women’s shoes and rivals Allbirds in newfound prominence. “That’s just sort of a silly, nonmodern way of thinking.”

Six months ago, I bought a pair of Rothy’s. Nothing about start-up shoes had changed, but my job had: When The Atlantic hired me, I left the fashion world and found myself in a realm of indeterminate business-casualness. In spite of years spent writing about how people shop, I had no idea what I was supposed to wear. The harder I looked for an answer, the clearer it became that no one else did, either.

Rothy’s is a 3-year-old start-up that makes women’s flats from recycled plastic. The shoes are bright and feminine, which has made them common in the aesthetically pleasing environs of Instagram, where women post about their colorful collections. Instead of the leathers or textiles common in footwear manufacturing, Rothy’s knits its uppers (the part of the shoe that covers the foot) from soft, durable thread made from recycled plastic bottles.

Allbirds and Rothy’s have charted remarkably similar paths: Both companies started selling their shoes in 2016, and they say they’ve each pulled in more than $100 million in revenue and sold more than a million pairs of shoes. Both brands emphasize their sustainable materials and manufacturing practices. Although the companies are based on the same street in San Francisco, they do their biggest sales numbers on the East Coast: Allbirds sells better in New York City than anywhere else, while Rothy’s colorful flats are a hit in D.C.

In charting a way forward in textiles and manufacturing, both Rothy’s and Allbirds offer something valuable to fashion that the industry itself has repeatedly declined to pursue. For traditional fashion brands, which usually use third-party textiles and factories, designers have to start guessing what shoppers might want as much as a year in advance. Rothy’s says that its three-dimensional knitting process dramatically shrinks both the amount of material waste from manufacturing and the timeline between when the company places an order and when those shoes can be put up for sale.

“If there’s something bananas that no one could have predicted, we’d rather not overproduce colors we have to bet on. It’s such a waste,” says Erin Lowenberg, the Rothy’s creative director.

Allbirds, for its part, uses wool and eucalyptus textiles for its sneakers, and it worked with a Brazilian chemical company to develop foam soles made from the waste of sugarcane processing. In conventional sneakers, that foam is made with fossil fuels.

For any of the existing players in the fashion supply chain, there’s little incentive to invest in new materials or techniques. If a textile company develops a waste-reducing product, there’s no promise that brands will order it or their factories will be able to process it. If no one ever develops or orders new textiles, factories won’t shift to accommodate them. It’s a standoff, and it makes fashion allergic to innovation on a structural level. Manufacturing waste, combined with the overproduction that happens when designers inevitably make a wrong guess about consumers’ future whims, account for a huge portion of the fashion industry’s well-documented harm to the environment.

As I tried on sneakers in the San Francisco Allbirds shop, I found myself in the middle of an existential crisis. I looked for the sense of aesthetic doom that critics assured me the shoes’ popularity promised. Instead of the suffocating sameness or joyless efficiency that critics have ascribed to the shoes, I saw just a small, conventional boutique in which a handful of customers ranging from teen boys to female retirees were trying on sneakers.

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.)

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.

I no longer have much of a grasp on what made the ubiquity of my sneakers or those Gucci loafers shoes less troubling than the ubiquity of Allbirds or Rothy’s, which now mostly just seem like a comfortable, useful tool to have in a busy person’s wardrobe, even if they don’t really meet my personal definition of “cool.” It all suddenly feels a bit Chicken Little. Maybe the sky wasn’t really falling. But if there’s one thing the fashion industry loves more than uncomfortable shoes, it’s a bit of drama.