Nina Nichole bought her first pair of Rothy’s flats back in 2018, after seeing ads for the shoes on Facebook for nearly three months.
“Once I tried on my first pair, I went straight to the site and ordered two more,” Nichole said recently. “I’ve always hated shoes because I have wide feet. But they were so comfortable while also being cute. I’d never worn anything like them.”
Three years later, Nichole is a full-on convert: she moderates Rothy’s Unicorn Collective, a Facebook group with 10,000 members and owns over a hundred pairs of the brand’s flats. She’s not alone; there are dozens of Rothy’s appreciation groups on social media, and Nichole’s is on the small side.
Plenty of brands have struck it big with a hero product and deft use of targeted advertising. Rothy’s stands out because it’s extended its 15 minutes as the $125 shoe made from recycled plastic bottles into a nearly five-year run. The brand has begun to capitalise on its foothold in women’s shoe closets by expanding into new styles, including sneakers and flip flops, as well as new categories, including handbags.
Now, Rothy’s is betting it can hack men’s footwear too. Its first shoes for men, a lace-up tennis sneaker and loafers, launch this week and will sell for $175 and $185, respectively. Chris Hull, senior vice president of Rothy’s, said the company spent years analysing men’s shoes before arriving on these two styles.
“The sneaker is the front and centre of every man’s closet, and so we looked at the shapes that are already out there and updated it with [new fabrics],” he said. “And loafers are typically made in leather or suede, so the style was ripe for innovation when it comes to comfort.”
Rothy’s can’t count on the same loyalty it built with women. Sales of men’s footwear (not including performance sneakers) hit $22 billion in 2020, and most of the sales go to athletic giants like Nike and Adidas, said Beth Goldstein, accessories and industry analyst with NPD. Men also already have a breakout digital brand made from unconventional materials to call their own in Allbirds, the minimalist sneaker that is made from wool or eucalyptus.
“The market for men’s sneakers is pretty saturated and men aren’t buying loafers in two or three colours at a time the way women buy Rothy’s,” said Aja Singer, a creative and brand strategist.
Rothy’s investors see a sweet spot in mid-priced footwear, which is where start-ups like Allbirds have found success competing against Nike and Adidas.
“Men’s feels like an underserved footwear market because of the price points available,” said Nicole Quinn, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, which invests in Rothy’s. “There’s a lot at the very low-end, and at the high end, but the middle price point is where there’s a lack of good quality options.”
Rothy’s shoes have gained a following amongst women who want flats that are comfortable yet still dressy enough to work and for going out.
“There’s nothing overly fussy about the design and it goes with lots of different things without being too trendy,” said Singer. “It’s a brand that feels really approachable to most women.”
Rothy’s keeps customers coming back by constantly iterating on its most popular silhouettes, a tactic perfected by brands like Nike, with their endless colourways. Rothy’s debuts new colours and patterns every season, fuelling an ongoing appetite for its hero products.
“Having a few key silhouettes allows us to continue to iterate and innovate on the craftsmanship, pattern and colour for those beloved products,” said Roth Martin, Rothy’s co-founder and president.
Having a few key silhouettes allows us to continue to iterate and innovate.
Rothy’s has also found a strong following with older customers, who are often ignored by new, digital-first brands. Nichole said after Millennials, Rothy’s are most popular with Gen-X.
Martin said the company will follow a similar strategy with its men’s business.
“When men find a brand that ‘works’ for them in terms of comfort, style and fit, they repeatedly purchase from that brand,” Hull said. “As the category evolves, they’ll appreciate the iterations on their favourite silhouettes, whether it’s seasonally relevant materials or new exciting seasonal colours.”
Rothy’s is expanding its product category at a crucial time period. Although it was an early adopter of recycled products, it now faces a sea of competitors.
“There’s a finite amount of products being made from recycled materials, so even brands with first-mover advantage need to actively be evolving,” Singer said.
When men find a brand that ‘works’ for them in terms of comfort, style and fit, they repeatedly purchase from that brand.
Martin said Rothy’s will capture male shoppers by targeting them with its sustainability messaging. The company has been profitable since 2016 (Rothy’s declined to share sales figures) and owns its own factories. Martin said it has enough capital to invest in research and development to make sure it stays ahead.
Quinn of Lightspeed believes women who are passionate about Rothy’s shoes will be enthusiastic about men’s shoes. Goldstein added that Rothy’s also has an advantage in that it has low brand awareness amongst men.
“Normally when a brand specialises in one gender, it’s hard to convince consumers they are more than that, but the general awareness for Rothy’s with men is low, so they don’t have to face that stigma,” said Goldstein. “The challenge will be to reach the male shopper.”
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