Turning today’s water bottle into tomorrow’s high-fashion shoe

Rothy’s finds success plunging feet first into manufacturing and marketing innovation.

Of all the purposes one can find for recycled plastic bottles, we’ll confess that stylish women’s shoes are not the first things that come to mind. But the team behind Rothy’s saw something in that empty water bottle the rest of us did not, and they’ve managed to turn that idea into a burgeoning footwear empire.

Rothy’s first debuted at the San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in 2015, where women queued up in vegetable aisles to try on comfortable, stylish shoes. Since then, Rothy’s has grown like a proverbial weed. The company has sold more than a million pairs of shoes last year, reaching an estimated $140 million in revenue for 2018. In December, they announced a $35 million investment from Goldman Sachs.

Material Gains

The process of making a Rothy’s shoe starts with a discarded water bottle, which is hot-washed and sterilized, before being melted down into small beads. Those pellets are then extruded and stretched into lengthy strands of soft yarn; it’s those yarns that are weaved into the upper part of the flat. Rather than cut and sewn together like a traditional dress shoe, Rothy’s components are 3D-knit like a high-end running shoe. In just over three years, the company has transformed more than 30 million bottles destined for landfills and repurposed them into highly-desirable footwear. But their unexpected use of materials isn’t the only way Rothy’s is changing the game – the company’s innovative supply chain logistics allow them to respond to changing market trends on a dime. With their own 250,000 square feet of factory space in China employing more than 500 people, Rothy’s can design, produce, and market a new shoe in six weeks; for traditional fashion brands, that development cycle can last 18 months or longer.

Customer Relations

Of course, at the end of the day, all the supply chain somersaults in the world won’t create a full-fledged phenomenon out of a mediocre product. That’s where Rothy’s ultimate competitive edge comes in – the shoes have developed a cult-like following for looking good and feeling even better. For Rothy’s, building a following driven by word-of-mouth is all about giving customers a voice – and ownership – over the brand’s direction. Customer feedback and social engagement drive many of the product decisions the company makes. “We have this incredibly vocal customer base that tells us every day what they like and don’t like,” president and COO Kerry Cooper said, “and bombards our customer service with what they want to see. They feel like they own the brand, and we’re so blessed to have that.”

Online and Offline

Rothy’s is also learning to reach their customers where other digitally-driven direct-to-consumer brands might not expect to be found – in old-school television, radio, and billboard ads.

“With a good product comes a great flywheel of people increasingly finding out about the brand through friends and family, which is so amazing as a brand, because it’s the most trusted source for people,” Elie Donahue, Rothy’s VP of marketing said. “So our reliance on paid social has really gone down.”

They’ve also taken their online brand offline, opening a store on San Francisco’s Fillmore street that provides ‘store-exclusive’ shoe drops about every couple of months. According to Donahue, the drops have generated so much buzz that people will take pictures of the shoe drop ad in the store’s window, share it online and there will be lines of people waiting for the store to open on launch day.

As ecommerce continues to play a bigger role in the consumer’s buying experience, it would seem counter intuitive to take your business into physical retail stores, but the San Francisco location “paid for itself” and was profitable in under four months. After the overwhelming success of their first store, Rothy’s announced in June 2019 the would be opening five stores in the fall with promises of more stores in 2020.

That’s doesn’t mean Rothy’s isn’t continuing to prioritize and evolve their social engagement. On the strength of their word of mouth marketing and direct to consumer relationship, they’ve recently established a new, progressive ambassador program called The Collective -- celebrating exceptional women within the Rothy’s community. Taking boots-on-the-ground marketing to the next level, they’ve really focused on providing a medium for connecting passionate Rothy’s fans with one another and empowering them to be informed, friendly faces for folks new to the brand.

Plunging feet first into innovative manufacturing, marketing, and mission-driven campaigns might seem like the kind of risk only an established company could make, but for Rothy’s, the move is clearly paying off.