How the ‘World’s Most Comfortable Shoe’ Is Challenging Nike and Adidas
It’s a random Saturday in May, and I can barely find enough free space inside Allbirds’s Soho store to try on a pair of what the brand proclaims the “world’s most comfortable shoes.” I’ve been on rush-hour subway cars filled with fewer people. I have to ask a harried sales associate twice to get the $95 Wool Runner sneakers in my size. While waiting, I fondle a display shoe that looks like a pared-down version of an Adidas Yeezy Boost 350. Yet, while that shoe’s upper is made from a synthetic material, the sneaker in my hand is knit from merino wool, making it resemble a winter sock affixed to a white rubber sole, with prominent laces as thick as bucatini.
That white sole is covered in gray finger smudges from the shoppers who pass through the store each day. Many of them will join over a million others who’ve bought Allbirds in the San Francisco-based brand’s first two years in business. Though Allbirds has been profitable since launch, the Bay Area has seen plenty of companies who set out with high-minded plans to make a better widget, only to wind up bankrupt in short order. Thus far at least, Allbirds squishy, eco-conscious sneakers represent a rare Silicon Valley success story in the clothing industry.
It all comes back to the wool. The idea to build the business around a natural fiber came to co-founder Tim Brown, a native of New Zealand, or as he calls it, “the land of 29 million sheep.” He started small, with the Wool Runner, and has maintained Allbirds’ micro scale. While Nike and Adidas pride themselves on vast product lines and high-voltage collaborations with fashion personalities like Virgil Abloh, Alexander Wang, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, Allbirds sells just three simple unisex shoes: the “runner,” an even more pared-down slip-on “lounger” and the brand’s latest innovation, a loafer-trainer hybrid made from Eucalyptus pulp.
At a time of loud sneakers, Allbirds’ three models are practically mute. They’re the black Camry of the sneaker world: You don’t notice them on other people’s feet, until one day you do, and then, they are inescapable. Allbirds (which is privately held and does not disclose financial figures) claims to have sold over a million shoes since 2016. That’s a healthy, but far from Herculean figure when stacked against the billion-dollar businesses of Nike and Adidas. And yet, in an industry dominated by these legacy brands, Allbirds, a miniscule Silicon Valley outfit, is disrupting just about every convention in the sneaker world.
The Allbirds retail model is mostly direct-to-consumer via its website and two stores in New York and San Francisco (plus pop-up shops in nine Nordstrom locations). What’s more, the company is run by two men with zero experience in footwear: Mr. Brown, an ex-soccer player, and Joey Zwillinger, a former biotechnical engineer. Their head of product design spent most of his career at the British design company Tom Dixon creating furniture.
Whereas Nike and Adidas are headquartered in Portland, Ore., Allbirds has planted its flag in San Francisco, not far from Everlane, the self-proclaimed “radically transparent” clothing company that resembles Allbirds. The latter boasts about its recycled laces and a castor bean oil insole which cuts down on carbon output compared to conventional petroleum foam. The two brands represent a newer approach, guided less by flash and more by a self-conscious eco-friendliness and low-key comfort.
Xavier Renard, 31, an engineering product manager in Oakland, is one of the many Allbirds acolytes in the Bay Area. Allbirds are to the region, he said, what Timberlands are to New York City: “that staple shoe.” Mr. Renard bought his first pair of Allbirds two years ago, and he’s up to seven pairs. “They’re the closest thing I’ve found that’s not a loafer, or a leather sneaker, that still gives you that nice look but is uber-comfortable,” he said.
Other Allbirds fans I spoke with were pulled in by the company’s green vision. “I don’t feel bad buying multiple pairs of them because they are eco-friendly and they’re sustainable,” said Greg Liles, 25, a dancer in New York City who calls the Wool Runners his “casual walking around the town kind of shoe.”
Allbirds’s eco-minded messaging frames the company as conscientious or, to use the parlance of its millennial customers, “woke.” The fact that the wool on Allbirds is “responsibly sourced,” from New Zealand sheep (a process that Allbirds claims uses 60% less energy than production that relies on synthetic materials) helped to win over Carl Maynard, 32, a freelance photographer in Washington, D.C. “We have a culture right now where we consume so many sneakers and people want to chase the newest release from XYZ or Nike collaboration….but those shoes aren’t always sourced where they should be.”
But you can’t wear an explanatory paragraph and, for a lot of customers, aesthetics trump altruism. Mark Seeley first saw a Facebook ad for Allbirds in January of this year. Mr. Seeley, 32, who works in marketing in New York City, liked the “streamlined” shape enough to go to the Allbirds store in Soho and purchase a pair. It was the first time he had bought anything promoted on Facebook, but he has no regrets. “They can go with everything and they stand on their own and are not overly flashy,” said Mr. Seeley, who described his style as “simple, clean, but very on-trend.”
He added that he can wear his Allbirds on their own all day, unlike his other shoes, which require a Dr. Scholls insole. “They are much more comfortable than other shoes I wear,” wrote Mr. Seeley in an email, repeating a word that I heard again and again during my visit to the store. “Oh, they are comfortable,” an elderly woman said to her son, who already owned a pair, as she slipped on a shoe.
The brand’s sales are impressive for a two-year-old brand, but it was reported by an NPD Group analyst in 2016 that Nike sold 25 shoes a second, a figure over fifteen hundred times Allbirds’ current rate. That comparison is not entirely fair: So far Allbirds has operated more like a box-breaking Silicon Valley tech company than a traditional sneaker company. It’s how Casper approached mattresses, how Juul approached cigarette smoking and how Warby Parker approached eyewear. The question now, for Allbirds, is how to turn disruption into endurance.