In 2012, Roth Martin was running an art gallery in San Francisco with no previous background in fashion. Despite this, he always had an interest in design and began noticing a surge in athleisure fashion. With that in mind, he and co-founder Stephen Hawthornthwaite set out to create one of the most innovative footwear brands, known as Rothy’s.
Rothy's shoes are made from 100% recycled plastic water bottles and post-consumer recycled materials. The brand bases their designs on comfort and wearability—but interestingly, they don’t resemble what you might think of as ‘comfort’ or ‘sustainable’ footwear. “As we toured footwear factories for research and development, we were shocked to find out how much waste traditional shoe-making produces,” Martin tells Departures. “On average, the standard pattern-cutting method leaves about 30% of materials on the cutting room floor. We were determined to find a better, more sustainable way. The solution we settled on was to 3D-knit the shoe from one single piece of fiber, using recycled materials.”
Since then, the brand has racked up a number of celebrity fans, too. Eva Longoria, Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, and Olivia Munn have all been spotted wearing Rothy’s. Perhaps the most well-known fan is also Megan Markle, who has worn Rothy’s several times. Traditionally, comfort shoes are seen as ugly or marketed to an older crowd, but Rothy’s seems to defy all this by offering simple, stylish shoes that appeal to fashionable women of all ages. Think: pointed toe leopard printed flats, or chic knitted sandals, which the brand just recently launched. Other Rothy’s signatures include the Sapphire Mary Jane and Flame Point. All of the shoe styles are completely seamless, so they end up feeling totally different than a typical pair of flats when worn.
“The phrase we keep coming back to is ‘front-of-closet,’’ Martin says of the signature aesthetic. “These are timeless shoes and handbags that live at the center of your wardrobe and keep you coming back, over and over again. Both wearable and playful in color and design.” Rothy’s also recently launched handbags made of eco-friendly material earlier this year. Structured and stylish enough to bring to work or for a night out, each style is also machine-washable. “Handbags were a natural progression for us,” explains Martin. “We saw another industry dominated by leather and marred by fabric waste, and knew we could bring our same design ethos to another category.”
The material used for the bags is made of a proprietary blend of ocean-bound marine plastics, and Rothy’s signature thread made from recycled water bottles. “About 8 million pieces of plastics make their way into oceans every day, but they’re notoriously difficult to reuse because they’re degraded by sun, salt, and sand. By blending the ocean-bound marine plastics with our signature rPET yarn, we developed a beautiful, structured, soft, and machine-washable material that is a first for handbags."
However, the success wasn’t overnight for the brand. The trial and error of developing footwear that is both comfortable and sustainable was a real challenge. “From a product perspective, a 3D-knitted flat was unheard of at the time, and no one else was making shoes from recycled plastic water bottles,” explains Martin. “We didn’t want to just make a sustainable shoe—we knew for a sustainable shoe to be successful, it had to also be wearable, comfortable, durable, and beautiful.” All in all, it took three years of research, and four years to bring the final product to the market, which officially launched in 2016.
The brand also struggled to find the right manufacturer, as Martin originally wanted to produce everything in the U.S, which was a challenge. “I soon learned that in the late 1980s, nearly all U.S. footwear manufacturing and skill moved offshore. I spent a year in Maine trying to make it work, but couldn’t retain a supply chain or maintain quality at scale,” he says. He decided instead, to manufacture his brand in China. “I found that China has the most sophisticated footwear supply chain, 3D-knitting technology and skill in the world. ‘Made in China’ has long been associated with a lack of quality or craftsmanship, but in footwear the truth is just the opposite.” Today, Rothy’s has a modern 240,000-square-foot workshop with a team of more than 1,000 employees and over 300 knitting machines.
With its brand new first-of-its-kind sandal launch, Rothy’s is continuing to push forward the idea of sustainability and the concept of stylish comfort shoes. “At the end of the day, we’re committed to innovation,” says Martin. “We were the first to develop knit flats. Our bag collection is the first of its kind. Rothy’s will continue to be a first-mover, creating differentiated products that will stand the test of time. We’ll keep bringing that approach to new styles, new categories, and hopefully delight people as we go.”