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San Francisco Chronicle: For SF shoemakers, the world is indeed flat

Co-founders of Rothy's Roth Martin and Stephen Hawthornthwaite, standing in front of shelves with spools of thread and shoes upon them.

It is almost a given that hills and high heels don’t go together. And in San Francisco, where weather also comes into play, comfort and walkability are even more of a concern. It makes sense that a brand of seamlessly knit, barely there women's flats would be born here. The fact that the founders are a couple of men, though? Perhaps less so.

Buttoned-up business partners Roth Martin and Stephen Hawthornthwaite are not your average fashion dreamers, nor do they intend to be. The men are close friends with radically different backgrounds: Martin is director and co-founder of Hedge Gallery, while Hawthornthwaite has been in finance for 20-plus years. After three years of globe-trotting trial and error, the two founded Rothy’s, a shoe brand sold exclusively online and based in a pristine office occupying a wing of Hedge in the Financial District. They view the shoe business from a technological and innovative standpoint, and are determined to make a shoe for women as clever and comfortable as possible.

“The initial idea was to buy an existing brand and try to resuscitate it,” says Hawthornthwaite, “but Roth had seen a child’s shoe in Europe (that) literally looked like a sock with a sole on the bottom. We kept coming back to it and quickly realized there’s no shoe like it.”

Adds Martin: “At the time, Toms were everywhere, and it inspired us to create a product that’s fresh and new, but also has an environmental sensibility to it.” Years of shoe shopping for their wives also served as an inspiration. “I’d watch my wife go through shoes or just wear flip-flops or sneakers,” recalls Hawthornthwaite, “and wish there was a shoe she could put on without even thinking, and wear all day long.”

A collection of Rothy's uppers when they are first 3D knit at our factory, before they're constructed into a shoe.

Rothy’s first steps were anything but effortless. Determined to make the shoes from environmentally friendly materials, the partners opted for fiber made from recycled plastic bottles for the uppers, eco-friendly rubber for the soles and recyclable foam for the insoles. Hawthornthwaite and Martin developed a computer program that dictates a 3D knitting process and creates a seamless three-dimensional upper made of compressed fiber, without wasting fabric or yarn on cuts or leftovers. The upper is then attached to the sole as a whole, by hand. After trying, and failing, to establish an American supply chain, they took their prototype to China. The first Rothy’s launched soon after, in early 2016.

The shoes, $125-$145, come in two shapes: The Point, with a pointed toe, and The Flat, with a rounded, classic ballet flat silhouette. Rothy’s spring/summer collection added nine new shades and prints, from pastels to blurry camouflage, to the eight original “classics.”

Moderation and time are key factors: “Customers want fewer, better things,” says Martin. “We’d rather make less styles but make them well.” This minimalistic approach clearly registered with Gwyneth Paltrow, who was introduced to Rothy’s by Steven Volpe, co-founder of Hedge with Martin. Paltrow included Rothy’s in her recent San Francisco pop-up, Goop Mrkt (which Volpe designed), alongside designer clothing and dazzlingly expensive bowls.

Martin and Hawthornthwaite are keeping their cool about this high-profile affiliation to the lifestyle guru celebrity. “She just loved the shoe,” Martin attests.

All footwear decisions should be so easy.

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