An American wardrobe staple is going extinct — here’s its surprising replacement

Allbirds wool runners sneakers5

Venture capitalist Henry McNamara owns a pair of Allbirds sneakers in five colours. He obsessively posts photos of them to social media, and never leaves for business without them.

McNamara, a general partner at early stage investment firm Great Oaks, is biased. His firm invested in the San Francisco-based footwear startup before it became a Silicon Valley phenomenon. But like like many young professionals, McNamara is over dress shoes.

The sneaker has undergone a sort of “fashion baptism,” writes one New York Times style reporter. As dress codes go lax and designers turn their attention to the “athleisure” market, men and women have more stylish, workplace-appropriate options than ever.

Designer sneakers make up the majority of men’s footwear sales for e-commerce site Mr Porter and department store Barneys New York, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newest threat to the Oxford shoe comes from — where else? — a San Francisco footwear startup.

Allbirds’ debut sneaker, the $95 “Wool Runner,” has been called the world’s most comfortable shoe by venture capitalists and startup founders — as well as the company itself. Now the founders of Allbirds are making the case that it’s a viable alternative to the dress shoe.

Allbirds cofounders Joey Zwillinger, Tim Brown
Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, cofounders of Allbirds. Allbirds

The workplace is a more casual office environment than ever before. Oftentimes, the workplace isn’t an office at all, but a café, co-working space, or train.

“People are working on their mobile phones at night. People are working wherever there’s Wi-Fi,” Joey Zwillinger, cofounder of Allbirds, says. “A traditional apparel and footwear industry doesn’t serve that change in trend, and so people are moving in a different direction.”

His cofounder, Tim Brown, dreamt up the idea of a wool sneaker while playing professional soccer in New Zealand. He grew frustrated that while high-performance and fashionable footwear attracted innovation, everyday footwear was an afterthought in the industry.

Allbirds uses merino wool from Brown’s home country that’s processed in Milan, Italy. The result is a pair of shoes so comfortable, it’s like slippers made of clouds (in this author’s opinion). The sneakers feature a sleek silhouette that mimic a traditional dress shoe.

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It’s worth noting that the shoe lacks a prominent logo, because as Zwillinger puts it, “There is a reason that leather shoes that you wear to work don’t have a ‘swoosh’ on the side of it.”

The company announced Wednesday it raised a Series A round of funding, totaling $7.25 million. There’s also a new suite of shoe colours along the way.

According to Allbirds’ investor, Henry McNamara, the company is positioning itself well for the larger shift in how people dress for work.

“I don’t think we would have invested in Allbirds if we didn’t believe this was a shoe that could be worn every single day, in an office or out on the street,” McNamara says. “This shift towards more casual office attire doesn’t mean people don’t care about design or style.”

Allbirds, according to McNamara, is a brand that wants to provide both.

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