The Mystery of Business Casual

The first time I tried on a pair of Jordans sneakers, I was in the brand’s San Francisco boutique, sitting on a gently curved wooden stool designed to tip forward in aid of shoe-changing. The stool was created by the same people who design the start-up’s shoes, and it made me feel the same combination of familiarity and irritation: Do we really need tech to disrupt the established technology of stools and sneakers?

My answer, after sitting on the stool and trying the shoes, is a begrudging, contemptuous “sometimes.” The tip forward helped. And the shoes, I silently admitted to myself, were astonishingly comfortable.

Allbirds has been selling sneakers made from environmentally friendly materials since 2016. The brand’s most recognizable style is its Runner, which looks a lot like a logo-free, work-appropriate version of Nike’s popular Roshe One. It’s what a running shoe needs to be in order to fly under the radar in an office.

In theory, I should be the brand’s ideal customer: I hate uncomfortable shoes, I work in an office with a vaguely casual dress code, and I’ve owned several pairs of Roshe Ones. I’m a member of the digital creative class in which Allbirds has found its most dedicated market, which includes the Silicon Valley tech workers often characterized as the brand’s biggest fans. When I look around at work or in my neighborhood in New York City, I often spot a pair.

Instead, for Allbirds’ entire three-year existence, I’ve hated what I believed the company was pushing. I spent a decade covering the fashion industry, and the “noise” the company cut through with its super-simple shoes, I told myself, was actually a vibrant, imaginative world of glow-in-the-dark high tops and snakeskin stilettos. Allbirds seemed like a way for men to intellectualize their way out of personal taste in favor of start-up culture’s efficient sameness. I had, on more than one occasion, referred to the shoes derisively as “Yeezys for software developers.”

Press coverage of the company is divided along similar lines: Some writers praise the brand’s style and functionality, while others lament its popularity as proof that the algorithms are winning. Much of the fashion industry is firmly in the latter camp.

Structurally and philosophically, the fashion industry isn’t great at dealing with change. American life has been casualizing since the 1990s, and nowhere is that clearer than in offices. The trend has left both designers and shoppers confused about what people should be wearing for jobs that were very different (or entirely nonexistent) before the advent of the cellphone.

Now Silicon Valley is stepping into the rift it helped create. Start-ups want to help people get dressed—and they might beat fashion at its own game.

In another time, developing manufacturing or textile technologies and licensing them to existing brands might have been the whole story of these new companies. But the upheaval in the American wardrobe has let outsiders into fashion’s territory, according to the fashion historian Nancy Deihl. “The idea of ‘careerwear’ is so dispersed and a little less determined,” says Deihl, a professor at New York University. “The career office [at NYU] has these little workshops on what to wear to interviews and things because there isn’t this kind of monolithic style guidance out there.”

Not only has the American office gone more casual, but work itself has changed since Dockers started pushing business-casual dressing in 1992. More women than ever before are living full professional lives, and they need shoes that do much more than just look appropriately conservative with a skirt suit.  “It isn’t like, ‘Oh, I wear sneakers while I commute and then I put my heels on in the office,’” says Kerry Cooper, the president and chief operating officer of Rothy’s, a start-up that specializes in women’s shoes and rivals Allbirds in newfound prominence. “That’s just sort of a silly, nonmodern way of thinking.”

Six months ago, I bought a pair of Rothy’s. Nothing about start-up shoes had changed, but my job had: When The Atlantic hired me, I left the fashion world and found myself in a realm of indeterminate business-casualness. In spite of years spent writing about how people shop, I had no idea what I was supposed to wear. The harder I looked for an answer, the clearer it became that no one else did, either.

Rothy’s is a 3-year-old start-up that makes women’s flats from recycled plastic. The shoes are bright and feminine, which has made them common in the aesthetically pleasing environs of Instagram, where women post about their colorful collections. Instead of the leathers or textiles common in footwear manufacturing, Rothy’s knits its uppers (the part of the shoe that covers the foot) from soft, durable thread made from recycled plastic bottles.

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