If you’ve passed through an airport recently, there’s a strong chance you’ve spotted at least one woman sporting a pair of distinctive-looking ballet flats or handbags in a stretchy woven fabric. In 2016, San Francisco–based Rothy’s debuted its signature flats, which are made from recycled water bottles and manufactured using an efficient, 3D-knitting technique. By 2018, the brand had gone viral, selling a million pairs and generating $140 million in revenue. In 2019, it surpassed 1.4 million customers—a 105% increase from the year prior. And in March 2020, the brand had launched a new category–handbags–transforming it in a full fledged lifestyle brand.
What’s more, Rothy’s has been profitable from the start. The company’s 250,000-square-foot production facility in China allows it to make products in direct response to customer demand: San Francisco–based designers can create a shoe, have it prototyped within a day, and bring it to market within two weeks. “Our intellectual property includes everything from manufacturing efficiencies to developing new machinery to materials,” says cofounder, chief creative officer, and CEO Roth Martin, citing the company’s 85 active or filed patents.
That level of control enabled it to diversify last year, producing loafers, sneakers, a Chelsea boot, and several styles made with merino wool (blended with recycled plastic fibers) for cooler weather. (Prices start at $55 for kids and $125 for adults.) Collaborations with Italian designer Marta Ferri and children’s illustrator Pete Oswald also allowed Rothy’s to introduce more whimsical limited-edition designs and silhouettes. When the brand decided to launch handbags, it developed 3D knitting software in-house and manufactured the totes, clutches, and pouches within a wing of its factory. “We have this incredible muscle of innovation in our [production] facilities,” says Martin. “And now we’re flexing it.”
Read more about Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies:
- The world’s 50 most innovative companies of 2020
- The 10 most innovative style companies of 2020
- How Snap defied the haters—and keeps reinventing the social media game
- Footprint is proving that sustainability can scale
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.