The Old Ways are No Good Anymore

At least that’s the lesson we’re supposed to take from a parade of non-tech companies coming from Silicon Valley. Uber and Lyft are trying to convince us that renting a driver in a private car is better than public transit. Blue Apron is trying to convince us that there is no need to go to the grocery store anymore. 

But what about all the additional traffic ride-hailing apps are causing? What if a grocery store is actually the most efficient way to get food

It’s no secret that the fashion industry isn’t safe from such disruption. It’s fashion, after all. A recent article in The Atlantic looked at the shoe market in particular, and asked if new entrants can finally crack “the mystery of business casual.” Two new brands that are making waves, Allbirds and Rothy’s, are entering a world that certainly is different from transportation and groceries. But what do these brands promise and what do they actually deliver?

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.

This raises the question: Has work really changed enough to warrant reinventing workplace fashion? The idea that “old” clothing solutions were uncomfortable has become conventional wisdom, furthered in part by Silicon Valley work culture, but is it true?

From a branding perspective, Allbirds is driving that message with their “ongoing mantra to create better things in a better way.” On their homepage, there is an impossible-to-miss tagline “COMFORT THAT COMES NATURALLY.” Scrolling down their homepage reveals a statement that reads: “Better Things In a Better Way.” 

From this perspective, casualization is less about comfort and more about efficiency. Fewer, simpler options, we are told, can help us avoid decision fatigue. But do we really believe that not having to expend cognitive energy to pick our shoes will free us up to, say, produce more widgets? 

Sure, Steve Job wore his iconic black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers every day. And President Obama famously told Vanity Fair he limits his choices in suit color.  

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” Obama said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

But what works for Steve Jobs and President Obama doesn’t seem like a realistic comparison for the rest of us. Perhaps the mystery of this “highly efficient” business casual concept is just that “comfort” is really what we’re aiming for. Any other meaning we attach to may just be superfluous. 

Maybe what Allbirds and Rothy’s have achieved isn’t a revolutionary disruption in an industry or unlocking the mystery of an entire dress code. Maybe it is just a new fashion being fashionable. They created a shoe that filled a void in the market place - a minimalist-style shoe that’s trendy, comfortable, logo-free, affordable, and without a swoosh or three stripes, just fashionable enough to get it into the office.