Fintech & e-commerce IPO

Comfy Footwear Is Cool —  And Fundable, Too

Illustration of hiking boot.

Modern history is replete with efforts at forcing feet to submit to the cruel whims of fashion, from spiked heels to pointed toes.

But comfy footwear fans will not be overcome. For decades now, we’ve stuck steadfastly to our mission to normalize flip flops, slip-on sandals and sneakers. And finally, it looks like victory is at hand.

That, at least, is what the wisdom of the market is telling us. Crocs is a $6.5 billion company. Birkenstock, the hippie staple-turned-Barbie-meme, is reportedly eyeing an IPO at a valuation over $8 billion. And across startupland, the route to footwear venture funding starts and ends with comfortable feet.

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Over the past year, venture investors have stepped up funding to an array of foot-focused upstarts pitching everything from 3D-printed, custom shoes to chic sneaker marketplaces to vegan high-tops. A sample set of recently funded companies curated from the Crunchbase dataset highlights 14 emerging brands that have raised financing this year.

If feet could give a thumbs-up, they would

It’s not only VCs who like the above-listed companies. Feet do too. There’s plenty of stretchy material and arch support in the mix, and nary a high heel to be seen.

If feet had credit cards, they’d likely be marching in droves to one of the bigger recent funding recipients, Zellerfeld Shoe. The Brooklyn-based upstart, which picked up $15 million in a February round led by Founders Fund, prints shoes based on foot scans from customers’ phones. It counts celebrities Justin Bieber and Chris Brown among its fan base.

Oofos, one of those odd-yet-memorable brand names, is also targeting the cushiony footwear crowd. The Braintree, Massachusetts-based company raised around $7.7 million in a March financing led by pro football quarterbacks Derek Carr and Alex Smith. It makes slip-ons and sneakers featuring an impact-absorbing foam technology designed to accelerate recovery after intense exercise.

Sneakers are also a perennially popular investment theme. Kream Corp., a South Korean sneaker resale marketplace, raised the biggest footwear venture fund of the year so far, lacing up $167 million in a Series C led by Altos Ventures. Two other sneaker-selling platforms, Paris-based Wethenew and London-based Laced, raised rounds of $22 million and $12 million, respectively.

Welcome to the real world

Investors’ embrace of feel-good footwear is by no means new. The first time we looked at this space five years ago, comfort was already the defining trend.

It also reflects reality. Shows and movies may be filled with female characters who think nothing of popping on a pair of stilettos to run errands. But in the real world, a scan of any crowd reveals this fashion choice is exceedingly rare among women who actually have to walk anywhere.

Additionally, footwear upstarts clearly aren’t neglecting one of the highest-spending segments of their customer base: men. Per Statista, American men spend more on footwear than any other type of clothing. Their annual expenditures were estimated a few years ago to top $26 billion. And that’s just a small part of a much larger and fast-growing global market.

All this doesn’t necessarily translate into more startup activity. With overall venture funding down in recent quarters, footwear is also seeing less love.

Today’s landscape looks nothing like 2021, when supergiant financings were de rigueur. That year, sneaker marketplace Goat Group landed a $195 million Series F. Rothy’s, which makes shoes from old water bottles, announced a $475 million investment from Brazilian textile brand Alpargatas. And Allbirds, known for footwear sourced from merino wool and sustainable materials, went public at a market cap over $2 billion (though its shares have since receded over 90% from early highs).

But while funding is lower, footwear investors aren’t running scared either. They’re still banking on new brands, with a particular focus on those that find original ways to fuse comfort, sustainability and style.

Among those of us who spend a lot of time on our feet, here’s hoping that some of these foot-coddling styles remain in vogue. Fashions may come and go, but the satisfaction that comes from a comfortable shoe endures.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

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