This isn’t ashoe, is it? I mean, if you squint, it kind of looks like the company’s famous alpargata silhouette, of which it has sold more than 100 million pairs since its founding in 2006. (And how do we know that number? Because of its famous “one for one” model, by which it donated a pair of shoes to those in need in emerging-world countries around the globe for every pair it sells. It’s easy math.) But the above is a Toms shoe, if admittedly much different than what most people have grown accustomed to. It’s a fitting symbol for a brand that has over the last year scrapped one of its hallmark philanthropic commitments to focus on new areas of giving based on the next generation. What began in 2020 continues with the release of its Rover men’s shoe, which is being released on Thursday, July 15.
“Sneakerizing is key,” Toms CEO Magnus Wedhammar tells The Manual. “We’re not saying we’re going to make a performance sneaker, but [the Rover] has all the DNA of Toms in a modern execution.”
The Rover represents the second half of a departure for what many consider a heritage brand. The women’s Mallow, released in April, was the first, and like the Rover, it stitched the company’s upper shape onto a pillowtop of EVA foam, creating an everyday shoe that you could literally wear every day. (Ever wear a pair of Toms’ traditional alpargatas on concrete? “Footsore,” redefined.) Granted, there are other, smaller differences, including more coverage over the foot, pull tabs, and a rib-knit collar for easy on-offs. It’s not the company’s classic shoe, and yet it shares plenty of similarities. The heritage alpargata, with all of the colors and collaborations, remains, but Toms’ latest two releases are an expansion into new territory and for a new demographic: Gen-Z.
“The alpargata was what made Toms what it is today,” says Wedhammar. But the reason we’re speaking with Wedhammar is because the old way simply wasn’t working any longer. In January 2020 following some real Succession-level corporate intrigue, the 48-year-old was brought aboard to right the listing ship. With senior positions at Sanuk, Sperry, and Converse in his past, Wedhammar knows sneakers and he knows shoes, bringing that know-how to Toms in an effort to connect it with the next generation.
But styles are only skin-deep, and Wedhammar implemented a seismic shift in the Toms philanthropic efforts in his first year. Its one-for-one giving model, which has been copied by scores of other companies, including MiiR, Bombas, Warby Parker, and others, was cut so quickly that it didn’t have time to bleed.
And here’s something else you’re not going to want to hear, even if it’s true: “What kids today care about is not giving shoes to kids in other countries that they don’t really know about,” Wedhammar says. “What they care about is mental health, they care about gun violence, they care about equity and inclusion.”
Its cutting of the one-for-one program is not to say that Toms no longer has a philanthropic cornerstone to its culture. In fact, Wedhammar says that the company continues to donate the same percentage of its profits since it shifted the model. But where and to whom, based on the polling of its targeted demo, has markedly shifted.
Rather than launching its shoes into far-off climes, its giving stays much more local, and it now focuses on three core areas, including mental health, gun control, and equity and inclusion. Wedhammar himself feels that the company’s investment in mental health will have the greatest impact, as it feeds into the other areas. “I think [mental health] is going to be the cause of our time,” he says.
So far, the feedback on both its first shoe, the Mallow, and its revamped giving model has been positive. The Rover hopes to further establish this new direction, breathing fresh air into a shape that the next generation grew accustomed to seeing on the feet of their moms. “I saw what Toms did, and I saw how it pioneered a whole new way of doing business that has been relocated across businesses around the world,” Wedhammar says. “But change happens on the ground. Change happens in local communities.”
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