Call him mad — or maybe just a cockeyed optimist — but Justin Schneider appears to be hopeful. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced iconic brands and legendary retailers to crumble (Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor, among them), Schneider, a 31-year-old footwear entrepreneur behind the workplace-oriented shoe brand Wolf & Shepherd, is still counting his blessings.
“Having moved to Los Angeles and being the only dress-shoe company in a less formal environment,” he said, “we had already asked ourselves, ‘How do we create a dress shoe for today’s working professional?’”
Wolf & Shepherd’s elevator pitch is simple. Its shoes feel like sneakers but look, on the outside, like a brogue or derby — the types of styles frequently found at blue-chip law firms or financial institutions, the ones that clacked down office hallways and lobbies before the world suddenly hit pause earlier this year. These tony lace-ups were the last bastions of a certain C-suite lifestyle where suits and ties reigned supreme. However, the days of desk lunches and boardroom meetings are in a state of serious limbo. So maybe a shoe that plays both sides of the fence is, strangely, perfectly in tune with this very in-between moment.
Hope Schneider, 30, the brand’s co-founder and Schneider’s wife, knew the moment things were changing well before the coronavirus pandemic hit. “When Goldman Sachs put out a memo that you don’t have to wear a suit to work anymore,” she said. It was an announcement that sparked the Schneiders’ brand to create its Crossover Longwing, a hybrid shoe with an upper made from full-grain Italian leather and contrasted with a white, high-density outsole. “If Goldman Sachs, one of the most dressy workplaces in New York, is telling their workers ties are not required, then those guys are probably looking for a formal shoe that is not Cole Haan,” she said.
Their Crossover Longwing, introduced late last year, sold out of its initial launch and, according to the brand, accumulated a wait list of more than 2,500 people. During June, they restocked the style with 5,000 pairs and sold more than 4,000 by mid-month. During the quarantine, it’s become one of their bestselling styles. “That hunch was right,” Hope said. “So we’re just following our intuition on what’s next.”
Schneider started his career with an internship at Adidas and later worked for New Balance, designing running shoes. After a career detour working for National Geographic, he returned home to Atlanta, and it was there that Wolf & Shepherd was born. It started innocently enough. A friend complained to him after spending $575 on a pair of dress shoes only to discover they were incredibly uncomfortable.
Schneider’s friend had inadvertently alerted him to a hole in the market. “Most dress-shoe companies were built on the old adage of, ‘This is how things have always been done.’ They’re built on the idea of being made in Italy or made in America, all this nostalgia,” he said. Tradition and heritage are the foundation for these companies, not innovation, which governs optimisation-obsessed industries such as tech and fitness. Schneider had an idea: Could he bring the two worlds together?
“I took that literally,” he said. “I took it seriously, and I approached it as I would a track spike or a trainer. What’s an attractive heel-to-toe ratio? Let’s take a really attractive shoe, and can I make it feel like a sneaker?”
Five years after founding his business — before the coronavirus hit — things were going well. Schneider had a store on Madison Avenue in New York and one in Los Angeles at the Westfield Century City shopping centre. The brand was bringing in millions in revenue and had NBA star Steve Nash, whom Schneider met through a mutual friend, as an ambassador and a collaborator. Wolf & Shepherd was making a splash with social media stunts such as having Juris Silenieks run the Atlanta half-marathon in a pair of Wolf & Shepherd cap-toe lace-ups (he won the race) or Nash play a pickup game of basketball in a pair, Chris Rock wore a pair of the shoes to this year’s Academy Awards. And then everything changed in 2020 — most of all, it was the way that we work, which was Wolf & Shepherd’s raison d’être. The brand has built on the success of their more casual releases such as the Crossover Longwing and the minimalist Glider sneaker.
According to Schneider, the dress shoe isn’t going down without a fight. He said the number of customers adding them to their carts on the Wolf & Shepherd website has “never been higher.” It’s just that they’re leaving them there for some far off day when people return to their work cubicles and pick up some semblance of the life we knew before. “There’s always going to be a consumer who wants to dress up,” he said.
He’s on to something. When some sort of normalcy is restored, the thinking goes, cooped-up citizens deprived of the simple act of expressing themselves through clothing will embrace the joys of dressing up again. Before the coronavirus, there were hints of a return to formality with men’s and loafers starting to gain traction again. It’s the natural response to years of a market dominated by streetwear and sneakers. Therefore, months stuck inside may be the impetus for people to dress again.