There’s a certain argument that my mother and I had over and over throughout my early 20s. It wasn’t about when I would find a nice, Jewish boy to settle down with or why I’d chosen to live on such a noisy street in downtown Manhattan—though, there were plenty of those too. Instead, the argument we’d come back to time and time again was over my footwear. “Why don’t you get a cute pair of sneakers?” she would start. “I see so many girls wearing them with dresses, and they’re so practical for walking around the city.” But every time she’d mention it or text me a photo of a pair she thought I should buy, I would calmly, then not so calmly, explain that I was simply not a sneaker girl, that I loved wearing my sandals and heels and that was the end of it.
And honestly, I wasn’t wrong. From age 15 onwards, I basically lived in heels—be them stilettos, wedges, boots, or chunky sandals—and I would turn my chin up at flats of any kind. Comfort, shmomfort, I’d thought, clinging to the power and confidence I felt from having a three or four-inch boost.
But then, in 2020, the pandemic hit and everything I once knew so well changed overnight. Suddenly, I wasn’t going into an office every day or running around from event to event; every date I was going on was now via Facetime and from the comfort of my sofa; and on the rare occasion I’d actually see friends, it was for long walks or picnics in the park. I also decided it was the perfect time to finally get a dog, so much of my day quickly became filled with walks around the neighborhood and jaunts to the dog park.
With all of these changes, I figured I probably needed at least one pair of functional footwear that wasn’t just my gym shoes, so I started looking into my options. There were the classic Stan Smiths and Air Force 1s, but I wanted something a bit more stylish and less identifiable. Then there were the trendy picks, like Golden Goose, but I knew I wasn’t nearly cool enough to pull something like that off. Then, I discovered what seemed like the perfect happy medium in the form of a new brand called Thousand Fell.
The brand, I soon learned, was founded a few years earlier, in 2018, by Stuart Ahlum and Chloe Songer, an entrepreneur duo with some serious design chops. Frustrated by the waste generated by the sneaker business, whereby an estimated 300 million pairs go straight to a landfill within their first year, the duo was compelled to create a brand that did things differently, by assigning actual value to waste. And so, they crafted the first circular recyclable sneaker on the market—meaning the shoes are made from food waste, recycled plastic, and natural rubber; designed sustainably and ethically produced in a family-owned factory in Brazil; then recycled by customers when they reach their demise.
Although Thousand Fell now has a total of three signature styles to choose from—the Lace Up, the Slip On, and the Court shoe—it was just the former two when I first came across the New York-based line, and without hesitation, I opted for the Lace Ups. At $120 a pair (really, $100 plus a $20 recycling deposit), they were already significantly more affordable than the other high-quality sneaker brands I’d come across and well worth the investment in my opinion. And when my white-with-black lace-ups arrived a few days later, that was only confirmed.
The faux leather, made from coconut, sugarcane, and palm, looked remarkably like the real thing, but thanks to its resistance to stains and water, it quickly proved to be even better. I was also impressed by the simple, almost minimalist design, with branding limited to a simple “TF” logo on the tongue of the shoes and embossed on the heel. And I knew they’d go with my beloved dresses as easily as they would with jeans and a T-shirt.
The real moment of truth, however, came the day after they arrived, when I wore my Thousand Fells for the first time. I pulled them out of the box, slipped them over my socks, and quite honestly, felt more comfort than I ever imagined possible. But with a cushioned insole made from recycled rubber yoga mats, it was really no wonder walking a mile (or 10) in these shoes was such an enjoyable experience. Even on the first day of wear, there was no break-in period necessary, which boded well for the long walks I immediately took them on.
I knew only time would tell how clean the crisp white shoes would remain, but I fully expected them to show some wear and tear within the first few weeks. After all, I do live in a filthy metropolis and make frequent trips to the dirt-covered dog park, so white anything isn’t bound to stay so for long—and the truth is, my Thousand Fell sneakers really weren’t any exception. To my surprise and delight, though, they proved incredibly easy to clean. Seriously, just a quick swipe of a damp paper towel, and all signs of grime disappeared to make the shoes look nearly brand new.
Of course, the big differentiator with these sneakers doesn’t lie in the design or even the function; it lies in the life they’ll have after me. When their time finally comes and I can’t seem to get another step out of their soles, I can simply send them back to Thousand Fell, and they’ll refurbish and donate the shoes or reuse their raw materials—and they’ll send me a $20 credit to use towards my next pair. Even more than a year on and what’s surely been a thousand miles walked in them, my white-with-black lace-ups are in great condition, so while I look forward to recycling them one day, I don’t suspect that will be any time soon.
Looking back, it’s tough to believe I lived most of my life avoiding sneakers, especially considering I now own three different pairs of Thousand Fells and wear them almost every day. I wish I could go back in time and save my younger self from years of discomfort (and plenty of blisters), but it was perhaps worth all the foot pain in the world just to give my mom the satisfaction of saying she was right when I finally listened to her advice.