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This DTC Women’s Sneaker Brand Is Backed By The Biggest Names In Footwear

Ultra-marathon runner Brooke Torres founded Hilma, a new direct-to-consumer (DTC) running shoe brand using mass personalization and patent-pending fit technology, to revolutionize women’s running shoes.

It all started a few years after her 2013 college graduation when Torres signed up to run a marathon.

“To be honest with you, my initial thought was it was a superhuman endeavor, I wasn’t sure if I could do it,” she said. “But I trained and ran the marathon and was really empowered by the experience.” 

But there was one problem: she couldn’t find the right running shoes. Torres went through the motions; visiting specialty stores and ordering shoes online, finding something comfortable for a few miles, but nothing good enough to last.

“It was just so tricky, like something was eluding me,” Torres recalled. “And what I started to realize was the thing that was entirely missing from the conversation was that there’s no such thing as the best fit running shoe, it’s really about the best fit for you, and that takes into account the shape of your foot. No one was talking about the shape of your foot in the way that we think about it now and in the way that our fit model that we’ve created works.”

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So, she started to investigate. Why hasn’t this been done before? Had this been attempted before and failed? Torres worked her way through connecting with people at the big footwear companies, at running stores, with podiatrists and supply chain workers. Ultimately, she was left with one question: if the solution she sought didn’t exist, was starting her own running shoe brand, with no previous experience, a fool’s errand?

“I was so on fire about the idea. I felt like this was something really, really needed, like the problem was enormous,” Torres said. “Some people [said] it’s a niche thing, and I’m like, no, everyone has this problem. Shoes have not historically been made for women. But even more than that, they haven’t been made considering that people have different bodies and therefore different needs.”

It turns out, Torres was onto something. While brands like Lululemon and Nike have begun to create running shoes specifically designed for women, Hilma was built by a woman, for women, from the jump. And that caught some attention.

Hilma raised $3 million in seed funding with investments from some heavyweight footwear leaders, including Jeanne Jackson, a former Nike president; Rothy’s co-founder Roth Martin; Tecovas founder Paul Hedrick; and Jason Jacobs, former CEO and founder of RunKeeper, which Asics acquired.

“I didn’t know any of [the investors] before I started the company,” Torres said, looking back to her early fundraising days. “It was me with a deck and a drawing of a shoe and I was telling the story of what we wanted to do. People were like, ‘You seem very energized, let’s keep in touch.’ So I did keep in touch and by the time we raised our seed round, they were able to see the progress made. I definitely thought about it as longer-term relationship building where if we were too early for someone at an earlier stage, I wasn’t like, ‘see you never.’ Some of those people ended up coming in and I’m happy to have them.”

Hilma’s patent-pending fit model and fit predictor uses an online consultation to match consumers with the correct style of three offered as well as size, which ranges from five through 12 including half-sizes. Similar to ThirdLove’s bra survey, the quiz gathers intel about body measurements, experience and personal preferences. Torres is quick to clarify that the shoes aren’t custom but mass personalized.

“So when you go through the quiz, we’re getting at two things,” Torres said. “An actual dimension and fit, and then we’re also getting preference and feel.”

Overall, Torres says the fit finder has yielded a pretty low exchange rate.

“The predictor has been quite effective at getting people in the right fit,” she said. “We found that people know their bodies pretty well are and are pretty attuned, especially when it’s called out to them.”

Courtesy of Hilma

The three different styles—fit one, fit two and fit three—look similar enough at first glance. But fit one has a narrower heel hold, midfoot and toe box. Fit two has a narrower heel hold and midfoot hold but features a wider toe box. The third is made for a more full-volume foot, with a wider heel hold, midfoot and toe box. The combination of available fits and sizes amounts to 45 options available.

Made in a factory in Dongguan, China, Hilma shoes are designed with functionality first. Features include three toe box options, a cushioned tongue, a lateral side toe guard, three width options, a lugged outsole, a breathable mesh upper and an 8mm offset. The thick bottom of the shoe is made with sugarcane-based EVA. The team thoughtfully sourced durable, high-performance materials in every area of the shoe. That includes a high-breathability cushioned mesh upper and microsuede reinforcements for comfort and support. The lugged rubber outsole shapes and pattern were strategically designed to provide a good grip on a variety of terrains without sacrificing cushioning or style. It is 4mm lugs with an ultra thin base. Plus, the entire shoe is vegan.

“One of the prompts that I had for our designer on the material side was everything on the shoe had to be functional, because from a sustainability standpoint, I didn’t want all these extra, like plastics, that were put on for design without function,” Torres said. “And that’s kind of a tricky prompt, because some of those things really do add style.” Case in point, she pointed to what appeared to be a graphic flair on the shoe, which is actually a reflector. But it was important that the shoes be visually pleasing; so that consumers could go from a run to brunch without wanting to change their shoes. “You can hide a lot of performance in a shoe that has a little bit more of a lifestyle aesthetic.”

Though in development for the past three years, Hilma officially launched in late October. With thousands of waitlist signups through word-of-mouth marketing, Torres was happy with the conversion of signups to purchases.

“I will say that it’s such an interesting business decision to match up inventory pre-launch, and I’ve talked to so many founders about that,” Torres said, not wanting to reveal numbers. “And we’ve been really lucky to have such an awesome investor group surrounding the business, people who were, you know, footwear founders or executives. So I feel pretty good about the decision that we made.”

Looking ahead, Hilma is weighing its options. Retail, wholesale, a storefront are all options. But for now, the brand is focusing on DTC to hone in on the direct experience with its customers and understand what they want.

“I think there are different ways to grow and interact with our audience in our community,” Torres said. “My goal is to continue to build and create products for our customer and be really attuned to her.”