Are these super-trendy sneakers the next Allbirds?
Atoms promises a perfect fit—at a price.
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At this point, almost everything that you once bought in a store has been disrupted by a brand that originated on Instagram. Bras? Check. Prescription skincare? You bet. Knitting? Indeed. House plants? Yup.
It is at such a level that, if I were an entrepreneurial type with a cool idea and some crowdfunding cash, I would think that the key to break into my industry would not be to disrupt it (because it’s already been done), but, rather to re-disrupt it. At least, that’s what Atoms, a new sneaker brand, seems to be doing, on the coattails of another millennial-focused sneaker brand starting with A that you’ve probably seen in an Instagram ad or two. But what’s the deal with Atoms, and how do these shoes compare to all the other brands on your feed vying to get on your feet?
What are Atoms?
As a brand, Atoms’ main identifying characteristic is fit. It claims that about 60 percent of people have one foot that’s bigger than the other (and statistics bear out), meaning that more than half of us are walking around with one shoe that pinches or gapes or is otherwise a poor fit. But herein lies the brand’s specific disruption: Atoms’ shoes, which start at $129, are available in quarter sizes—not just half and full—and you receive three pairs of shoes with each order, not just one, in the size you choose and two additional ones. When your shipment arrives, you try them all on and keep a shoe that fits best for each foot, whether that ends up being identical or, say, the half size on one foot and the three-quarter size on the other, and send the rest back.
Atoms’ Instagram page also has a distinct personality, as one might expect of a new-ish, social media-driven shoe brand, and one that defines it as a Brooklyn company, where its headquarters are located. This includes a photo of giving a pair of limited-edition neon green Atoms to the storied Green Lady of Brooklyn, showing Atoms-shod models hanging out in Brooklyn Navy Yard, and recommending The Goldfinch in a glamour shot in the same location (and describing the 784-page novel about terrorism, drug addiction, and art thievery as a “fun novel to read while you’ve got some time off.”)
Some other notable features of Atoms’ sneakers include a breathable mesh upper, a sole made of rubber and foam, and elastic laces—allegedly so you only have to tie them once, no matter how often you slide them on and off. Some eco-friendly platitudes appear on the site—like a statement about a waterless dying process and a promise to create a trade-in program for the shoes "soon." But they seem more like an afterthought than a centerpiece of the brand, unlike Allbirds and Rothy's, who make earth-friendliness a hallmark.
Atoms are available in one unisex style, called the Model 000, and in unisex sizes by the quarter that translate to men’s sizes 4 to 15 and women’s sizes 5.5 to 16.5 (e.g., a men’s 7.5 is a women’s size 9 and a men's 7.75 is a women's 9.25), and one width.
I got a pair—or, rather, three—to wear for a few weeks to see if Atoms shoes are as well-fitting, comfortable, and befitting of a cosmopolitan style as its site, Serena Williams’ tech mogul husband, and Instagram suggests. (Williams' husband Alexis Ohanian is an investor in Atoms through his investment firm Initialized Capital).
How do you order Atoms?
When you go to Atoms’ site, there is a tab that prompts you to take a brief quiz to find your “perfect fit.” It asked my regular shoe size, if I ever find myself wearing a different shoe size, and whether I wear shoes primarily to walk, stand, bike, sit, or commute—basically, the footwear equivalent of the quiz I took to find my perfect period products to review the (disruptive!) menstrual brands Cora and Lola. You have to give Atoms your email address to receive your results, which means you also start receiving the brand’s marketing emails, but you’ll also get a complimentary pair of Atoms socks—which normally cost $15—for (unintentionally) signing up. (It’s pretty easy to opt out, the emails aren’t that frequent, and you don't have to take the quiz to order shoes.)
How do Atoms shoes fit?
My feet are a size 9. I am more certain about this than I am of most other things, as I have been a size 9 since I was 13 and my feet experienced a growth spurt before anything else on my body, leaving me with the feet of what would one day belong to a five-foot-seven woman on the frame a much shorter tween. (The overall visual effect of this was lopsided and bottom-heavy, not unlike that of some puppies or clowns you may have met in your lifetime.) Over the subsequent 13 years, I have not deviated from this size, though every so often, if a brand’s sizing is funky (I assume), the half size above or below fits me better than a 9. But if I’m ordering something online, I feel safe ticking off the size 9 box without a second thought. The email I received recommended I go with the sizes 8.75, 9, and 9.25, based on my quiz answers.
But when I received my three pairs, it struck me that some things aren’t a problem until you know they’re a problem. Every pair fit fine when I tried it on—if I had been presented with any one of them and told it was a size 9, I would have accepted it without question. As it was, I tried on each shoe and agonized. Not because of the way they felt, but because I pondered each of the six shoes I tried on for exactly how well it fit, and if it was better than the last pair and, really, every pair of shoes I’d ever worn in my entire life.
That said, I can see how this individualized try-on process could work for someone who isn’t as certain about their size. My editor, Amy Roberts, learned from a shoe-store size scanner that her right foot is a size 7.1 and her left foot is a 7.8, confirming what she knew about her differently sized feet. She ends up wearing a 7 in sandals, 7.5 in closed shoes, and 7.5 or 8 in sneakers, and can’t wear flats or pumps at all unless they have a strap or elastic back, lest her larger foot be smushed or her smaller foot step out of the shoe as she walks. I’d imagine she’s the exact person Atoms had in mind—though she says that sneakers, with their laces and stretchy material, are often the least problematic shoe to fit.
In any case, I went with the size 8.75 Atoms shoes for both of my feet, mainly because I wanted them to look smaller—some memories never leave us, middle school memories most of all. I boxed the others back up in the package they arrived in and readied them to go back from whence they came. The shoes come with a prepaid return label, so this part was easy. That said, you have to do this right away. If you don’t return the extra shoes within seven days, Atoms charges you the price of both pairs of shoes—$258—in addition to the $129 you spent for the pair you intended to keep.
Are Atoms shoes comfortable?
Atoms’ soles are both squishier and bouncier than any other shoes I’ve worn. That is, my feet felt like they sank in while standing still but felt propelled as I walked around. This took some getting used to, but once I did—which took about an hour—it felt heavenly to wear them. They also had zero break-in time, so no hot spots or other comfort concerns from the start.
Whether they are more comfortable than a pair of Allbirds sneakers is a matter of preference—I’d say Allbirds soles are firmer, but the upper material is plusher—but Atoms are definitely more comfortable than Stan Smiths, Supergas, and Converse. The thin mesh upper also made my feet feel light and airy throughout the day.
Tying the elastic laces is funky at first—it’s hard to yank them into place because they have more give than standard laces—and I had to retie them once or twice. (This could have been user error, though, as I can be a loose shoe-tier.) They also stayed tied almost all of the times I slid them on, which I can’t say is the case for all my sneakers. (Again, the untying issues could’ve been my fault.)
What do Atoms shoes look like in person?
In the box, the shoes look not unlike orthopedic golf shoes. This is possibly a selling point, depending on how much you buy into the whole normcore thing, and how deep into Brooklyn you live (I used to live in Bushwick myself). But when you put them on, they look just like any shoe you might see in any startup office (that is, a kind of Allbirds, Greats, and Stan Smiths hybrid), though they are easy to make your own, depending on how you style them and what color you get—they come in gray, black, and white, but the brand sometimes offers limited-edition colors like pink and neon green.
Speaking of color, I got the white shoes. The mesh got dirty quickly and seemed to show it more than white shoes made of leather or canvas. Unlike Allbirds, they are not machine-washable—Atoms recommends using a soft bristle brush and a gentle cleaning solution—but they still looked polished enough, even with the dirt, and I imagine this would be less of a problem with other colors, such as black or gray.
Are Atoms worth it?
For me, $129 for a pair of casual sneakers is a lot—pricier than $95 Allbirds, anyway—and getting several different shoe sizes sent to me all at once seemed to threaten my (apparently precarious) shoe-size security. Plus, not everyone has the wherewithal to follow through with returning something by mail, no matter how easy it is (I say this as someone with a closet littered with the ghosts of online shopping orders I meant to return and never actually did). This is bad enough when you're stuck with one thing you didn’t like much, but it’s especially bad when you have to keep four extra items that didn’t quite fit and for a hefty price.
But Atoms are comfortable, and the precise sizing is hard to beat for anyone who falls into the population of people with different-sized feet and is bothered by it. Still, even with her shoe-size woes, my editor shrugged, “Talk to me when they come out with flats I can actually wear.”
Here’s what I think: If you like Allbirds but don’t like matching with everyone in your office or having to pick out your pair from a sea of identical shoes after yoga, Atoms are an equally comfortable—albeit more expensive—alternative.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.