"With Love" —
for Healthcare Workers
Interview by Eugene Kan
Text by Nate Kan
Photos courtesy of Clove
Interview by Eugene Kan
Text by Nate Kan
Photos courtesy of Clove
My crass answer is like, nobody wants to walk into a party and say they run a nursing shoe company. That's my joking answer, but it's kind of true, right? Nobody's getting excited about going in, designing the next nursing shoe.
Joe Ammon has a strong stance on the footwear offerings in healthcare. For decades, the design of the nursing shoe has been neglected. In the absence of options for comfortable, non-slip and wipeable shoes that comply with strict regulations, generically chunky, semi-glossed clogs from the likes of Dansko have filled that void as the less-than-ideal solution for hardworking medical staff around the world.
When you’re running around a potentially hazardous environment for up to and over 12 hours in a given day, it’s a job that requires a certain athleticism and stamina, even if we don’t immediately recognize the association. But that’s a quality that goes with the territory for front-line nurses, doctors, pharmacists, assistants, technicians, administrative staff and many other positions in the medical field, especially in hospitals. Yet despite these demands, the market has stagnated for decades in terms of coming up with new products to address age-old needs.
Clove is a brand that was built to serve those who serve the needs of patients on the daily. It’s the brainchild of brand founders Joe Ammon, whose wife Tamara is a practicing nurse. They saw both the limits of current offerings and more importantly, the comparative invisibility of healthcare professionals outside their workplace.
We spoke with Joe and Chief Brand Officer Jordyn Amoroso about the brand’s journey thus far and where they hope the conversation around brands for healthcare workers goes from here. The story of Clove goes beyond just that of a footwear company servicing a market, it’s just as much about changing the narrative around some of healthcare’s unsung heroes and the opportunities that lie in helping a community that’s gone under-recognized for too long.
How Clove started
The story of Clove starts, unsurprisingly, with a healthcare professional — namely Joe’s wife and practicing nurse, Tamara. Throughout her schooling and into her career, she would struggle with both the exacting demands of the job as well as the process of finding products that supported her work. It was the same frustrating and expensive struggles shared by her friends — and argued over at Happy Hour by countless healthcare professionals.
Starting from zero, Joe took it upon himself to relieve some of that pain and while changing the narrative around footwear for healthcare professions, one that stemmed from a veiled but pervasive lack of respect for the nursing industry. Thus began the long process of cold-calling, researching and designing the nursing shoe that would do just that.
The team at Clove created a new brand that would cater to healthcare professionals, but more importantly, embody, rally and celebrate the broad spectrum of healthcare workers on the front lines.
Their initial product is a set of sneakers available in four colors that bring an important level of certification mandated by the OHSA (Occupational Safety and Health Association), as well as key features designed for the rigors of the hospital floor. The outcome of that extensive process, which includes over 2,000 hours of testing in a Philadelphia hospital, is a sneaker silhouette that includes dual pull loops on the heel and tongue, fluid-resistant drawstring laces, a non-slip sole, and a wipeable non-porous upper made of an artificial leather called Clarino.
But as we know with deceptively simple unassuming designs, they’re the tip of the iceberg in terms of the considerations and motivations underlying them. To understand these, we have to look at what’s missing in the market and the collective consciousness with respect to apparel designed for healthcare workers.
Nurses and healthcare professionals are a very specific and challenging group to please. “High bull-shit detection” skills and post-secondary educations aside, they’re often a tightly knit bunch that take to heart the experiences of others. Word of mouth is powerful but also compound that with a group of nurses who spend half a day together with regularity?
It’s incredibly important and critical. Joe and the Clove team recognized this early on and ensured they took all the necessary steps to introduce the right people into the mix. A misstep in the initial product launch would be disastrous. It meant ultra-rigorous testing to meet the high demands of the clientele they were aiming to serve.
One area where they lucked out was when they connected with sneaker designer Jacob George. Introduced by an investor, Jacob’s mother was a nurse herself which meant that he had intimate access to constant feedback that could pinpoint and solve the needs of healthcare professionals.
Their bullshit detection capability is extremely high. So once we got really confident on the shoe, it was more of like, okay, how do we not fuck this up from a brand standpoint? Cause if you think of it, you're selling to people that at a minimum have four-year college degrees. A lot of them have been in school for 10 years. It's not like they're casually making purchasing decisions.
— Joe, on the challenges of shaping a brand for healthcare workers.
Most of us are fortunate enough to not require regular hospital visits or even contact with a health professional outside of that annual check-up (and that’s if you remember to do even that). Over time, this lack of public consciousness about and commercial interest in the specific needs of healthcare professionals leads to an “out of sight, out of mind” dynamic which means missing links in innovative products.
The result? Healthcare workers are forced to fill the gaps with the next traditional go-tos. Joe points to legacy brands like brands Dansko, whose clogs remain sought after by medical professionals, teachers, chefs and other professions requiring a lot of on-feet time.
“It is the incumbent and it’s had, three, four decades of entrenchment in the market,” Joe explains. But the crucial OSHA certification, comfort, and fluid resistance don’t cover the whole spectrum of what healthcare workers encounter and unfortunately, clunky footwear like clogs come with safety trade-offs. “It’s nice that it’s very wipeable and easy to clean, but then my wife would roll her ankle in it.”
Enter Clove, which according to Joe, aimed to “make a shoe that hits all those common denominators so that no matter what hospital you’re going into, you have confidence that you can wear the shoe and no one’s going to question you.”
Over several decades, nobody dared tackle the nursing footwear market. In some ways, the timing was definitely on Clove’s side. The rise of activewear and athleisure demonstrates the mainstream appeal of sport-centric design considerations, even if they’re being channeled through a different end “look.”
As a result, it’s become fashionable to appear dressed like you’re an athlete or at least constantly between the office and the gym or yoga studio. Society has, by and large, adopted the comfort, aesthetic and design of activeness — especially through sneakers. Without this seismic shift, Clove may have faced an uphill battle to get sneakers more readily recognized as a viable option.
This signals a key cultural opening for the “cool” factor behind medical workers to gain traction in the public eye, especially as its perception continues to shift from away from that of a traditional authority to one that’s more relatable. Even Nike themselves threw their hat into the ring last year with the release of their Air Zoom Pulse designed for health providers.
One might think that a huge force like Nike coming into the market might spell doom, but the reality is that it’s a huge validator. Besides, Nike’s offering suggests that it’s still in the early days with a multitude of ways of solving problems but no clear definitive approach just yet. In the end, the medical footwear game isn’t exactly much of a game anyway — there’s plenty of room in the space: nurses can easily wear Cloves two days, switch to another brand for another day and return back to their Cloves.
But aside from putting a more positive spin on dreaded shoe options, the other half of Clove’s mission is celebrating professions in a field that’s been otherwise ignored in both the market and the culture: There are people that understand and respect what medical professionals do, but then there’s still an unjustly negative association with professions that involve care-giving. Joe cites some reactions from people at parties upon learning his wife is a nurse that visibly read something like “oh, she has to wipe asses all day,” which doesn’t full account for the fact they’re also on the frontlines saving literal life and limb.
This desire to make a brand that cares about those who care extends into everything Clove does and actually includes the brand name: The barred ‘C’ in c̅love is actually medical shorthand for ‘with’ (from cum in Latin) that are often used in patient charts, prescriptions, and other notes written by healthcare professionals. Decoded, the name can be read as “with love,” an affectionate nod to more than a few of the brand’s extra discerning consumers.
One of these fans includes one of the trialists like Ashlee, who Joe describes as being on “the SWAT team of the hospital.” A mother of three in her late thirties, she was one of the early adopters turned evangelists who’ve helped organically spread the brand throughout the medical community.
“We had a lot of messages saying like, ‘thank you for seeing us and like representing us’,” Jordyn says. “It’s resonating because I think they’ve been so neglected.”
Since Clove’s inception and despite both the incumbents and that single offering from Nike, the medical footwear field remains largely up for grabs. But given the countless decisions healthcare providers have to make during their day, hopefully, what shoes get them through it will eventually be one less they have to worry about.
Joe sums up the soon-to-be-forgotten dilemma quite nicely: “the greatest icebreaker if you ever talk to a nurse? Ask them about their first shoe that they brought in nursing. ‘Oh my god. It was like my dad’s New Balances.’ So embarrassing.”