In October of 1996, Billy Price took a header—his word—out of a frat house window. He’d been partying one night, drinking, mere weeks into his freshman year at the University of Washington. But the Issaquah native had gone to bed before his fateful fall from the third floor of the Alpha Delta Phi house, a plunge that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Mystery ensued. “Nobody witnessed Billy’s fall,” fraternity president Kevin Erickson said in the aftermath. “Exactly how and why Billy fell is unknown. Billy himself does not remember how the fall happened.”
Price now suspects it was some drunken sleepwalking, but he's never dwelled much on the "how" or "why." “People ask if I ever really wanted to know, find out the real thing of what happened, and I just kind of say, ‘Why?’ It's happened, and it's just a matter of not focusing on what happened. It's a matter of focusing on what you still have to move forward.”
That mentality has manifested itself in Price’s work with Billy Footwear, a shoe company he founded with a childhood friend and budding footwear entrepreneur, Darin Donaldson. The two were mingling at a Christmas party in 2011 when Price pitched a concept that would help him conquer one of the only routine tasks he hadn’t resumed since becoming quadriplegic: putting on stylish shoes. For years, there had been two choices for people in his predicament: fashion or function. If it was the former, they would have to rely on other people to lace up their trendy footwear. If it was the latter, they had to embrace some ugly kicks.
But recently, companies have begun to cater to those who yearn for a fashion-meets-function world. The adaptive apparel market is rapidly growing, with brands such as Silvert’s specializing in it and household names like Tommy Hilfiger (seated wear, fits for prosthetics, easy closures) adding items for people with disabilities. For Billy Footwear, which Nordstrom, Zappos, Foot Locker, and other major retailers now sell, the goal isn’t to just make shoes for people with disabilities. It’s to appeal to anybody through universal design, a strategy tech firms and others have long touted. “Instead of having something siloed that works for adaptive and something siloed that works for mainstream, we wanted to destroy the silos,” says Price, who now lives in Capitol Hill.
In low- and high-top shoes for all genders and ages, Billy Footwear’s signature is a zipper (with a large loop) that circles the laces (which can just be for show). Aesthetically, the zipper path resembles the tongue-adjacent ridge on many popular shoes. Adaptively, it allows customers to fold the upper half of the shoe over. This unobstructed entry point is vital for people who struggle to step into more traditionally rigid footwear.
Price has long had that problem. During the five months of hospital rehab that followed his paralysis, Price was initially given a pair of enormous Velcro-strapped shoes designed so that he didn’t have to squeeze into them. “God-awful-looking,” he says. So, for the next 18 years, he had someone else tie his shoes, opting for narrower, more fashionable choices. “I gave up. I was like, ‘You know what? There's nothing on the market that's going to let me put my shoes on independently.’”
With Donaldson, he helped develop a prototype that would remove that reliance. In 2015, he put on his shoes for the first time since rehab. He was 36. “Literally half a lifetime later, I was getting that independence back.”
In 2017, Nordstrom and Zappos signed on as Billy Footwear’s first two big partners, building the foundation for the company’s growth. Reviews have been strong, though expectations are important to set. "If you have a customer that's wanting to buy a hiking boot, and they're buying our high-top to go scale a mountain, it's probably not going to work so well,” Price says.
Lately, customers have been clamoring for a different type of footwear, one that is very Seattle: a rainboot. Though no prototypes have been created just yet, Price says a couple of designs are in the works.
A waterproof boot that nobody has to wiggle into? Now that would have truly universal appeal.