February 22, 2017
Material Matters: The Quest to Replace the Lace
Shoe-laces have been an integral part of footwear construction since day dot. After thousands of years in the game, it’s no surprise that some enterprising characters have made attempts to replace the lace. Shoes without shoelaces are most definitely a thing, but are they any substitute for the tried and true method?
Variations of the traditional lace range from woven cotton and jute to hemp or synthetic fibres, and even strips of leather. Your basic shoe-tying knot stays done up thanks to the friction between laces, meaning a flat lace holds better than a round lace due to increased surface area, and a cotton holds better than synthetic due to its textured fibres. This brings us to one of the more frequently voiced criticisms of the lace and one of the main reasons to develop new closures – they just don’t stay done up. They’ll loosen or come untied, causing a minor hassle if you’re walking to the café but a major inconvenience if you’re on the run from a ravenous lion. In the 17th Century metal buckles became a fashionable alternative – but they’re not the kind of thing you’d want weighing down your running shoes.
Ye olde sportsman's shoes – featuring buckles
Some of the earliest shoes to forego the strings harken back to slip-ons, loafers and moccasins. Vans’ infamous style #98 – these days known as the Classic Slip-On – is a typical example of a sneaker adopting the style. Elastic is an obvious alternative to shoe laces, as a huge variety of elastomeric polymers can be woven into materials or used as a substitute for traditional laces. Remember those fluorescent curly things that were all the rage in the 90s – or Royal Elastics, a casual shoe brand dedicated entirely to laceless designs? But as popular as it may be for leisurely jaunts, elastic tends to be too unstable for the high-energy demands of an athletic shoe.
It was PUMA who brought alternative closures into the major sporting arena. The introduction of their Sacramento running spike at the 1968 Mexico Olympics was a revelation. The adjustable Velcro straps unlocked a new realm of possibility, the hook and loop fasteners held tight and could be easily adjusted for the perfect fit. In the mid-80s Nike attempted to alleviate athletes from laces with a lightweight shoe for marathon runners, the Sock Racer. The adjustable strap and clip system made it a popular shoe among triathletes, who needed a quick change when transitioning from ocean to land.
Designers continued to dream of a world without laces, as Velcro became a common sight on shoes like Nike’s Air Trainer 1 and the Reebok Freestyle, and the Nike Mag of Back to the Future II tantalised us with visions of a hands-free shoe experience. The automatic laces on the silver screen have captivated viewers now for decades, prompting Nike to spend countless hours in the lab working to make the concept a reality – though they may not have realised it at the time, this would become one of the biggest projects Nike would ever undertake.
While the Swoosh were tinkering in with motors and batteries, it was the Big Cat who brought the next heavy hitter to the table. As the 90s kicked into gear, bright colours and techno-gadgets ruled the market – this was the decade of Hypercolour tees, Zip drives and car phones. Nike was introducing Neoprene into their Air Huarache, soon to become a key ingredient in form fitting laceless shoes, while PUMA were looking for an idea that would give them a boost in the market. They hit the mother load in 1992, by way of the Disc – a system that utilised a clutch wheel and an array of cables to wind up tension in the shoe.
A couple of years later it was Reebok’s turn. With the kinks ironed out of their pump tech, they wrapped the vamps of the InstaPump Fury in an air bladder exoskeleton and threw away the shoestrings. The luxurious new runner could inflate the structure and lock your foot into place. It was fully adjustable, crazy comfortable and definitely one of the wilder looking shoes Reebok ever produced.
Nike’s designers decided to focus on a simpler alternative to present to the consumers of the 90s. Rather than knocking together gadgets and gizmos, they were engineering away the need for laces by utilising new base materials. Their Kukini came with a clever cage that wrapped around a neoprene sock, like a web of stretchy rubber. The idea was all about structure and the properties of the materials – awakening a new era in minimalist, sock based sneakers like the Air Woven, Air Trainer Escape, Air Max Tremble and Sock Dart. Then they went all-out with the exoskeleton concept, partnering with industrial designer Mark Newsome to produce the Zvezdochka. The shoe had a full wrap-around rubber cage, inside of which was a protruding outsole, cushioned midsole and a bootie.
Although material technology has improved over the years, it looks like the future still has a few surprises in store. Nike’s recently released Hyperadapt has an Adaptive Lacing system, made up of an electric motor and cable system – a real-world athletic incarnation of the Nike Mag. And it’s not just Nike going auto, there’s also the PUMA Autodisc that was unveiled a little while back – so it’s fair to say that the quest to replace the lace is still going strong. The big question is will there ever be a day that shoelaces fade away into memory? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Nike’s Tuned Air, Lost Soles and Future Fabrics.