As sneaker culture matures and has become a globally pervasive juggernaut, the idea of the ‘anti-sneaker’ has emerged as a natural counter-balance to endless hype cycles. For every Travis Scott-obsessed teen raffling hard to win the latest Jordans, there’s a sophisticated 30-something (and plenty of newbies) buying a pair of mules that will likely never leave the house. For many, the model of choice is a Birkenstock Boston. For others, it’s a Bass Weejun. But during the last few years – somewhat inexplicably – a new class of alt-hero footwear has emerged powered by some highly credible affiliations.
During the pandemic, locked away in isolation for months, many of us invested in novel work-from-home footwear. From moccasins to slippers and slides, there was no shortage of comfy styles hidden under tables on Zoom calls. The North Face’s Thermoball Mule was my cozy choice. It’s a padded slipper that fits like a sleeping bag for your feet. Others found solace in Yeezy, Crocs and Merrell, who have all used injection moulding manufacturing to develop squishy new spins.
The injection moulding process is efficient, cheap and endlessly repeatable. It also allows for complex, geometric designs that can be easily replicated in different colours and materials. And it’s fast! The entire production process takes less than sixty seconds. Once the machine is dialled in, you can churn out clogs ’til the cows come home.
The main barrier to entry is infrastructure. The machinery itself is quite expensive, but it’s also heavy – weighing in at up to 2.5 tonnes per machine. Custom tooling is required, and each mould is worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Birkenstock operate their own injection moulding facilities where they produce made-in-Germany products, and the brand are currently readying a multi-million-dollar facility north of Berlin. China and Portugal are other important hubs, while EVA USA LLC is a recent entrant that describes itself as ‘the largest injection molded footwear factory in the USA.’ Based in Los Angeles, EVA USA LLC was co-founded by Matt George, who also held the title of CEO at Yeezy for several years. George’s company will undoubtedly become a major player in this brave new world of footwear production.
The most visible example of injection moulded product in the fashion realm is the Yeezy Foam Runner (aka ‘Yeezy Crocs!’). Co-created by notable footwear designer Steven Smith, the design was reportedly conceived after West tasked his team with building a laceless shoe he linked to Steve Jobs’ choice to remove the home button from the iPhone.
The first Foam Runner samples were reportedly 3D printed, and while West and Smith announced plans to use an EVA composite featuring algae grown at West’s ranch in Cody, Wyoming, that idea seems to have been sidelined for a more conventional approach. Updated versions of the Foam Runner were later made in China.
When adidas subsequently introduced the adiFOM Q, a hybrid runner encased in a wavy foam wrapping that served as a rubberised exoskeleton, the apparent design crossover with the Foam Runner added gasoline to Ye’s high-profile beef with adidas.
Another brand that has made a notable splash in the aquatic slipper category is Merrell. The American outdoor supplier was established in 1981 as a manufacturer of handmade hiking boots. Created by Clark Matis, a founder, the Merrell Jungle Moc is one of the brand’s best-selling products and perhaps even the brand’s flagship design.
In recent times, another Merrell Moc has entered the slipstream – the Hydro Moc. Paul Ruffles has been the driving force behind Merrell’s 1TRL collection, a curated sub-label that reframes trail performance silhouettes for a more fashionable crowd. Working alongside streetwear mainstays like Noah and Awake NY, Ruffles repositioned Merrell fuelled by on-point fabrics, colourways and the runaway success of the super lightweight Hydro Moc. Core releases are perpetually sold out on the Merrell website, including marbled editions in mint and peach.
The Hydro Moc has also served as the foundation for spin-off versions, including the Hydro Runner and the Hydro AT System (All Terrain). This is a modular, future-facing concept that’s reimagining how trail shoes look and perform.
Crocs have been kinda cool (mostly in Japan) since 2002, but the cartoony clogs have long been the subject of scornful derision from sneakerheads. If you’re a traditionalist who appreciates the elegant Air Max 1 toebox shape, or the GEL-Lyte III’s buttery nubuck, you’d likely rather poke your own eyes out than subject yourself to the shame of rocking Crocs in public. How things have changed.
In 2006, Crocs acquired Jibbitz, the emoji-like shoe charms that are added to the perforated holes. A decade later, Crocs dipped a toe into the colab world by partnering with English designer Christopher Kane. Big names like Post Malone, Staple, Pleasures, ALIFE, Balenciaga and Justin Bieber lined up to endorse the ultimate chiller.
We all love a GORE-TEX shell, Cordura caps and Polartec sweaters. While Crocs don’t qualify as techwear, they are utilitarian and surprisingly functional. Perfectly situated to cash in on the confluence of anything-goes COVID-steez and the anti-sneaker concept, Crocs seized the moment.
One partnership, above all others, cemented the brand’s cool credentials. Salehe Bembury has designed shoes for YEEZY, Versace, New Balance, Brandblack and Anta. Based on the contours of his own fingerprint, Bembury’s reworked Pollex Clog marked the first time Crocs had allowed an external designer to reimagine its classic heritage model.
Thirsty footwear fiends embraced the versatile comfort in significant numbers as e-comm websites crashed and resellers counted their profits. The hype was beyond real, even if the consensus wasn’t uniform. A scroll through the comments on @sneakerfreakermag reveals mixed opinions. ‘Stop, please stop,’ one follower wrote. Another chimed in, ‘Can’t help but love it!’
In Germany, Birkenstock are largely known for natural cork footbeds and hippie-friendly open-toed models like the Arizona. Interestingly, Birkenstock has been making injection moulded shoes long before Crocs turned up. The brand is still exploring different applications resulting in models like the Classic Birki from 1988, the Super Birki from 1990, and the more contemporary A630 Clog, intended for commercial use in kitchens and hospitals.
Birkenstock CPO Markus Baum explained the phenom to Sneaker Freaker. ‘Injection moulding offers amazing properties in terms of quality, durability, and usability. The idea of the Birkenstock footbed is naturalgewoltsgehen, or ‘walking as intended by nature’. We look at the footbed as a platform, and then we look for fields of application. That’s why we came up with the clogs.’ From that sentiment, styles like the A630 Clog were formed. ‘My personal ones, I wear them in the garden. They’re right next to my front door.’
The high-fashion space has also embraced injection moulding. One of the most interesting case studies came from RAL7000STUDIO, who linked with fast fashion retailer BERSHKA and XL EXTRALIGHT® to create a clog composed of 51 per cent pre-consumer industrial waste. Every pair is unique, thanks to the random distribution of recycled chunks.
French brand HODEI recently produced the Silent Runner, which comes packaged with a return label so the shoes can be recycled. Hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial, the SR was made from a single blob of classic EVA, garnished with laces and a single strip of leather.
Matthew Williams’ Zoom 005 Slide from the MMW x Nike collection is another recent addition to the super-tech stable. Hyped NYC hipster brand Aimé Leon Dore also released a Garden Mule. Axel Arigato added a few rubbery styles of their own, and let’s not forget Bottega Veneta’s injection moulded slides and boots, made in blazing orange and the brand’s signature ‘Bottega Green’. When you consider that injection moulded footwear costs as little as $5 to produce, Bottega’s lofty $510 price tag seems uncomfortably ludicrous.
3D or Not 3D
While brands and designers have looked to 3D printing as an innovation that would transform the future of footwear, injection moulding has made a far bigger and broader impact over the last five years.
Daniel Bailey from CONCEPTKICKS, an independent online platform that showcases the latest tech footwear developments, noted the crossover between the two tools. ‘3D printing is best used for proof of concept, and it allows a high level of intricacy, especially with 3D sketching. But one of the best ways to realise 3D shapes is injection moulding. You can achieve something very similar.’
The high-vis adoption of the Pollex Clog and Foam Runner has certainly had a ‘more you see it, more you want it’ effect and Yeezy in particular has done a lot to establish the spongy one-piece EVA look as a viable style option for sneakerheads. Plus, there’s the objective convenience of an affordable, comfortable, slip-on shoe that you can simply spray down with a hose when they get dirty.
From his position, Bailey observes, ‘Right now, we’re just starting to see the infant stages of what this manufacturing method can do. It’s going to mature, it’s going to evolve, and it’s definitely going to turn into something else!’
Not everyone is cut out for #snuglife. But considering Crocs, Hydro Mocs and Birkenstock’s A630 clog all hover around the $50 mark, there’s no harm in letting your curiosity loose and picking up a pair of squishy new house shoes. If you’re not a fan and never will be, at least your dog just got a new chew toy!
To see this article in print, be sure to grab your copy of Issue 48 now via the Sneaker Freaker shop!