Material Matters: Fables Of The Forgotten
For every successful piece of sneaker tech, countless unusual designs fade into obscurity. Like the internet fridge, many tech innovations have proven completely useless or, like the faithful floppy disk, were merely superseded. This week, we’ve dug deep into the abyss of forgotten footwear to shine a light on memories of long-lost sneakers, while also questioning the logic behind the gimmickry they championed.
During the 1970s the world experienced a running boom. In ’72, Frank Shorter became the first American to win the Olympic marathon in over 60 years. Footage of the win triggered a media frenzy after a West German student ran into the stadium ahead of the American and fooled the audience into believing that Shorter wasn’t leading. Around the US, the controversy gave distance running more air time than ever before. Schools and colleges began promoting track and cross-country, and the sportswear industry responded with gusto.
The 70s latter half saw most young running shoe brands simply trying to make a name for themselves – many surfaced and subsided quickly, never to be heard from again. These early years of innovation were concerned mostly with materials, tread patterns and construction. Grip, weight, quality and price were all key factors, but the bulk of shoes produced looked more or less the same. Those brands who’d played their cards right, however, had bank accounts stuffed with cash to throw behind a new wave of R&D. And, like it did with the rest of the world, the 80s soon turned the sneaker industry into a raging tech-beast.
One of the easiest things to alter on a shoe is the lacing – the idea being to improve the way the shoe hugs your foot. Pro Specs came up with the clever idea to stitch plastic D-rings to the heel cap, enabling you to lace up the quarters for extra stability. Karhu, on the other hand, allowed you to lace up to the toe, while Avia introduced a strange Dynamic Fit scheme with a doubled-up ‘metrical lacing system’ that spread pressure across the foot. Etonic had The Stabilizer, which wrapped all the way around the heel, while Saucony’s TC 84 only made it about halfway there. Perhaps the most ‘impressive’ laces of the era came on Kaepa runners: the shoes featured two independent lacing systems – one for the forefoot and the other for the upper vamp. The brand promised the shoe would provide ‘twice the fit of conventional one-lace shoes’ – whatever that means.
After long pavement-pounding sessions, road runners began to notice their shoes’ outsoles were quickly wearing through. Joe Skaja, a former Nike employee, came to the rescue with a wild idea: a system of interchangeable nubs arranged around the base of the shoe. When the nubs wore down you could simply pop some new ones in and get back to the track. Keds quickly snapped up the design and began marketing it as their ‘unbelievably durable’ Wear Plugs system. But Turntec had an even better idea: different terrains called for different soles (didn’t they…?), so why replace just the plugs when you can replace the entire sole? (It’s unclear exactly how flexible and long-lasting the shoes were when their soles were basically stuck on with Velcro.) A much more pragmatic approach came from Vans, who simply embedded two layers of steel mesh into the rubber – what’s tougher than steel, right?
New cushioning systems came riding on the back of cutting-edge manufacturing techniques. Tred 2 dropped Double D, their own dual-density arrangement, and Pro Specs utilised new polyurethane moulding techniques to produce the Fat Bottom. Nike’s Air cushioning was a huge success, but the Aero Shoe Corporation were convinced they could go one better with a design ‘so unique’ that they’d boast about its patent. The company basically plugged the squeezy ball from a blood pressure machine to the side of the shoe’s sole (although it was detachable) allowing the wearer to cram as much air in as their foot desired.
The adidas LA Trainer and Rising Star are remembered for their interchangeable pegs and shanks, but the Stripes weren’t the only company playing with interchangeable cushioning. Hi-Tec dropped their Silver Spirit in 1984, which had customisable heel inserts; Mizuno took a different approach with an insole that could be adjusted at the heel and forefoot.
There was definitely something special happening throughout the 80s. With so many strange, imaginative and often completely impractical designs, it was a time of optimism and innovation for the sneaker industry. (With so many of those designs being short-lived, it was probably also a particularly prosperous time for the world’s podiatrists.) We can’t help but wonder how sneakerheads of the future will look back at our quaint BOOST soles or our archaic HyperAdapt tech, but for now let’s just make sure we enjoy each and every innovation while we can, and be thankful that no one’s trying to make us tie more than two sets of laces.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at New Balance Fresh Foam, The Technological Triumphs of Nike ACG and Sneakers of the Space Race.