Material Matters: Neoprene
If you take a trip to your local sneaker store, there’s a good chance you’ll find a shoe with a bit of neoprene on it. The stretchy material has become ubiquitous in a world where sock-like foot huggers are the default for the style conscious. While the introduction of neoprene changed up the sneaker game for good, the laminated rubber foam had a long and eventful life before it landed the hands of footwear designers like Tinker Hatfield.
When we think of neoprene it tends to take a familiar form as wetsuit material – stretchy, spongey insulation sandwiched between layers of fabric. The name neoprene actually refers to a specific type of synthetic rubber produced by DuPont, otherwise known as polychloroprene. Humans have been using various forms of natural rubber for thousands of years now, extracting it from trees and processing it for various uses. Synthetic rubber is made from polymers that are synthesised from petroleum by-products and, these days, accounts for two-thirds of the world’s rubber production. The first steps were made towards the creation of synthetic rubber we made in 1879 and over the following 30 years scientists discovered different chemical compounds resulting in rubber polymers. Various synthetics were used during the First World War due to a global rubber shortage, but still weren’t quite good enough.
The protagonist in our story arrived on the scene in 1930, making it the world’s first successful synthetic rubber – up until this point no other polymer had proved reliable enough for mass production. A team of scientists lead by Elmer K. Bolton discovered how to synthesise neoprene while working for the American chemical company named DuPont. Initially it was marketed as DuPrene but in 1937 the name was changed so it would seem less commercial – so consumers would see it as an ingredient that had been developed by science rather than a product.
In its early days neoprene was either used in the form of a solid rubber, or mixed with solvent to form adhesives. This was until an industrial chemist named Otto Bayer accidentally discovered that it could be made into a foam, creating the black bouncy stuff that we tend to think of when neoprene is mentioned. Interestingly, he was also the man responsible for discovering TPU – which goes hand in hand with neoprene shoe construction. Demand for the new form of rubber increased as the Second World War kicked into gear. The US government removed it from the consumer market and channelled all neoprene into the military, but once the war was over DuPont bought factories back from the government and got to work.
In the 1950s neoprene began edging closer to its iconic form – people had been experimenting with sheets of polychloroprene in attempts to find a way to stay warm in the water. There are varied accounts as to exactly who nailed the idea first, nevertheless companies like O’Neill and Body Glove began selling neoprene insulated wetsuits in the early 50s. The first wetsuits were just made out of sheets of neoprene foam, which were incredibly hard to get in and out of and had a tendency to tear. When everybody went surfing in the 1960s the wetsuit manufacturers began laminating an elastic nylon jersey to the neoprene, allowing it to stretch and stopping it from tearing – it was the same team at DuPont created the base ingredient for nylon.
The wetsuit quickly became a staple for the surfer as the 70s rolled through, while Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike, was testing his ideas about lightweight running shoes. The foundation of Nike’s early success was based off Bowerman’s obsession with shaving weight off running shoes. He believed that each ounce you could take off the shoe would be 55 fewer pounds lifted across a mile – he’d done the math. The quest for lightness eventually lead to the Sock Racer, which was little more than a sock with a bit of rubber glued on. The Sock Racer wasn’t quite what runners were looking for, as it was lacking in form and security. The shoe needed more than a stretchy knitted upper to support the athlete throughout a race.
At the beginning of the 90s a designer at Nike by the name of Tinker Hatfield, went on a canoeing trip. While on the water he wore a kind of aquatic neoprene bootie, Hatfield was stunned by its secure, comfortable fit and instantly knew he had recreate that feeling. With a studied architectural approach, the legendary designer began chopping apart traditional running shoes and replacing elements with neoprene. The result was the Nike Air Huarache, which release in 1991 and was an instant success. One of the original marketing slogans for the new-gen running shoe was ‘Have you hugged your foot today?’ which alluded to the snug, form fitting properties of the newly applied material. Not only did the deconstructed build cut down on weight, the neoprene was able to provide the support that the woven Sock Racer could not.
The Huarache spawned a whole new era in footwear. The Air Mowabb offered a different take on the outdoors in ‘91 and ACG went all out on the ‘prene – basketball got its first dose of the stuff in ’92 with the Air Flight Huarache. It was obvious that this new application could work on just about every kind of footwear. By ’95 there were shoes built almost entirely from neoprene, like the Air Rift. When the year 2000 clicked over, neoprene was still on the forefront of footwear, and one of the most iconic shoes to make use of the material dropped – the Air Presto.
Of course, it wasn’t just Nike who saw the advantages of neoprene. The material quickly caught on with designers and athletes everywhere, as ASICS released the Gel-Lye V in ’93, ’94 saw Converseadd it into their Backjam – both utilising forms of polychloroprene to form a secure sock-liner inside the shoe. Brooks joined the party in as well, dropping a neoprene collar into The Truth. Neoprene was staging a global takeover.
These days it’s safe to say that as a performance enhancing material, neoprene isn’t at the cutting edge. Instead, neoprene has moved into the casual sphere and still makes up a huge part of the sneaker world. With the Huarache’s recent return to popularity, the rise of the Presto and the overall sock-like takeover, most of us have experienced the supreme comfort the laminated foam provides. Contemporary designers, such as Yohji Yamamoto and his Y-3range, make use of the neoprene on some of the most daring designs – labels like Margiela send neoprene garments down catwalks, ensuring its ongoing relevance for the style-conscious.
We often think of technological breakthroughs as being light bulb moments or the result of extensive research and development. In the case of neoprene it just took a little bit of imagination.
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 Flyknit, 2016 Olympic tech and Vulcanised Rubber Sole Construction.