Material Matters: The Weird and Whacky Sneakers of Today
Tucked out of sight in the Material Matters corner of SF HQ, you can easily forget that there’s a whole wide world out there. We love the history of our subject matter, we love the future and we love the big brands with their bulging R&D purses. But once you get past the Stripes and Swooshes to inspect the expansive landscape of the sneakersphere, you’ll notice that it’s littered with small brands. How does an independent label make their name known in a land of giants? Well, they offer something new. Join us on a journey to the outlands of our kickdom, where unusual ideas and suspect gimmickry jostle for your hard-earned bucks with abstract technological abandon.
Let’s begin with a cautionary tale, shall we? When stepping into unfamiliar territory, it’s best to be aware of potential pitfalls. In the early days of 2016, an ambitious crowdfunding campaign popped up, which offered backers the opportunity to jump on ‘shoes that defy gravity.’ Inside the sole of the 20:16 Moonwalker shoe was a cavity, each side of which was lined with magnets that faced each other with matching polarity. That is to say, the repellent force of the magnets was supposed to give the feeling of floating. By the time their crowdfunding campaign ended the Moonshine company had exceeded their funding goal by 882 per cent and raked in a total of $253,942!
And then things went quiet. Those who’d pre-ordered the shoes were expecting them to arrive in September 2016 and, long story short, the shoes never showed up. Nor did refunds. The lesson here is that footwear production is expensive. Even if you’re looking to churn out some conventional sneakers you have to make minimum order quantities with factories, produce moulds for components, cover sizes etc. But when you’re trying to manufacture something completely new, you’d better make sure you have a solid plan and some serious capital. Indeed, it would seem the Moonshine gang slugged more than they could swallow; in their most recent statement to the public in April of 2017 they stated ‘…we did not know that it would be hard or expensive like this.’
Never fear noble sneaker seeker, not all technological projects are quite so ill-conceived. After launching their CloudTec in 2010, Swiss company On now claim to be the fastest growing running brand in the world. They used a combination of athletic and engineering know-how to create a unique sole structure. The donuts underfoot compress to cushion on impact, then interlocking teeth bite, stabilise and firm up the sole for takeoff. The unusual rubber arrangement proved to be a big success and, unlike the aforementioned crowdfunding venture, On have been delivering solid product for almost a decade now.
Success stories like On surely motivated other ambitious concepts like the Ampla Fly. The radical running shoe design uses a stiff carbon fibre plate with a forefoot section that essentially acts as a leaf spring absorbing compression energy and propelling forward. The result is a runner that looks as though the glue beneath the ball of the foot has blown out and the outsole is sagging off, but the tech is solid. So solid, in fact, that there’s no way any athlete would be allowed to compete in these (as evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding Nike’s VaporFly Elite). Nevertheless, most of us aren’t professional athletes, so why not add a spring to your step? Sure, they may look a little odd, but there are far stranger-looking sneakers out there.
Enter the Enko running shoe. They call them shoes, but these things look more like something that would launch a salivating Wile E. Coyote from an Arizona butte, resulting in a full-body cast and a hand sign declaring ‘Ouch!’ That is, they look dangerous. To achieve heightened shock absorption, the designers of Enko’s tech have put a literal shock absorber into the sole – yep, the kind you get in a car. The firmness of the sole can be adjusted for walking or running and most of the parts can be replaced. As far as we can tell, they probably are incredible to run in, but we must confess that we haven’t tried them. Honestly, would you? We don’t care about running at break-neck speed if it means being seen in public with these contraptions strapped to our feet.
The sole design tends to get the most attention when it comes to redefining footwear, but you do get some other ideas popping up from time to time. For example, the self-professed team of ‘rocket scientists’ who make up Powerlace have focused on – wait for it – laces. Their creation is a self-lacing sneaker that doesn’t need batteries, gears, springs or other breakable parts. Instead, they devised a precisely engineered mechanical device that draws in and tightens a series of cables when a pressure pad beneath the heel is weighted. While we think Nike’s HyperAdapt is one of the coolest things ever, we can’t help but admire the simplicity of Powerlace's design.
As you can see, there are plenty of independent footwear manufacturers out there conjuring up crazy tech you’ve probably never heard of. The only trouble is, focusing so closely on breaking new technological ground seems to consistently result in shoes that look too damn practical – the same kind of practical as zip-off trousers and flip-up sunglasses; the kind that gets you bullied in the schoolyard. At a stretch, you might be able to wear a pair of Vibram Five Fingers in an ironic way, but would you rock up to a first date wearing Ampla Flys? Or would you expect to gain entry to Berghain wearing a fresh pair of Powerlaces? No, you would not. But Material Matters doesn’t exist to give you fashion tips, so if you’re after some level ten tech specs, then you should never overlook the little guys. If you’re after fashion, we don’t know… Kanye?
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 Hybrids, The Do's and Don'ts of Basketball Shoes and Why Shoe Sizes Don't Make Sense.