How the sportswear industry is redefining shoe design

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Desire for personal excellence is what drives achievers, and for sports people this desire is intermingled with the competitive spirit that demands outperforming everyone as an individual or as a team. Anything that helps in reaching this goal is welcome. Apart from the obvious coaching, practice, dedication et al , it is the technological innovation in sportswear that is an added bonus for the athletes, and footwear is an integral part of it.

Sports brands like Under Armour, Nike and Adidas have made it their ambition to fulfill the sporting desires of prime athletes and aspiring sportsmen and routinely come up with better technology, especially in footwear.

The sportswear industry is in a state of flux with stagnant growth, especially in sports performance footwear. A recent study  showed that almost 80 percent of sports shoes are not used for their intended purposes and the 20 percent that are, are facing a stiff competition.

According to analysis by the United States and India-based Transparency Market Research, the global athletic footwear market was worth US$74.7 billion in 2011 and is forecast to reach  $114.8 billion by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 2.1% during the forecast period 2016. Greater China and Southeast Asia are the fastest growing markets

So what is the solution to give a further boost to the sports shoes industry? Going by the history of sport footwear, the right mix would be innovation, comfort, and style. Brands and retailers need to navigate the line between sports, casual use, style, and function.

Experts believe that sports shoes manufacturers should keep these basic things in mind–the surface that a shoe is worn on, who is wearing it, for what purpose, the body type, and the age of the wearer. “There is no such thing as the best running shoe, only the best running shoe for you,” says Dr Jason Cheung Tak-man, a specialist in sports design.

For athletes, knitted sports shoes allow great support, protection and a lightweight feeling.  Adidas’s soccer shoes like Samba PrimeKnit have become quite popular. Nike also came up with a line of knitted shoes called the Flyknit. Both companies got involved in a patent fight over the technology, which Nike claimed as its own. But nothing came out of it as the courts decided knitting could not be patented.

“We see customization and personalization as the new expectation from consumers really,” said Dave Dombrow, Under Armour’s chief designer. “It’s a very important topic to us.” “It’s definitely a hot trend,” said Neil Saunders, an analyst with the research firm GlobalData Retail. “What they want to move to is mass customization where you have the same sorts of efficiencies of mass production but you allow people to personalize things.”

It was in the 80s that the basis for the present change in shoe designing came in. More emphasis was put on injury protection and pronation ( it is a part of your gait and provides shock absorption due to impact).  A lot of cushioning was brought in for arch support and median support. Sports shoes became bulky.  No major innovation came in the 90s , the prime focus was on branding, marketing and styling. Endorsement by prime athletes was the name of the game.  The dawn of the new century  (the 21st) saw minimalism creeping in with some technological advances. Some researchers started insisting that pronation and injury were not related and going natural was the thing.

Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman published a widely read article in Nature that helped popularize the idea that running is natural and that we need no additional support or correction. This thought process saw the huge popularity of FiveFingers footwear by  Vibram. It was a glove like covering for the foot allowing one the feeling of running almost barefoot. FiveFinger got a massive response with millions in sales, but soon reports of injury started trickling in and the company Vibram faced more than 150,000 class-action suits with $3.75 million in claims.

Going almost barefoot with FiveFingers seemed not to be the ultimate answer to sports shoe technology.

The way forward was to marry traditional form to new technology. The basics were protection and comfort. New technology allowed companies to customize and fine tune shoes according to individual fit .

Companies started concentrating on boost and rebound with new materials like expanded thermoplastic polyurethane foam in 2010-11. And designers came up with a new knit technology for uppers, which redefined comfort and added sustainability to the equation. There is minimal waste in this new design. Earlier, with a lot of parts going into the making of one shoe, there was a lot of wastage of material

“The Primeknit construction uses the latest design tools and a seamless engineering construction that allows us to digitally knit the entire upper in one continuous piece,” said James Carnes, global creative director for sport performance design at Adidas. “Traditionally, sports shoes are built from several different pieces, which can mean excess material.”

Wearable tech has become an integral part of the whole process now. Smart shoes with sensors measuring your every tread, gait and pressure points are up for the running until another disruption happens in the designing of sports shoes.

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