by Jincy IypeDec 17, 2021
Within the larger realm of apparel design and retail, what adorns our feet has come to occupy a whole universe, the dimensions of which we cannot still fathom. Tetherlessly growing, footwear, and sneakers in particular, have consumed entire fandoms, hordes of collectors, wherein we have the Guccis and the LVs of the world producing luxury footwear selling for thousands of dollars, and sporting sneakers and trainers being auctioned off in the world's top galleries. Unsurprisingly, more than the actual utility of the items in question, it is the prestige associated with these items that seems to be behind the mania.
However, as with every object of utility, the design of footwear too found a definition and sense of expression in contemporary design disciplines. The intersection of craft and product design laid the very fertile groundwork for modern shoe design to intersect with even art, a succinct cross pollination of disciplines. Innovation, albeit only sprung when basics were rethought. Along the same line, and as the year draws to a close, STIR rounds up shoe designs from all over the world that broke the conventional idea of footwear: in terms of material, constitution, composition, structure, and notionality.
Accessibility in design is a notion oft talked about, but seldom acted upon. And when it comes from a brand as huge as Nike, people were bound to take notice. The global sportswear brand launched GO FlyEase earlier this year, a pair of completely ‘hands-free’ trainers with an ‘easy on, easy off’ approach. The intuitive design sought to enable people with different conditions to wear them, eliminating the hassle of tying laces or adjusting the shoes.
More empowering is the story behind this development: GO FlyEase was almost willed into existence by a letter from Matthew Walzer, suffering from cerebral palsy, expressing his desire to be completely self sufficient in life: including the shoes he had to struggle to tie on everyday. The letter was noticed at Nike, with the design team heeding by dividing the trainer into two sections connected by a bi-stable hinge, eliminating the need for any buckles, velcro, and of course, laces. Notably, Nike received some flak from the specially-abled community for its extremely limited production of the trainers earlier this year, leading to resellers hoarding collections and prices skyrocketing.
Thwarting notions of sneakers as items of luxury, and yet packing enough of a visual punch, 'Sneature' by German designer Emilie Burfeind is a completely compostable shoe that delves into material innovation for footwear design. 'Sneature' is born from the consideration of the waste generating life cycle of a traditional sneaker, from its conception to post-discarding, forming a major segment in the large gamut of unsustainable apparel.
What sets 'Sneature' apart from other contemporary innovations in shoe design is its structure and composition, its membrane constituted of a protein based 3D knit known as Chiengora, derived from a yarn made of shed dog hair, while its sole is composed of mushroom mycelium cultivated in a mould. By virtue of these material innovations and sustainable design values, the shoe boasts additional flexibility, stiffness, and air circulation through a “second skin”, apart from water absorption and anti-staticity.
An iconic piece made truly timeless by an intervention of materiality, Stan Smith Mylo is the second shoe in the list that comes from a global brand, signifying a major shift in outlook and an inherent commitment to sustainability beyond just the cosmetic aspects of it. Named after the famous American tennis player, the shoes assume the same silhouette as the original iconic sneakers from Adidas, but differ in material constitution, embodied by the second half of its name.
Mylo is a soft, supple substitute for leather made from renewable mycelium, replicating the organic process that occurs beneath forest floors. In the process, raw material including sawdust and other organic waste is fed to spores of mycelia cells within a controlled environment, generating a foamy layer that grows under regulated conditions. The layer is harvested, processed, and dyed to create sheets of mylo while its by-products are used in composting. The innovation in material not only lends the shoe a versatility that allows it to adopt practically any finish, embossing, or colour, but also fulfilling the brand's sustainability pledge.
Turning the notion of “one size fits all” on its very head, Israeli designer Tidhar Zagagi’s Pixel Shoe is more akin to a stage show than individual product design. Adopting a low-tech approach to custom manufacturing, while at the same time dismissing the idea of bespoke footwear design being expensive, the Pixel Shoe setup comprises a wooden cart topped by a throne-like seat for customers, along with adjustable wooden moulds that provide instantaneous, ergonomic shoe designs, fused to a user’s socks. Using the entire setup, Zigagi travelled through the streets of Jerusalem, using his innovation to ‘craft’ shoes in mere minutes, as patrons controlled the fit in real time, made possible by the immense flexibility of polyurethane foam casting, and taking footwear customisation to the next level.
Perhaps the greatest innovation is the one that hasn’t happened yet, and that statement is manifested in AIsneaks, designed by Berlin based programmer and web developer, Niels Garve. Using a code that stores thousands of existing sneaker designs, the program recreates those designs using artificial intelligence and principles of machine learning to generate entirely new virtual sneaker designs, aligning with a futuristic visual aesthetic.
While the program has already generated close to 3,000 exciting new sneaker designs, with virtually no ceiling to how much more it can churn out, AIsneaks’ future prospects too seem to be limitless. Garve intends to partner with major designers or brands for the production of these sneaker designs using 3D printing, following an exhaustive regime of ‘teaching’ his AI the concept of wearability, comfort, and performance for these sneakers, which is what would essentially be entailed in the shoes’ journey from 2D to 3D. However, even in their virtual form, AIsneaks remain saleable as NFTs, or as virtual ‘property’ to flaunt in the upcoming Metaverse.