Shoe innovation story [an oldie but a goodie]

One Step Ahead 


Extraordinary footwear

Extraordinary footwear

True innovation is difficult to claim due in part to its numerous definitions. Theodore Levitt, the American economist who coined the term ‘globalisation’, said: “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” Levitt’s definition makes the distinction between the birth of an idea and the result of acting on one. In this article, which attempts to highlight some examples of innovative practice in the shoe industry, innovation and creativity are bound by a similar premise, that innovation = applied creativity.

To uncover innovation in the shoe industry we are obliged to identify the areas to which creative thinking might be applied. This may be evident in a business’ brand strategy, creative partnerships and technology through to marketing, design, product-delivery and customer service.

As an industry, the shoe business has matured greatly over the last 20 years. It has arrived at an exciting point in its evolution where we are seeing innovation demonstrated both creatively and responsibly across key areas. Significant developments of note are those that have been made in favour of the environment, while technological achievements in shoe design are radically changing the way we wear shoes.

Green steps

While the public’s perception of the industry is that it is driven mainly by fashion trends and profitability, the industry is becoming more aware of its environmental impact, and the issues surrounding this concern are proving highly influential in production and design decisions.

It was the smaller designers and eco-passionate individuals who almost 20 years ago were the first to adopt greener practices. Julie Lewis’ Deja Shoe launched back in the early 90’s while more recently eco-friendly shoe brand Worn Again launched its first recycled footwear range in 2003 in partnership with shoe manufacturer Terra Plana. Only one year later, international fashion circles were planning the first ethical fashion show in Paris for 2004.

In 2007 the World Shoe Association’s bi-annual WSA Show (The Global Footwear and Accessories Marketplace), hosted its first Eco-ethics Conference in Los Angeles, California. The eco-theme addressed “how companies can achieve sustainability and smaller carbon footprints that pay off for business and the planet”. The high calibre of the panel, which included Rebecca Brough, founder and designer, Mink Shoes; Natalie Dean, founder, Beyond Skin and Angel Martinez, president and CEO Simple Shoes, provides solid evidence of the socio-environmental responsibilities that footwear brands are finally embracing.

Some of the eco-friendly materials in use by the industry are synthetic poly-eurythanes, synthetic micro-fibres, hemp, canvas, recycled tyre rubber, non-toxic glues and dyes, vegetable tans and of course green packaging. The industry buzz extends to ethical labour and fair trade, sustainability, renewable energy and philanthropic activity. Those who subscribe to the cause as consumers or those who are actively involved in the industry itself should be acknowledged as diligent eco-pioneers, patiently nudging the mainstream to think differently about the next pair of shoes they buy. In essence this niche group are innovators of social change; change that may not be felt for decades to come.

Vegan shoes

Of all the green-oriented brands, the Vegan variety is certainly one of the most curious. Vegan shoes are available at mid-price points through to the high-end, such as ranges from eco-couture pioneer Stellar McCartney and newcomer Natalie Portman. Portman’s range is sold by limited edition shoe boutique, Te Casan, in Soho, New York, which also stocks shoes from Niki Robinson who has designed for Anti-Apathy and Terra Plana.

In 2001, with just 15 pairs of shoes to showcase, Vegan retailer Moo Shoes opened in what was once a butcher’s shop (the perfect irony!) in Gramercy Park, Manhattan. Now it has upwards of 120 styles in constant rotation. The business co-founded by the Kubersky sisters who are 29 year-old Erica and 34 year-old Sara, moved late last year to the Lower East Side’s historic Orchard Street. There they found not only more floor space and much needed storage, but a more empathic, younger market, which Erica says, “is made up of people who are just more into what we’re doing.”

“When we first started out we would go to the big shoe shows and talk to the major shoe vendors”, says Erica of the industry’s response to the Vegan shoe concept. “They had no idea what we were talking about when we said Vegan shoes are not leather, that meant nothing to them. But as the years have gone on everyone knows what it is and many in the industry have their own Vegan shoe lines.”

In addition to Moo Shoes’ carefully selected vendors, Erica and Sara design their own line under the Novacas brand name. Securing an agent in Portugal, the Kubersky sisters are both directly involved in the design and manufacturing of the range. “It’s something we’ve slowly increased over time,” Erica said. “It’s nice to tell your customers first hand that you know exactly what’s going on, whether it be what’s going into the components of the shoes or what’s going on at the factory.”

Such a hands on approach is unusual for the industry at large, yet seemingly common in this corner of the market. Australian vendor for Moo Shoes, Vegan Wares, based in Collingwood Melbourne, makes all its shoes on site. The footwear range includes men’s and ladies’ shoes, boots, unisex boots and sandals. Having experienced poor quality and stock control as well as a contravention of material specifications, Vegan Wares decided to set up its own factory on the premises.

“The people who run these companies are just more likely to care about these things,” says Erica. “Vegan shoes is not just a trend, it’s a direction we’re going now.”

Technical innovation

Sports footwear brands are well known for producing performance enhanced shoes – lighter, faster, superior fitting. We hear far less, if anything from the media about technological developments taking place in casual and dress footwear. For consumers in this market, the selling points have been more about aesthetics and appealing price tags.

However, Californian company Skins Footwear is one brand that does present a strong case study for innovation in the casual footwear market. Just 12 months ago, Skins Footwear launched its ‘skin’ and ‘bone’ concept with claims that its technology will revolutionise the sector as we know it. The idea has the shoe in two parts – the ‘skin’ and the outer part of the shoe called the ‘bone’. Consumers buy one pair of made-to-measure ‘bone’, a flexible structure that fits into the brand’s entire collection of collapsible skins. The fit of the shoe, therefore, remains the same from one ‘skin’ to the next. The range includes slip-ons, ballet flats and sneakers in a variety of materials. The 2008 collection launched at The WSA Show in February this year.

Another brand, United Nude, co-founded by the Dutch architect Rem D. Koolhaus – (nephew of Rem Koolhaus, 2000 Pritzker Prize winning architect), and shoemaker Galahad JD Clark, established itself very early on at the cross roads of design and fashion. The Mobius shoe, which launched the brand in 2003, was inspired by the transformation of the Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, while the Eamz is a conceptual inspiration from one of Charles and Ray Eames’ furniture design classics.

In United Nude’s ‘Cup’ line, technical innovation rates as highly as form and function. Launched for the US Spring/Summer 2008 season, the ‘Cup’ is an explicit example of functional shoe design created to offer three different and interchangeable heel colours. The pragmatic design of the ‘Cup’ shoe is enhanced by its eventual reduced waste. With one pair providing three colour options, two less pairs of shoes need be purchased and disposed of.

Creative collaborations

Brazilian shoe brand Melissa created the original jelly sandal in 1979. Today, the brand is as famous for its use of Meflex, a highly flexible and sustainable PVC, as it is for its approach to shoe design which encourages an inter-disciplinary approach merging art, design and fashion.

Japanese creative director, Edson Matsuo’s artistic leadership has lead to some of the most unusual and unassuming creative partnerships in the history of the industry. Fernando and Humberto Campana or The Campana brothers as they have come to be known, work in furniture design, sculpture and installation, home-wares design and now fashion. So far they have created six Melissa styles for the brand.

Melissa has also worked with U2 makeup artist, J Maskrey who finds much of her inspiration for her designs from Paris where she lives. Her work is romantic and reflective, feminine and modern. New York based Egyptian designer, Karim Rashid’s work for the brand includes a teardrop shaped high heel style, a sneaker, bag and a watch. Rashid’s previous collaborations list Issey Miyake, Prada, Georgio Armani, Artemide, Cappellini, Edra and even Sony. Interestingly, Melissa’s creative partnerships stretch beyond classic design with its invitation to Iraqi born Zaha Hadid, the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2004. Hadid’s work is known for its spatial conceptualisation and interdisciplinary approach. She launched her signature Melissa style in 2007.

Generating much excitement for the brand this year is Melissa’s work with Vivienne Westwood, which has produced two limited edition shoe designs for her Anglomania brand. Westwood originally launched a Mary-Jane style shoe in leather for Melissa in 2000 that has re-launched in plastic for the Winter 2008 collection. Westwood has also designed a rendition of the ‘ultra-girl’ slipper adding her own British twist and her taste for non-conformism.
Creative Director Matsuo’s own creative talents span architecture, illustration, cartooning, graphic design and art direction. He is also responsible for Melissa’s research and development comprising a team 120 people who work to generate ideas and new projects.

Clearly, what is increasingly apparent across the footwear industry is its readiness to adopt innovative practices that are helping to shape the sector as one of the most creative and culturally responsive industries in fashion today. For shoes, there are exciting times ahead.

Published in Australian Creative August 2008



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  5. Dear Sharon. I’ve left my reply too late. Apologies for this. I wanted to thank you for kind words. This particular piece was published in Australian Creative magazine which has since closed down. It had a great time researching the piece. I certainly had no idea there was any such thing as vegan shoes!

  6. Dear Darline. Thanks for your feedback on my blog. It sounds like I’m doing something right. It’s a delight to know that the content is instructive, informative and hopefully provides a less mainstream, perhaps even unusual, view on our creative world. The internet can truly be a wonderful place to share!

  7. Dear Vpn. I apologise for such a tardy reply. I’m so pleased that after three hours surfing online you were able to find value in my shoe innovation article. It was a blast researching and writing the piece. Cheers, Chantal

  8. Cheers for your positive response to my blog and terribly sorry this is such a late reply. I actually don’t know of any discussion boards, blogs or websites addressing this topic, certainly not without researching it myself. Good luck with your search!

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