From shoes created from a single thread and shirts made from bacteria-killing fabric to handmade sandals created using all recycled materials, athletic companies are developing scientific advancements to enhance performance and making designs that are more creative and aesthetically pleasing. Never before have sportswear innovations or production methods been changing as rapidly or so in line with the world economy.
I visited Tuan Le, an independent shoe designer and Catlin Gabel parent, to learn about how he translates the newest technologies and demands of companies into creations. His office was light and quiet despite his recent move there. In the back room I found piles of cardboard boxes filled with all of Le’s past sketches and examples of the shoes he has designed. First he showed me a one-of-a-kind bright green running shoe that weighed 6.2 ounces, which he created for a professional triathlete. Although you could see influences from other shoes, the pair looked unique. They were made for Zoot, a Spanish brand currently focusing on creating a reputation by dressing professional athletes. Tuan had just received these shoes and soon he would be working on a mass-produced version for sale to the public.
Behind the couch I sat on was a wall of shoes that he created in the past. Ugg boots, the original Rebook with Velcro straps, and eccentric running shoes were among them. We began discussing his philosophy about designing shoes.
Le says that it was the world economy and globalization that change the way companies manufacture their shoes. “It’s not about making a product better, like run faster or jump longer. It’s about what’s easier to manufacture.” International labor prices are increasing because the workers, he says, “are asking for the same things all of us are asking for: they want a house, clean water, air, and a place for their kids to grow up.” He picked up a pair of bulky baseball cleats and described to me the process by which they were made. He says,“130 peopled touched these shoes,” but now, “everybody and Nike especially are trying to make shoes with as little labor as possible.” In designing shoes his main priority used to be wasting as little fabric as possible, but now he also has to keep in mind the number of people required to build the shoe in a factory. He now tries to design shoes that require “as little stitching as possible, and as much automation as possible.”
While Nike and other large corporations decided to develop new technologies to cut down on the price of labor, smaller local companies that Le works with are trying to bring the construction back to Portland. “Many years ago the whole business left the U.S. to Asia because it was cheaper, and now I thought it was just about time to come back again.”
Le worked with the Portland-based shoe company Keen to build a factory on Swan Island. Keen invested in two German machines that cleanly build shoes. Unlike large overseas factories, there are few workers and the employees are highly skilled in order to operate the machinery. I had the opportunity to visit the factory with Le and received a tour from the owner. The industrial walls were painted yellow and covered with words that represent Keen’s philosophy, and an American flag was hung in the middle. The people working at the factory were extremely proud of their innovated facility, which made shoes humanely, environmentally, and efficiently, all in the United States. Although not all of the individual parts of the shoes are made at the factory, they are assembled and prepared there for distribution. This involves prepping the upper for a sole, attaching the sole, and cleaning up the shoe to be sold.
Keen uses a unique German process to create and attach the sole. The upper is placed onto a blue foot that is lowered into a sealed mold. Three different liquid chemicals are combined and then injected into the mold that harden and expand, creating a sole attached to the shoe due to pressure. Any extra rubber scraps can be melted down and reused again, wasting almost nothing. This production of the sole is highly efficient and environmentally friendly. All of the stitching is done in India, but someday Keen hopes to bring the entire process to the United States.
Back at his office, Le told me about another brand that has also been at the forefront of environmental innovation. Twenty years ago Portland’s Deja Shoe developed a sandal created from recycled materials. Ahead of their time, they went bankrupt, but recently Le offered to help them restart. Part of Le’s Buddhist philosophy is to always be working on a project, which he does without asking for anything, so when the owner of Deja Shoe approached him he agreed to help because “her goal was true and her aim was true. I am a Buddhist and so I help without anything in return.” Together they developed a flip-flop from recycled objects that is hand stitched in Portland. “You can look at it and know that it was lovingly handmade; when it looks so perfect it is not so cool. When you see the wrinkle, the folds, you can tell that there was labor involved.”
Nike, on the other hand, has to continue to innovate and change their products depending on the trends of the season and the demand of the consumer. Because of the large scale and changing designs their factories remain overseas and the construction becomes even more automated, moving away from the handmade look of Deja Shoe.
I visited the bustling headquarters of Nike, where I talked about the design and innovation process on a world scale with designers Jason Gonzales and Carmen Zolman. Although there are innumerable differences between large corporations like Nike and smaller businesses such as Keen and Deja Shoe, Nike has seen changes where products are manufactured. Businesses around the world are moving out of China due to rising labor prices and, as Zolman says, “things are shifting more to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Turkey. A lot of other countries are talking about Africa. I think that it will continue to be a cycle around the world; we talk about in the industry the day that the cycle will come back to the United States.”
Because of cost Nike will never be able to use 100% recycled materials like Deja Shoe; however Zolman says, “Nike has been at the forefront of the environmental processes.” They have made it a policy to use 5% organic cotton in every cotton product that Nike manufactures and use recycled polyester.
Zolman says that Nike cannot innovate as quickly as smaller companies do because they must test things extensively to ensure that everything will be successful over time and will do, scientifically, what they say they will. However, she also said that she has seen changes in the design process itself. Nike is focusing on “designing in 3D,” so instead of designers being limited by drawing, they create and work with materials to generate ideas. The “makers” trend is popularizing the crafted and handmade. Nike is struggling because “it’s no longer cool to have the big mass-market machine-made thing, people want something small and crafted,” says Zolman. To combat this, designers are working with new materials to make products unique and crafted-looking.
Zolman spoke about how she visited Andy and Bax, the military surplus store, to find an old military dry duffel bag, which she used to make an armor-inspired jacket. She also showed me a pair of shorts made from a parachute. These garments are purely for inspiration and try to push the envelope of what can be created from unlikely materials. She pointed to a black windbreaker jacket with militaristic leather-like detailing that had been inspired by the duffel bag shell that she created.
A difference between the designers at Nike and Le is their involvement in production after the company approves a design. On the return from the Keen factory, Le pointed out how in large companies the glamorous design process is often separated from the grueling world of factories and manufacturing. A designer who defines trends and decides how fashion will innovate may never see the actual process in which the shoe is made and experience the lifestyle of people in far off countries stitching the shoe together in an assembly line. For Tuan, seeing where the shoes he creates are made helps him become a better and more conscientious designer.
Although Nike and other large corporations play a huge part in how the fashion world changes, it is the smaller companies that are able to propel innovation, redefine the production process, and direct design.
Check out some photos!