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Using Tech to Put Your Best Foot—and Shoe—Forward

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Whether it was material innovation or digitized operations, tech was absolutely front and center at this year’s Materials Show.

Held in August in Portland, Ore., and Wilmington, Mass., the NW and NE shows presented footwear and apparel companies with options for standing out in an increasingly crowded market, solutions for streamlining and greening their businesses, and new ways of demonstrating value.

We caught up with Materials Show founder Hisham Muhareb to talk about this intersection of fashion, function and technology, as well as the most exciting developments to come out of this year’s shows. The next shows will be held Nov. 13-14 in London; Feb. 5-6, 2020, in Boston; and Feb. 12-13, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

Sourcing Journal: Why is it more important than ever that companies be innovative in their designs?

Hisham Muhareb: With today’s crowded markets and competitive pricing, innovation is one way a company can set themselves apart from the pack. Innovative materials, manufacturing processes, form and function draw in customers with the promise of something new and never done before. With innovation you can create new spaces in the market and fill a need the customer didn’t know they had.

SJ: Can you provide some examples of companies that are demonstrating innovation in their designs, whether through comfort, weight or something else?

HM: There is a lot of innovation in the merging of technology with footwear. Under Armour released a smart shoe with sensors built in. With it, customers can track their distance, cadence, strides, steps and pace. Sensors and tracking technology in shoes typically link to an app, where users can track and learn from their progress.

We’re also seeing innovation on the materials side, especially in performance footwear and its crossover into fashion. Danner Boots recently released a line of ultra-lightweight hiking boots, with an Enduroweave upper constructed from a lightweight textile with a carbon wash.

SJ: What kind of value does this provide, whether real or perceived?

HM: We all want to make the right choice when investing in ourselves, so getting the most competitively innovative footwear is a way to feel good about the purchase you’re making and the brand you’re representing when you wear their goods.

In the Under Armour example, the value lies in the data collected by the shoe and interpreted by their MapMyRun app. The app suggests ways to improve your pace, changes in form, and has a gait-coaching feature that analyzes your stride and offers advice on how to run more efficiently and help avoid injury. The idea is that you can become a better runner by learning more about yourself and making incremental changes.

When it comes to performance materials and how they function, the value offered is a physically lighter shoe with less for hikers to carry, and the sensation of moving faster, more efficiently and comfortably.

SJ: Does this value then translate into sell-through, buzz, both?

HM: Only time will tell, right? Certain innovations, such as lightweight construction, are easier for consumers to adopt and therefore easier to sell in the short term, while tech innovations, such as smart shoes, are more cutting-edge. They will take longer to adopt but are extremely buzzworthy on initial rollout.

Every product needs a story to tell, and innovation is a great launching point for that. It’s also a chance for smaller companies to fight their way into a competitive market already ruled over by giants in the industry.

SJ: What were some of the most exciting or interesting developments that came out of this year’s Materials Show?

HM: We were very excited to debut our Material Tech Central section at the show this year—a curated selection of exhibitors focused on the implementation of innovative technologies to the apparel and footwear industries. One great example of this was Material Exchange, a virtualization of the materials sourcing process. Although we believe hands-on and in-person interactions are vital to footwear/apparel production, it’s interesting to see how new technologies can accelerate the design process.

Another exhibitor and partner of Material Exchange, X-rite, showed off its product and material scanners, which enable even further virtualization and digital collaborations.

SJ: What was the hot topic of conversation around the show floor and while people were networking?

HM: On the show floor as well as in our presentations, we were seeing a number of topics trending. Inmouv (a featured presenter at our NW show this year) anticipates that we’ll see designers inspired by biometric app integration in the footwear and apparel worlds.

As always, sustainability has been a key topic of conversation among the brands and suppliers; however, a more holistic, realistic approach is being taken. As Ecco Leather points out, it’s not enough that your leathers be vegan. What’s the carbon footprint of a faux leather if it’s derived from plastics? Although sustainability has long been a hot topic, it seems that suppliers are interested in refocusing the target onto manufacturing processes and sourcing.

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