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Outdoor Footwear Looks to Shed Weight with Light-as-air Foams

The popularity of outdoor activities like hiking, trail running and urban exploring has led to an explosion at retail, resulting in new opportunities for the outdoor market.

But this wave of fresh air enthusiasts comes with a new set of expectations.

Consumers are increasingly looking for footwear that serves all of their needs—and not just the technical ones.

“Door to trail is definitely a thing,” Katie Pyle, product line manager at Saucony, told Sourcing Journal. 

The focus of the brand’s SS20 collection will be applying new outdoor-ready features to its heritage line, “so that you can wear it casually, you can wear it on the trail, or you could wear it on the road.”

Modern consumers are getting out in new and different ways, she explained, “whether it’s hiking, running, fast packing or just a day trip through your local park.”

Pyle is seeing more consumers than ever hitting the dirt and the pavement, and she noted that women ages 18 to 24 are a growing demographic for the brand. “We’re seeing more people getting out as a way to disconnect.”

The new mindset is manifesting in more wearable silhouettes, Pyle said, pointing to some of the company’s newest lines of active sneakers.

“[As] a technical trail brand, our focus is more in the rugged area. But these would be great-looking shoes with jeans, though they’re super functional from a performance standpoint.”

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The wearability of these forthcoming styles doesn’t just come from their streamlined designs and eye-catching color palettes, though. A focus on lightweight foam midsoles has gripped the category, in a large departure from the clunky-yet-durable hikers of yesteryear.

Saucony’s Power Run Plus is a TPU compound that will make up the midsoles of some of the SS20 season’s trail running offerings. The beaded material is 25 percent lighter than the brand’s current high-end cushioning system, and Pyle said it offers an ultra-plush, cushioned feel underfoot.

The brand’s original Power Run compound is also still a favorite for mid-range performance styles throughout the line. An EVA blend that’s responsive and lightweight, Power Run is used in Saucony’s standard road and trail products.

In addition to new innovations in midsole foam, brands are reducing the weight of their products by rethinking the configuration of a shoe’s outsole lugs.

Saucony’s Power Track compound—a “very sticky, very grippy” rubber compound—provides traction “in a variety of conditions,” and the company has a number of styles where EVA shows through open areas of the sole.

“Lessening the amount of rubber used allows for a more lightweight effect,” said Pyle.

Foam aficionados at Hoka One One are also playing with lug configuration as a means to reduce weight, said Jared Smith, the brand’s product line manager.

“We’ve zoned the rubber strategically to minimize weight but maximize durability on areas where you’re going to see wear and tear on the shoe,” he explained.

The foam that shows through those exposed areas is the brand’s proprietary blend of rubberized EVA, Smith said, which provides “durability, resilience and rebound.”

“You have something with a little more structure where the shoe is interacting with the trail,” he said of the rubber-infused foam.

What gives Hoka’s sneakers their iconic, boosted silhouette is the stacking of compounds to make up the midsole. Leveled on top of the rubberized EVA is a layer of “comfortable, plush, supportive cushioning” made from another blended EVA compound, Smith said.

The effect is an extremely lightweight yet substantial silhouette that helps runners maintain momentum and reduces impact on the joints.

The brand’s standout style for the next spring season is the Challenger ATR 5, said Smith. “It’s a really versatile shoe in terms of crossover from road application to trail,” he explained, and “weight saving” through the use of lighter compounds helps promote use in varied terrains and situations.

“What we’re seeing as an ask from the marketplace is versatility. The more applications for use, the more people get into the footwear,” Smith elaborated. “Whether it’s out on the trail for a light hike, on a pretty gnarly technical run, or just out and about in the city, our products are going to fit those uses.”

Components

The consumer’s growing propensity to spend time outdoors is not just affecting brands, but also the component companies bringing them their performance technology.

“These compounds are evolving as quickly as the demand from the consumer,” Bill Ells, VP of sales for Vibram, said. The world-renowned Italian rubber outsole company also deals in foam midsoles, and has seen skyrocketing demand from brands looking to lighten things up.

“I think what’s driving the whole mindset of the consumer today is, ‘make my life less heavy,’” Ells said. “Emotionally and physically, we just want to shed what’s weighing us down.”

Ells referenced the evolution of another outdoor staple, the puffer jacket, as a way of explaining the trend.

Once bulky and heavy, the modern iteration can be folded or rolled to a fraction of its size, and stuffed into a pack without adding much weight or volume. For hikers and campers, a few grams can add up to a mountain of inconvenience.

But when it comes to footwear, Ells said, there was a reason that compounds and constructions became weighty, for a time. Durability and performance were top-of-mind for footwear companies and their suppliers.

“Once you start to blend EVAs with other materials—other polymers, maybe some rubbers or some urethanes, maybe some other plastics—then you can get into some much more functional properties, like better rebound, better shock absorption. But as you start to do that, things get a little heavy,” he explained.

“While we have been an industry that has been trained and educated in EVAs, we’re now seeing urethanes, which have greater longevity and often other better physical characteristics that can meet the same density ranges of EVAs. So you’re now able to take a combat boot and make it feel like an athletic shoe.”

When asked how suppliers like Vibram are attaining the light-as-air feel, the answer is, quite literally, air.

“There are products made where gas is infused. In a typical EVA, you have what’s called a blowing agent—think of it as yeast in a cake,” Ells explained. “Some of the materials use gas infusion, which changes the cell structure, the rebound technology, the shock absorption.”

Though he’s excited about the fact that lightweight foams are giving people the freedom to enjoy their surroundings, Ells believes there’s a trade-off to the new iterations on the technology.

“How light can you get without affecting longevity? That’s where the diminishing returns come.”

With the whole industry wanting to shed weight, Ells cautioned that consumers might also have to shed preconceptions about performance.

“We can get light as a feather, but what’s the industry looking for in terms of expectations?” he asked. “A runner, for example, might be looking to get 300 miles out of a shoe. The outdoor enthusiast might be looking for two years.”

Outdoor products, like footwear, are expected to last. And until now, they were built almost entirely to service that objective.

But now that priorities have changed, consumers can no longer expect their footwear to weather the elements, along with the wear-and-tear incurred by pounding the pavement or the trail, indefinitely.

Casual

Trail runners and hiking boots aren’t the only outdoor shoes getting a foam makeover.

A favorite of earth lovers for generations, Birkenstock has revamped some of its most iconic styles with a material twist.

Using injection-molded EVA, the brand has created shockingly light, full-foam versions of its core line, which is usually made from cork and leather.

“All traditional Birkenstocks are made from cork and, naturally, cork is not meant to be sunk in water,” Dania Shiblaq, the company’s senior PR manager, said. She added the brand’s standard sandals can’t get wet without degrading the adhesives that hold the shoe together.

“We wanted to create a style for our customers that was water-friendly,” she said, explaining that consumers were increasingly asking for sandals they could wear to the beach, pool or spa.

Unlike the brand’s regular offerings, the EVA versions can be hosed off if they get sandy or muddy during outdoor excursions.

“There’s 100 percent a lightweight play to be made here, too,” Shiblaq said emphatically. “If you’re a hiker or a backpacker and you need something to strap on that you can wear lake-side or river-side and not add much weight to your pack, this is the perfect style.”

Birkenstock, which currently carries the Arizona and Madrid styles in colorful EVAs, will release the Barbados and Honolulu (both sporty slides) next spring.

As for the material inspiration, Shiblaq said that the new styles—which all retail for below $50—are constructed from the same EVA that makes up the outsoles of the brand’s standard sandals.

Though the formulation’s density was tweaked (there’s not as much gas infused into the full-EVA styles), it’s a material the brand long has been using to support its contoured footbeds.

When asked whether the shoes’ lower price point and bright colors speak to a different consumer than the brand’s core demographic, Shiblaq said the brand has definitely enjoyed some newfound attention from Gen Z shoppers.

“There’s a lot that speaks to that consumer. They’re fun, bright colors that we’re playing with,” she said.

Shiblaq also thinks that the full-foam styles’ versatility speaks to the active, outdoor-loving set more clearly than ever before.

This piece originally appeared in the Trailblazers 2019 Footwear Report. Read the full coverage of how the industry is forging a new path toward sustainability, charting a course for a more diversified supply chain and taking steps to meet consumers’ comfort mandate here.