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How Boa Technology and Casca Use Technology to Tackle Footwear Fit

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to designing performance footwear and running shoes for men and women, according to the NPD Group senior industry advisor, Matt Powell.

“Anatomically, boys are made different than girls. You may have noticed this,” Powell quipped in an interview with Sourcing Journal. “A woman’s foot is more triangular in its heel to forefoot ratio, where a man’s foot is more rectangular. Most of the time what we see in performance footwear when it comes to unisex sizing is taking one design and translating it from one gender to the other.

“Most women’s running shoes are really just downsized men’s shoes. They are really not made for her—and that’s a problem,” Powell said, adding that this phenomenon really only exists in performance footwear, where fit is one of the most important factors in the consumer’s overall experience of the product.

High-tech advancements attempt to smooth over this friction point for shoes in both male and female sizes, including in-store 3D scanning to provide consumers with near-instant scan-and-fit services. Others, like footwear startup Atom, adopted quarter sizes to better fit variably sized feet.

However, that still doesn’t answer the question as to how men and women can expect shoes designed for one sex to properly fit the other. Some footwear-related brands and companies have decided to take a totally different approach: just ignore the differences between men and women altogether and solve for fit, once and for all.

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“There’s no set answer for men versus women. I think a lot of people want to distinguish in size, shape movement—there’s as much variation between women as there is between men and women,” said Shawn Neville, CEO of Boa Technology, the Denver-based company that makes the Boa Fit System used in millions of boots, helmets, shoes, and other performance products around the world.

Men’s and women’s feet have their biomechanical differences, Neville admitted. “You have to start with their body and where they move. Naturally, most women have a narrow heel and you’ve got to have a much stronger presence there,” he said. “Of course, the heel strike and forefoot strike are different, so in most cases, you don’t need as much cushioning.”

However, most fit problems can actually be solved by examining differences in body weight, Neville said. “To me, it’s more of a body mass differential than it is male versus female,” he explained.

That’s where Boa’s fit solution steps in. The Boa Fit System removes the need for lacing footwear shut by enveloping the shoe’s upper in webbing that can be tightened by rotating a small mechanism located on the side.

Neville said the company, which he joined three years ago after executive-level stints with Aerosoles, Avery Dennison, Keds and Saucony, initially began as a way to make adjusting and fitting snowboards less of a pain.

“At the time, [Boa] was looked at as a way to solve a problem, as opposed to looking at an opportunity,” Neville said. “The problem was that snowboards sucked to tie. It took too long, it was a challenge.”

However, Boa soon learned that consumers believed that its technology actually increased their ability to perform, as well. The fit mechanism allowed for near-instant micro-adjustments of fit. Not only did it allow users to quickly put on and take off their snowboards, but it also gave them an advantage on the slopes.

Boa technology creates footwear fit solutions with a small mechanism located on the shoe
Boa Technology said that their fit solution has been proven to increase performance in both speed and agility. Boa Technology

Since then, Boa has become “more than just closures,” and has started working on becoming a technology-based partner for brands seeking to integrate the Boa system into their products. But, as Neville understands, when you put technology first, you have to be able to prove your claims with science.

“A year and a half ago, we said we’re going to be fundamentally sound in science and we’re going to work with a top university that can prove this beyond a standard deviation,” Neville said. “Then, at the end of that, we also concurrently said we’d like to create the first performance fit lab that lives in the future—but not too far in the future.”

Looking too far into the future, Neville continued, can result in a fit product that doesn’t really take into account the end consumer, something he believes certain athletic brands are guilty of. Instead, Boa focuses on one concept.

“We make the best gear better,” Neville said.

That’s why Boa started its own “Performance Fit Lab” with the University of Denver to measure the biomechanical impact of the Boa Fit System by studying its effect on speed and agility. The university contributed 31 high-level athletes, both male and female, to the cause, experimenting with three traditional “U-throated” shoes with laces and another with Boa’s fit system.

By the end of the study, the tests were able to prove that the Boa Fit System increased performance by 1.5 to 4 percent compared to the average performance shoe.

“We were kind of blown away,” Neville said. “Being in the industry for so long, the subtle degree in the difference in performance has predominantly always started in the outsole and midsole—which drive a lot of activity. What we could do in the upper technology and applying fit changed the biomechanics of a consumer and improved performance as much as the benefits of a good midsole or outsole.”

While the Boa System attacks equality of fit from the perspective of closures, other brands have taken an equally holistic, if entirely different, approach. Newly launched footwear brand Casca sees all feet as equally unique, regardless of whether the wearer is male or female.

But one thing is clear: both technology-forward, fit-conscious companies see the difference between men and women as something that can be solved without releasing products separated by a male-female divide.

“We acknowledge there’s a difference between men and women’s feet. On average, women’s feet are narrower and have a slightly different shape,” Kevin Reid, Casca’s co-founder, told Sourcing Journal. “Often, they have a longer arch profile. Having said that, I think the variance between women’s feet is just as extreme as the difference between men and women’s feet.”

Casca’s primary focus is to push the market forward in terms of 3D-printed footwear. The brand launched on Nov. 13 with an app-powered fit solution, FootB3D, that uses three user-generated photos to create a map of thousands of data points to represent each individual foot. The goal is to convert the brand’s supply chain to produce a 100 percent 3D-printed product by 2029.

“The human foot is more unique than a fingerprint and to achieve the precise fit, we map 20,000 unique data points from your foot,” Reid said in a statement. “Working with podiatrists, we provide advanced orthotic support that is typically overlooked in mass-produced footwear. We’re determined to create holistic solutions that are healthier, higher functioning and stand the test of time.”

For now, Casca operates online and through its single retail flagship. However, it envisions a world in which a consumer could walk into a store, undergo a quick scan and pop out the other end with a completely customized product that makes no compromises to serve an individual’s sex, shape or weight.

“At the end of the day, everyone’s feet are different regardless of gender,” Reid said. “We can make products that are custom to each person’s unique feet.”