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Will 2019 Be the High-Water Mark for Weatherproof Footwear?

There’s no denying that in 2019, the best quality a shoe can have is versatility—proven most clearly by the ubiquity of the supremely adaptable sneaker.

But what happens when the winter months close in and the sneakers that were once summertime mainstays become wet and soggy from the suddenly sodden and icy outdoors?

To solve this problem while still staying true to the industry-defining draw of sport-inspired footwear, many brands have begun to modify those same successful styles with water- and weatherproofing technologies.

“Clearly we have seen this trend that goes back probably four years ago, when the first sneaker boots started to appear—sneakers that looked like sneakers on top but had a more rugged outsole,” Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group, told Sourcing Journal. “But, then, they didn’t have a lot of weatherproofing. This year, we’ve seen a huge surge in brands offering what are essentially sneakers but with weatherproofing.”

Perhaps the best example of this strategy can be seen in the new release from once-upstart, now-dominant Allbirds. The the Mizzle Collection released in September offers styles essentially identical to the classic Allbirds silhouettes that consumers have come to expect. However, the Mizzle sneakers bear thicker wool uppers, reinforced with an all-new, proprietary and environmentally friendly weatherproofing compound.

“Virtually all weather-resistant gear is made with synthetic fluorinated chemicals (PFAs) which don’t break down over time and end up polluting our soil and water,” Allbirds said of the Mizzle launch. “After extensive R&D, we found a solution that will keep you dry but doesn’t rely on PFAs.”

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That solution was Puddle Guard, a waterproof layer of biologically sourced thermoplastic polyurethane, certified by Oeko-Tex Eco Passport as a PFA-free material. The result, according to Allbirds, is an upper that is both breathable and water-resistant, leaving the brand’s consumers to “splish and splash through wet weather with cozy feet and a clear conscience.”

The Allbirds Mizzle Runner-Up
The Allbirds Mizzle Runner-Up Allbirds

“They’re taking shoes that really got damaged [in wet conditions] and making them more appropriate for year-round use,” Powell added. “As to whether this is an additional purchase or not, that’s hard to say. I think it’s probably both but likely more on the ‘replacement’ side than an additional purchase. If I’m deciding I need to buy a new pair of sneakers in November and I see a weatherproof pair on the wall, I can say ‘maybe I’ll go for the weatherproof one since it will last longer.'”

A number of Kickstarter campaigns based on weatherproof footwear have also emerged recently, punctuated by successful campaigns from new brands, like Vessi Footwear, and more established ones like Lems Shoes, which launched in 2011 as Stem Ancestral Footwear.

Lems is known for making outdoor-oriented footwear designed to be as naturally ergonomic as possible, fitted perfectly to the shape of the foot. Most of the brand’s designs are based on the “Zero-Drop” philosophy which says that modern shoes have become over-engineered to the point that the padded heels common in most athletic and outdoor footwear actually harm the wearer’s posture over time.

Recently, Lems took the design of its popular Boulder Boot style to Kickstarter for a campaign to make the style waterproof. Asking just $30,000 in support to begin production, the Waterproof Boulder Boot has already accumulated more than $269,000 in pledges from 1,888 backers at last count. This puts the average donation at just over $142—$10 more than it takes to simply purchase the boot through the campaign.

lems shoes and their waterproof boulder boots
An overview of the construction of Lems Waterproof Boulder Boot. Lems Shoes

“The Waterproof Boulder Boot has long been our most requested shoe, and we’re confident that they’ll be worth the wait,” Lems said. “Speaking of weight, this boot still maintains the lightweight frame you’ve come to know and love from Lems—even though we’ve added a unique waterproof membrane, these puppies will still hit the scale at a featherlight 12.9 ounces.”

Vessi, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to put its weatherproof features first.

Founded in the rainy city of Vancouver, Vessi’s appeal is simple: the brand claims to have designed the first waterproof knit shoe. In an interview with Vancouver’s Daily Hive in early October, one of Vessi’s three co-founders, Mikaella Go, confirmed that the brand’s waterproof design is based on a new, patented technology.

To keep that data proprietary, Go and the rest of Vessi’s leadership team decided to purchase their own factory in Vietnam, building a production team out of the remaining footwear resources left in the country when brands like Nike and Adidas left the region for China.

As of October, Go said that the brand has run two crowdfunding campaigns for its footwear. Each raised around $1.2 million, helping Vessi to remain self-funded and independent.

“When we created Vessi, we reinvented the process of creating knit shoes, and by doing that we ended up saving 880 gallons per pair. We have almost zero percent waste, and we’re continuously building different technologies so we can create different types of sustainable products,” Go explained to the Daily Hive.

“But we knew from the start that Vessi was going to be one of those products,” she continued. “Because it’s so crazy how there hasn’t been anything like it in the market. Sneakers have been around for so long, but there is nothing like it. I mean, there is cortex but cortex is different. They aren’t really breathable.”

All said, weatherproof or simply waterproof footwear may not be a year-round phenomenon, despite the allure of versatility. According to Powell, the weatherproof trend is likely to end up sticking to the winter months—fading out once the sun reemerges and sneakers, sandals and naturally breathable footwear can again be worn with confidence.

“I’m not sure the consumer thinks that far ahead,” Powell concluded.