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The Future of Footwear Design Will Be Customized

As the world takes a step toward tech, so too are shoes—the soles of the future will be smarter, better fit and fully customized.

Technology has been steadily suffusing the apparel and retail industries in recent years and footwear is by no means being left behind.

At an FN Platform presentation Monday, D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Portland’s Pensole Footwear Design Academy highlighted the current technologies reshaping footwear design today and gave a nod to the emerging technologies that will keep companies up to speed with the future’s footwear design revolution.

Edwards opened with a note on innovation, a concept companies often leave to the design department. Innovation, he said, should be an entire production team project.

“If the entire team doesn’t innovate, you will not get innovative products,” Edwards said. “Inspiration is the other part. You need to be inspired by something. If you’re not constantly feeding your brain with new ideas, you are not going to innovate.”

Somewhat surprisingly, and in contrast to the technology takeover, digital tools won’t be what make for innovative footwear design. The personal touch that pencil and paper provides to design will set shoemakers apart, especially in a market where “artisanal” and “craft” are the buzzwords describing what today’s consumers seek.

“Cobbling, I think, is going to make a comeback,” Edwards said. “Having the skill to actually make a product yourself is going to be key.”

Virtual sampling will also play a major role in tomorrow’s footwear lines as it offers the ability to create a collection within a short time frame without ever having to make a physical sample.

When it comes to the materials footwear will feature, they are going to become more responsive, more life like and more flexible to what the wearer needs and how she moves.

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And with 3D knitting techniques, designers can change the knitting process so that certain parts of a shoe are engineered to be stronger than others and can create a better fitting and better performance shoe. Instead of a cobbler or traditional shoe maker making a last, 3D scanning will be able to do it

Materials that respond—and adjust to—movement will be increasingly important. If a wearer opts for an activity that demands more lateral movement, say, the materials will adjust to suit. After standing all day, for example, the foot expands and the materials in tomorrow’s shoes will be able to “grow” with the wearer’s foot.

Shoes will also be able to unscuff themselves with materials Edwards calls “self healing.”

Liquid-based materials, like PVC, will be big for making better fitting footwear, with the liquid drying into a hard surface, like a mold of a foot, from which a shoe could be made to fit.

When it comes to distribution, consumers will still want the omnichannel experience, one that gives them the feel of shopping in a store but with the convenience and ease of e-tail shopping.

3D interactive walls are one way retailers will be able to provide that. With the wall, consumers could stand before it and select a shoe based on a 3D image, buy it and have it shipped home.

“Retail stores are closing because of the increase in online shopping,” Edwards said. “Retail is going to become more showroom based because consumers are already conditioned to buying online.”

How a brand communicates with its consumers will be vital in the near-virtual world and, according to Edwards, social media is still going to be one of the best ways to reach connected consumers en masse.

Part of a brand’s communication with consumers has traditionally been through its store associates, but today’s consumers and their endless access to information are little impressed by under-informed employees.

Companies like Chronicled are helping brands break from reliance on associates to relay their brand’s messages and using near-field communication (NFC) to embed product information right onto the shoe so all shoppers have to do is scan the shoe with a smartphone to learn everything about how it was made and where it came from.

“Consumers are going to change,” Edwards said. “They are already changing. If you have a brand, you need to do a better job of communicating with your consumers. You need to find another way to communicate besides just getting them to buy something, because that’s not good enough anymore.”

If a consumer can’t find what they want on the market, they will simply create it. And startups are simplifying the process of getting a product to market.

At Quirky, an invention platform that brings people’s ideas to life, consumers that are fed up not finding what they want can pitch an idea, and if the crowd-sourced community likes it, have it made by one of Quirky’s brand partners or by the company itself.

At Threadless, anyone can submit graphic art and crowd-sourced scores determine what the company prints next.

“You’re going to see more and more of these co creation websites and these crowd sourcing websites pop up. It’s just going to become the norm at some point,” Edwards said. “You’re giving the consumers a bigger voice than ‘Here’s a product, you buy it.’ They want more.”

The bottom line, Edwards added, “The consumer is outgrowing you [brands]. If you don’t give consumers what they like, they’re going to do it on their own.”