Sci-fi sneaker design is the future

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Photo by Ryan Emberley for the Bata Shoe Museum

We spoke to sneaker expert Elizabeth Semmelhack about new cutting-edge shoes. Plus, a roundup of our favorite kicks on the market.

There is a scene in the original Jumanji film where a young Alan Parrish (Robin Williams) visits his father’s factory, The Parrish Shoe Company. One of the workers, Carl, pulls him aside to reveal his latest creation: what appears to be a replica of the Nike Charles Barkelys Air Max 2. “It’s the future,” he says. “If I can get Wilt Chamberlain to wear them, I predict there will be a pair in every closet in America.” Alan then mistakenly destroys Carl’s shoes, rather bulky equipment, and career.

That was 1995. In the years leading up to that moment, some of today’s most sought-after sneakers were popping up on shelves (and closets) across America and beyond. (The Nike Air Jordan 1 OG Breds, released in 1985, are valued at around US$94,000 today — and that’s just the lowest asking price, per DealA.)

We may never know the resale value of Carl’s fictional shoe, but it’s safe to say he had the right marketing strategy. Whether kicks were indeed the future of sneaker design is up for debate.

No longer a practical canvas and rubber construction, sneakers have come a long way since their invention in the 19th century. Today, manufacturers source natural materials like mushroom leather and sugar cane moss. New technologies such as 3:D printing are used to create bespoke and accessible sneaker design. And designers are now tackling the final frontier of footwear: the metaverse.

These innovations are the focus of a new exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, titled “Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks.” Highlights include self-lacing Nike MAG sneakers, a biomorphic boot by designer Scry Zixiong Wei, and Ekto VR’s motorized boots for wear by VR users.

FASHION spoke to Elizabeth Semmelhack, the museum’s director and senior curator, about the history of sneaker design, what the future holds, and how shoe construction could affect the resale market.

What are the most exciting or promising sustainability-focused materials or techniques in sneaker design right now?

I think some of the most promising new materials are based on nature. Allbirds Soft Foam, a substitute for EVA foam made from sugar cane, is used for the soles of their shoes and the company has made the “recipe” open source rather than proprietary to encourage sustainability. Mushroom leather is also an exciting new material that is very environmentally friendly. By using the root systems of fungi, a breathable leather-like material can be easily grown and used to make shoes. After use, it can also be disposed of sustainably.

How do you think the materials used to make shoes will evolve?

I think we’re going to move towards more bespoke design, which means consumers will be able to get shoes that better fit their unique feet and align more perfectly with their individual aesthetic. I also think that 3:D printing will be used more and more to achieve remarkable designs. Scry, for example, uses this technology to make truly sci-fi shoes.

Elisabeth Semmelhack. Photograph courtesy of Ryan Emberley/The Bata Shoe Museum

The resale market for (some) sneakers is booming! Why do you think this is?

In fact, I find it very interesting. The term “investment” originally meant “clothing” and thus sneakers as an asset class come into their own. We’ve long been encouraged to buy “investment” pieces for our wardrobes, but it’s only recently that some of these items have seen real monetary returns.

How do you see this appetite evolving?

It may be a little harder to predict. Currently, a large part of the resale value of sneakers is linked to their rarity but also to their history; a pair of original Air Jordan 1s from 1985 is a perfect example. However, most sneakers from the 1970s are extremely fragile. The materials from which they were made deteriorate, impacting not only their resale value, but also our ability to preserve them for the future. We try to solve this problem at the museum, because many sneakers in our collection are important cultural objects.

What is the value of a virtual sneaker, in comparison?

The value of virtual sneakers has increased exponentially, market corrections aside. Granted, some virtual sneakers may be worn by his avatar in the metaverse as a virtual flex, but their real value is specifically as collectibles or investments.

What role will the metaverse play in the future of sneakers?

If you consider Jordan’s drops in Fortnite, Nike’s acquisition of RTFKT and their creation of Nikeland, or Adidas’ foray into the Metaverse, it seems like sneakers have a pivotal role to play in the Metaverse. What I’m even more excited to see is how shoe design will evolve in virtual reality. Since shoes aren’t necessary in virtual spaces—there’s no practical reason for shoes in VR—the shoe design possibilities are endless.

Are accessibility and inclusivity becoming a bigger part of shoe production?

Yes, both are increasingly being addressed by brands. The Nike Go Flyease is a perfect example of a universal design that meets the needs of a range of wearers. It is designed to be easily put on and taken off and is also very desirable as a fashion item. The shift to unisex sizing is another change that allows for greater inclusion.

What few people know about the history of sneaker production?

That when sneakers were created in the mid-19th century, rubber was extremely expensive, and the first sneakers were made for lawn tennis, a pastime of the privileged. I think a lot of people marvel at the importance of sneakers today as signifiers of status, but I feel like they’ve just come full circle.

Scroll through the gallery below to shop FASHIONWho’s favorite kicks represent the future of sneaker design.


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