Shoes Shine
Photo: Lowa
Is footwear material innovation outpacing developments in apparel? And if so, why are shoes in the spotlight now? Emily Walzer investigates.

Dedicated footwear areas are popping up in new and different ways across the trade show landscape shining a light on the latest materials, components and construction techniques for shoes and boots. Products now on display at industry events feature enhanced performance and sustainability, which is to be expected. But what is surprising is that footwear is gaining ground and generating buzz at textile conventions that have historically been apparel-centric. The Functional Fabric Fair and Performance Days now feature a comprehensive Footwear Forum, ISPO calls out award-winning footwear, and Texworld USA has dipped its toe into the world of footwear sourcing.

Is this trend driven by the fact that material innovation within the footwear sector is outpacing what’s happening in the world of softgoods? And if so, why are shoes in the spotlight now?

The simple answer is that footwear material development is stepping up. There is a lot of action happening in the category of foams, for example, as attention turns to removing chemicals while elevating functionality and comfort features. New processes are also entering the fray focused on closing the loop in footwear as brands increasingly endorse products that promote the concept of “renew and reuse.” And continued advances in eco-alternative fibers are ushering in novel fabrications notable for a high-level durability needed for footwear in addition to engaging sustainability stories today’s consumers desire.

“I would say that as textiles have become a more important part of footwear over the years; there has been an increased focus on harmful substance testing and sustainability,” states Dr. Jan Beringer, senior scientific expert for Hohenstein. When asked if Hohenstein is doing more development within footwear now compared to three to five  years ago, Beringer responded, “Absolutely. For the last several years, Hohenstein has been ramping up footwear testing and Oeko-Tex launched the leather standard with footwear in mind.” An inventive collaboration between Lowa and Hohenstein brings to market the Lady Light GTX Lowa boot; Each component of the new Lowa boot, along with the complete shoe, is tested to the new Oeko-Tex leather standard, despite there being more than 100 components.

“I agree, in footwear there are cutting edge developments not yet been seen in clothing industry,” states Matteo Morlacchi, founder,  HDry - Altexa SRL, specializing in 3Dimensional lamination. The technology allows the waterproof/breathable membrane to be applied in a way that eliminates a gap between a shoe upper and membrane avoiding use of seam sealing tapes.

“We know there is much interest in the clothing industry for a waterproof tapeless construction, increasing lightness and sustainability, so we are currently working to adapt our 3D lamination process in apparel.” He cites a recent  R&D project in cooperation with Shima Seiki and Woolmark on wholegarment performance wool in knit.  

Uppers & Components

The range of materials used for uppers is expanding every day. Examples of natural fibers featured in footwear include merino wool, recycled cotton, organic cotton, hemp and a variety of natural fiber blends. Materials based on cactus, pineapple, apple and other fruits and vegetables are starting to make inroads in the category of “natural leathers.” So, too, a niche segment of “regenerative rubber,” looks to have potential to scale. At the same time, recycled synthetics are also on the rise, most notably recycled nylon and recycled polyester.

The company Solum Tread has introduced an interesting “reinforcement” for rubber. As the sole of the footwear wears down during use, the Solum Tread releases positive nutrients that support the surrounding ecosystem. This type of eco-forward functionality is viewed as a category to watch going forward.

In the meantime, foams are a major talking point, particularly new compounds that go beyond established formulas. Emerging now are lighter, softer foams that also deliver energy return. Buzzwords such as “responsiveness” and “supercritical” are often used to describe the latest advances.

For instance, in new styles of Mount to Coast distance running shoes the midsole material is based on a supercritical fluid foaming process using pure nitrogen rather than chemical blow agents. At the November 2023 ISPO trade event, an expert jury awarded the brand’s midsole construction, stating “this innovative foam blend not only enhances the shoe’s performance but also puts it on the right track for eco-conscious production. It’s a step forward in the running shoe segment.”

However, until all foams are made chemical-free, recyclability remains difficult. The  company Kingsteel, headquartered in Taiwan, has recently debuted a technology that allows more tolerance for mixed materials to be recyclable. According to the company, the chemical-free NexCell process works like this:

Once the plastic material is melted into a liquid state, it is evenly mixed with nitrogen or carbon dioxide without producing any chemical reactions. The finished product maintains its original plastic macromolecule state. When recycled, it only needs to be grounded before it is produced into pellets with injection, resulting in plastic material that can be 100 percent recycled. From a circularity standpoint, this is yet another way footwear suppliers and ingredient makers are making sustainability strides.

Lowa Lady Light GTX Lowa boot captured the Eco Performance Award at the November 2023 Functional Fabric Fair Footwear Forum notable for being 100 percent tested to the new Oeko-Tex Leather Standard. Features include a midsole made of 100 percent PU, an insole made of 10 percent mesh, 40 percent polyester and 50 percent visco-elastic latex foam. The upper is nubuck leather.

Craft Xplor Hybrid is referred to as the “gravel bike” of running shoes because of its distinct crossover capabilities. The lightweight, soft PX Foam midsole – featuring energy return and a smooth ride– and a one-piece mesh upper together resemble a road shoe, while the customized traction outsole mimics the grip of a gravel bicycle tire, resulting in versatile performance on and off the trail.

Hdry X Scarpa collaboration on two styles, the Phantom 8000 Thermic HD and Ribellle Lite HD won the Performance Award for footwear at Performance Days Munich last October. Awards jury members called out the high-performance, mountain sports boots for having few seams and a PFAS-membrane directly on the outer fabric, noting that the technology impressed with “enormous robustness and water resistance.”