Shoes generally provide an element of protection from the environment, but some go above and beyond to keep feet dry and comfortable from the inside as much as the outside. These companies are stopping wet, sweaty feet in their tracks with the latest in waterproof and breathability innovations.
“Feet have a high concentration of sweat glands and so they tend to generate a lot of heat,” said Matt Schreiner, global product specialist at Gore-Tex, a global manufacturing company. “You want that heat and moisture to be able to move across those same materials and escape to the outside.”
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Unlike a rain boot, which relies on a thick waterproof upper to keep liquids out, footwear’s latest moisture management technology cuts across product categories, from hiking boots and golf shoes to sneakers. But the materials that are used all have one thing in common: a high-tech membrane. That membrane sits inside the upper and provides a barrier against larger water molecules while still allowing for heat and water vapor to escape.
“One of the shortcomings of legacy membranes is how much pressure they require to move air out from the inside,” said David Karstad, head of marketing at materials manufacturer Polartec. “That means the wearer often gets wet from body sweat even if water is prevented from entering from the outside. Our position was to approach design from the opposite direction — breathable first, then waterproof.”
These membranes are popular in the outdoor market, where exposure to natural elements runs high. Columbia Sportswear, for instance, recently brought its patented OutDry technology entirely in-house, limiting its use to the company’s own collection, which it plans to expand. Columbia is also building a new OutDry Extreme series, where the membrane is made durable enough to be incorporated on the outside.
Brands seeking to add the technology to their own footwear might look to a specialist materials manufacturer for a protection upgrade.
Among them is Gore-Tex. Part of the larger Gore manufacturing company, the group emphasizes its background in scientific innovation. Throughout the product development process, Gore-Tex conducts intensive testing to ensure the materials meet internal standards.
“It’s about trying to insert our benefit seamlessly into our customer’s product without causing them to compromise on any of the aesthetic or performance aspects that they wanted in their shoe,” said Schreiner. Sustainability is another area where these companies are aiming to support their customers, particularly since many are frequently used outdoors. Polartec offers nearly 600 kinds of textile technologies; 200 are made from at least half-recycled plastics.
For sustainable waterproofing firm Sympatex, environmental concerns are a determining factor when making collaborative decisions. “When we meet with clients, the first discussion we have is [to figure out] how serious they are with their sustainability agenda,” said CEO Rüdiger Fox. “We are prioritizing companies who have not yet found their path into that new priority setting of sustainability but who are open to the discussion.”
Partnering with brands on new ventures has also led to opportunities. The growth of athleisure styles worn year-round has created a market for performance technology; if the sneaker is waterproof and breathable, consumers won’t need to set it aside on a rainy day. It also provides a way to connect with younger consumers.
“When you go to a younger audience who grew up in athletic footwear, their comfort references are so different,” said Peter Ruppe, VP of footwear at Columbia Sportswear. “We want to have the comfort and the aesthetic of an athletic footwear item but with the utility that gives you better all-day outside protection.”
More crossovers between outdoor and athleisure are expected in the coming months. Polartec is partnering with Diadora on a sneaker with a shearling fleece upper, while Gore-Tex has a collaboration with Converse on its classic Chuck Taylor sneaker.
“We’ve been able to adapt our technology and our constructions to be much more aligned with athleisure,” said Schreiner. “It’s a silhouette that a lot of Chuck fans want to wear year-round. Now we can bring a 365-day capability to that really simple but classic silhouette.”
Watch the video below to see top shoe designers share what shoe designing means to them:
Athleisure’s Popularity Is Bad News for the Performance Footwear Market
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