How Digital Design is Reshaping the Future of Footwear

Nike makes history this month as it prepares to release the first-ever physical sneaker under its .SWOOSH Web3-enabled platform. Created as part of Nike’s “Your Force 1” campaign, the design competition challenged sneakerheads to jump into the next digital frontier of footwear. .SWOOSH Studio allows users the ability to be the creative director through a collaborative design process with a Nike designer that prioritises creative storytelling over creative skills.

This isn’t the first time Nike has dipped its toes into the Metaverse. In December 2021, the footwear giant announced the acquisition of RTFKT, a leading brand that leverages cutting-edge innovation to deliver next-generation collectables that merge culture and gaming. The move is another step that accelerates Nike’s digital transformation and serves the growing cohort of Gen Z consumers who perceive no difference between physical and virtual reality and experience the metaverse with fluidity.

Daniel Bailey, co-founder of CONCEPTKICKS and footwear designer better known as Mr Bailey recently spoke to Highsnobiety on the endless creative and commercial possibilities offered by the metaverse. “I think over the next couple of years it will become the norm to buy sneaker NFTs, balanced with physical versions of that same file/design. It’s without a doubt the present and future of the industry,” he explains.

Grounded on the blockchain, NFTs have been making a big splash in the fashion world with major luxury and streetwear brands investing in the digital universe. You only have to look at the astronomical sums generated in Nike’s recent NFT auctions to see why they are banking on the metaverse. The CryptoKicks collection, auctioned on online marketplace OpenSea saw customers pay between $4,000 and $9,500 in cryptocurrency for the shoes, with some pairs selling for well over six figures. By comparison, a pair of Nike Supreme Stars Mean Green SB Dunk Lows were selling Thursday on StockX for roughly $1,000. In October, a pair of Nikes that Michael Jordan wore during his rookie season in 1984 sold at auction for $1.47 million.

The inclusion of the sneaker community is a big part of the success of the digital footwear revolution. .SWOOSH platform gives your average person who may not be super familiar with the space an opportunity to explore digital designs, while the voting element of the contest invites the sneaker community as a whole to decide the best sneaker to get the IRL treatment. SoleSavy uses a similar community-focused approach by dropping its limited-edition custom SS4 sneaker and NFT physically and digitally. This virtual and physical mix allows designing innovative ideas and creating a parallel world where one’s avatar can go shopping, make friends, and have a “second life”. 

NFTs aren’t the only digital design tool disrupting the footwear industry. Over the past year, AI sneaker designs have swept social media with digital artists creating their own dream versions of familiar kicks. IG account AI_ClothingDaily, which is run by luckynumber.8, is one particular page that has gone viral for its AI-generated Nikes. Each pair takes a familiar Nike silhouette — such as the Air Force 1 and the Vapormax — and gives it a lace-centric, intricate makeover. 

The computer-generated designs prove the incredible potential and abilities that AI holds. It hasn’t come without criticism though. Many sneakerheads on social media are sceptical about this derivative design approach, one which sees keywords tossed into an aesthetic blender rather than creating their own new ideas. There is also the question of whether AI-generated creations unfairly exploit others’ intellectual property. But for all the concerns, these fan projects are undoubtedly pushing the industry to explore how designers can and will collaborate with increasingly sophisticated tools—including manipulable datasets that encompass lifetimes of design influences and precedents. 

Adidas has already openly signalled that it is building AI into its design flow. Last April, the German sportswear brand celebrated the arrival of the latest Ozworld collection, by launching the world’s first personality-based AI-generated avatar creation platform, in collaboration with Ready Player Me. Designed to empower and open up the pursuit of self-expression for consumers, the online Ozworld experience enables users to create their unique digital selves, which can then be taken around the web exclusively with Ready Player Me – a cross-app avatar platform for the metaverse that allows anyone to explore virtual worlds with one consistent identity. “Whether IRL or URL, the Ozworld collection boldly represents a platform for style experimentation and a rallying call for the pursuit of personal expression,” adidas said of the line.

These virtual sneakers arrive at a time when the footwear industry has been thrust towards digitalisation with new technologies accelerating advancements and changing the face of sneaker design as we know it. Innovation has always been at the forefront of the industry but with 3D printing and robotics streamlining processes and becoming more commonplace, digitalization in all its forms will be the main factor shaping the industry moving forward.

Luxury brands like Dior and Givenchy have been some of the first to implement digitalization into their seasonal footwear. For A/W 23, Dior Men debuted a pair of 3D-printed derby shoes as a modern translation of the Maison’s Carlo model. The team 3D scanned the original leather Carlo Derby and applied a digital texture to its surface. Once transformed in digital space, the new rendition goes through a 12-hour printing process before emerging from a powder bed where it is given its final finishing touches. 

As Thibo Dennis, head of footwear at Dior Meen notes, “It’s a highly meticulous process, similar to a couture embroidery of craft technique, to arrive at this level of perfection and this level of finishing.” He says that while the style may look visually aggressive it is actually very soft and ultra-lightweight when worn.

Givenchy’s Creative Director Matthew M. Williams is another designer who has been breaking new ground with digitised footwear. Givenchy’s innovative TK-360 sneaker encapsulates the designer’s contemporary approach to Givenchy’s historic association with savoir-faire and craft. The shoe’s sleek and sporty shape is achieved from a singular piece of stretch-knit fabric, crafted directly onto the custom-moulded sole giving the sneaker a unique tread and entirely monochrome appearance. Williams calls it his ‘dream shoe’. “There is a sense of savoir-faire for sportswear created at a fashion company like Givenchy that is different from a sportswear company, but no less rigorous,’ Williams told Wallpaper

Aside from cutting costs and lead time to the production process, these digital technologies offer environmental benefits too. Both the Carlo Derby and TK-360 are created entirely from mono-materials, which means any post-industrial waste can be recycled back into the system.

“80% of the material is entirely reused for other purposes,” says Dennis. “It’s a circular approach. It’s continuous. It’s virtuous.”

These innovations certainly don’t come cheap. Dior’s Derby will set you back £1850, while Givenchy’s TK-360 comes in at £695. But these luxury price points aren’t entirely reflective of how digital technology is being scaled into the mainstream. 3D printing and 360 woven techniques are actually lowering the barrier to entry as it eliminates the required investment of money and time. This is something that both big and small brands have highlighted and benefited from. adidas has scaled to the mass market with its 4D and Strung projects, while start-ups like Zellerfeld are making waves with their use of circular 3D printing

Heron Preston, who collaborated with Zellerfeld for the HERON01 sneaker, says he is trying to put a printed shoe on every foot in the world. “When I first met Cornelius from the 3D tech company Zellerfeld, he spoke to me about things like the economics of the photography industry, recycling plastic, the anatomy of the human foot, the history of footwear development and a vision of a sustainable future where we would no longer need multiple pairs of shoes,” says Preston on his venture into digital footwear design. “He explained to me, what his breakthroughs meant for footwear designers around the globe with big dreams and unrealized ideas. It was at that moment when I realized our ambitions for a better future were a match.”

According to Preston, Zellerfeld’s technology will usher the footwear industry into a future where creatives can independently realize their footwear concepts in a tangible, and commercially viable form.  “You can produce as many pairs as people order, each one being personalized to the individual’s unique foot shape with a foot scan – and once the product starts to wear out, re-use that same material to print more, that material being 100% recycled plastic bottles.”

Unlike traditional footwear drops, Zellerfield and Preston released the sneakers as beta editions where the community would wear-test the shoes and provide feedback for the next edition. “From the first round of beta testing we were able to use the feedback to improve the design,” says Preston, going on to reveal how the second fully 3D-printed silhouette evolved with an improved collar shape for easier entry, softer upper, reduced materials as well as other improvements to the shoe’s overall fit and form.

What is most interesting about this new generation of digital designs is the new aesthetic direction that it is pushing footwear into. No longer restricted by confines of detailing like lace systems, panelling and tooling that goes into traditional sneakers, this new wave of digitalised design takes footwear in an entirely futuristic direction. Organic forms, ultra-high-tech materials and lightweight three-dimensional patterning give a peek into what footwear will look like in the not-too-distant future.

Emerging label Scry, founded by Zixiong Wei, is a great example of how footwear brands are blurring the lines between the digital and physical. Working on the intersection of art, design, technology, culture and environment, the brand is using cutting-edge innovation to bring avant-garde designs into real life. Its daring 3D-printed shapes and prototype-esque sneaker platforms can be produced in as little as two weeks and are often produced on demand, allowing the label to offer a sustainable alternative to mass-produced sneakers.

“I think SCRY is always exploring different future possibilities, rather than pursuing lighter, faster, and more resilient ones,” the 22-year-old founder told Hypebeast. “Sometimes, it is not the internal industry that disrupts an industry.”

Wei is already busy building an online design platform on SCRY to open design rights to the public. He sees these platforms as an essential tool for creating a more “free and diversified” footwear industry in the future. “Technology will promote the progress and collision of footwear design.”

When asked whether digitalised designs will take over from classic leather sneakers, Dennis states that “more than ever, I think the classic cup sole and nice leather would always exist.” He believes that besides the technology of digitalisation, sneakerheads will always be happy to wear a classic silhouette. “I think the future of sneakers is not only in 3D print but also in craftsmanship. To make everything more qualitative.”

Preston believes that it is the move to responsible design and on-demand production that will help usher in 3D printing into the future. “Removing all of these materials: removing the stitching, removing the glue and having just one mono-material. That innovative process is what is going to carry us into the future,” ” he says. “For a young sneakerhead or a young designer you can sleep on a design and hit print then you have that footwear in your hands that is wearable. That’s unheard of.”

Words by Samuatro

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