Can Indigenous Cultures Teach Tomorrow’s Footwear Designers
How to Innovate?
There are issues today surrounding how footwear designers will use new technologies to evolve tomorrow’s footwear industry. How is the footwear paradigm redefined by the use of these new technologies? By what criteria are materials chosen and what are the implications on us the users and our environment in the wider context? What is the designer’s role in the bringing together these issues in innovative ways? Essentially how can designers innovate?
Fashion has produced a generation of young designers who have honed their skills with working distantly with far eastern factories. This development model is difficult as innovation is taken out of the studios divorced from the day-to-day work of the designer. With new technologies more development and even mass production could happen in the designer’s studio. But how do designers shift their skills to meet these new opportunities?
In this essay it is important to look at the context that has shaped our current industry and particularly the footwear paradigm. The author of this essay has worked in the product, furniture and the fashion industries for over fifteen years. With this primary gathered knowledge there was an instinct to look back at the fundamental approaches to shrouding the foot by exploring indigenous and primitive culture’s shoes to understand how new paradigms can truly be shaped by new technologies. In this investigation we explore and answer why these basic shoes could give insight to approaches for handling new technologies and address the wider social issues not just for the industry but for the community and the natural environment. As a technique we will then erase the post industrial revolution history to skip back to investigate the construction, fit, context and even emotions imbued in primitive shoes. By using this information we see what can evolve if we then apply new technologies to the innovative approach of primitive footwear. Through this system of research we explore the pure essence of footwear capturing fit, wear, feel, identity, emotion, context and technology. There are a few fashion designers working this way, breaking through the confines of the industry to truly innovate and we will explore the work they are doing showing parallels to primitive, indigenous cultures to unearth approaches to design methods and techniques, which are efficient, truly innovative and dare we add emotionally enduring.
Now and then…
To understand today’s footwear industry we need to go back to the eighteen century to understand how the machines rooted the product paradigm of footwear components whilst later the retail markets reinforced the construction systems used in the industry.
Up until the mid 1800’s shoes were made by hand with straight soles often without distinction between the right and left foot and without a universal standardization of sizing. Shoes were bespoke and often customized on the foot. The industrial revolution rapidly increased the volume of footwear produced by using machines to replace time consuming labour such as the rolling machine replacing the lap stool in 1845, followed by the McKay sewing machine in 1852 and then the Goodyear Welting machine in American in 1862, then the Edge and Hell trimming’ machines which were introduced around 1877 and the lasting machine in 1883. (www.duoboots.com) At this point footwear production was in full swing supplying particularly the forces in the American Civil War. (Design Museum et al 2009 :12) Constructions evolved to not just benefit the foot but also to accommodate machines.
Victorian England social norms delayed the exploration of non-functional footwear wear until the early 1900’s. (www.duoboots.com) Then with archeological exploration of Egyptian tombs, culture looked back and we did see society allow for the exploration of non-functional footwear. At the same time the business model of supply and demand was producing large quantities of stock which needed to be sold and thus by the 1920’s fashion footwear as we know today was born. Shoes could be owned for different occasions giving consumers the motive to own more than one pair of shoes.
By post war days the retail industry was up and running. People had been educated in how to effectively shop in a supply and demand retail environment, the department store. However with this new business model were larger overheads, which needed to be added onto the unit cost of a pair of shoes. Generally today the mark up on wholesale cost (cost to the shop) is 2.5-3.0 times, with some shops such as Urban Outfitters marking up to 6.0 times the wholesale cost of an item (author primary working primary knowledge). The retail markets were vying in competition. In the 1950’s –1960’s advertising cost to make consumers aware of your goods had to be included into the cost margins. With all this pressure on unit cost the wholesale cost were squeezed yet again. In the past 50 years information and communication technologies, computers and process automations became widespread in the footwear industry enhancing the constructions based on post industrial revolution footwear. A “caravanning” of manufacturing bases to the lowest labor cost country effect has been happening especially with big US footwear Companies where manufacturing bases move around in an aim to get the lowest labor production cost. The authors of the book Mass Customization Myth or Reality explains this well below.
It is important to understand why and how the footwear industry has changed and evolved in the last 50 years. Labor we have learnt, is very relative to shoe production (both in terms of number of workers and of the skill they need to have to perform their task), and, consequently, labor cost is certainly a very relevant factor in determining the total manufacturing cost of a shoe…This is what has triggered the subcontracting and delocalization phenomenon of shoe production…moving the most intensive phases of production to lower waged countries…This phenomenon is typical of products whose content involves less innovation. It can be avoided through the attention to such things as the demands of the end user, with innovative materials, or modern processes; all factors that can reduce the labour intensive component of the product price.
The authors go on to explain.
Entire manufacture process was subcontracted out…transferring technologies, work methodologies, know how and skill. In few decades, in those countries where resources (both human and natural) were readily available, students become better than their teachers and start to compete with them on an international level. Or worst yet with other shoe making countries that have no direct responsibility to this transformation.
(Boer and Dulio 2007:8)
As we can see the footwear industry is mature with products build on a machine age now passed (fig 1,2). To say there was absolutely no innovation in the past 150 years would be wrong. By using established manufacturing techniques Salvatore Ferragamo focus was on design innovation through use of materials. He is arguably the pennicial of how footwear through design could become more desired. Then there was Roger Viver’s stiletto borrowing the methods of architectural structure to reshape the heel to be pencil thin, enhancing any woman’s legs! (Design Musuem 2009:22-32) These designers responded to the needs of the given community. Many of Ferragamo’s innovations stemmed out of war-restricted materials in Italy, for example the cork platform replacing wood. Today our limitations tend to stem from a concern of natural resources. In the machine age there was a fascination with taming and controlling nature. We are now out of the machine age and into the information age where digital information can transform and innovate areas, which no longer have room to evolve. Today’s tools are technology, and the materials are up for debate…. But the constant in all of this is the human part both physically and emotionally.
Why Indigenous Footwear…
Because this is the closest group example of shoes designed in connection with the natural world. These shoes are untainted by motives of commerce and ego. They used natural local materials and represent the moment in time where man separates from natural world by the use of tools, becoming a craftsman, but are still intimately connected through the use of the available natural resources.
The essay chooses to restrict the exploration of early footwear from civilized cultures such as Rome and Egypt, which had in place sophisticated trade and commerce. Where status played a part in the choices of things to protect one’s feet. Where making system in place could be motivated by personal gain over a community or group. By definition the goal of innovation is positive change, to make someone or something better. This can include economic issues but once these issues become the main drivers innovation by definition in the wider sense slows.
Based on the wear of the little toe bones of human fossils 40,000 years ago man wore shoes according to new research published in the “Journal of Archaeological Science” by Erik Trinkaus, a paleo anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (Ravilious www.news.nationalgeographic.com) From the moment we walked upright we started to separate from nature and our plight of the human condition begins. Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman discusses how the craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged. Sennett goes on to compare early craftsman of Grecian potters to the modern day programmers of Linux based programming systems explaining the latter’s approach is modeled on the former and their open knowledge systems makes them contemporaries.
…Still the experimental rhythm of problem solving and problem finding makes the ancient potter and the modern programmer part members of the same tribe. We would do better to contrast Linux programmers to the different modern tribe, those bureaucrats unwilling to make a move until all the goals, procedures and desired results for a policy have been mapped in advance. This is a close knowledge-system. In the history if handcrafts, close knowledge systems have tended toward short life spans.”
He explains closed knowledge systems delays innovation. The fashion industry can be compared to the “different modern tribe those Bureaucrats”. C. Wright Mills the mid-twentieth century sociologist defines the craftsman,
The labourer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work for itself: the satisfactions of working are their own reward: details of daily labour are connected in the workers mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom the experiment; finally family community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence, and experiment in craft labour.
By examining footwear designed for use, for experience and not for desired point of sale maybe we can learn techniques to apply to new technologies. By repeating the same footwear paradigms of the last 150 years into new manufacturing technologies it is unlikely we will be able to create the best experience of footwear for ourselves to wear and for our environment. If we look at the humble toothbrush originally made out of straight piece of wood it took us thirty years of making straight plastic sticks before we thought if we thin the material around the neck maybe this can ease the pressure on our gums. It took us thirty years to exploit the charactoristics and properties of plastic to get a better tooth brushing experience.
Cutting Edge Indigenous Technology…
Simplicity, wholeness, elegance of use of materials, honest resolutions of constructions, structure transparent, vernacular materials, localization, community driven, breathable natural materials, customization of fit, bespoke, designed for the terrain and environment, biodegradable…some words to describe indigenous footwear.
Qualities any designer would say would be desirable. But how did this purist approach evolve and how can tomorrow’s footwear designer’s capture them. Let’s explore a few examples.
The oldest preserved shoe was found in an Armenian cave in 2010. It is carbon dated to be around 5,500 years old (fig. 3,4). It is stuffed with straw speculated to be either some type of lining to keep the foot warm or maybe some type of shoe tree to keep the shape. It laid in a pit with Sheep dung over it and combined with the cave temperatures kept it preserved. From this shoe we can learn man had a primal need to protect their feet, used local materials in the environment and community, which were a by-product of other, consumed items, animals. The construction was efficient in components using a single piece of leather; even the threading was of the leather. The shoe was wrapped around the foot for best fit. Closer to home we see a humble, delicate Shetland moccasin based on the pampooties (Pedersen 2005:17). The hide was fitted raw to mold to the foot for a customized fit. There was no need for sizing as the shoe was constructed around the foot. Again we see the use of one piece of leather with a drawstring construction closure as on the Armenian cave shoe. This specimen lives in the archived of the Northampton shoe museum. When the museum’s curator Rebecca Shawcross was asked about the thickness of the sole and the durability she said the shoe was part of the community and there was not a need to make the shoe more durable as the process allowed for replacement shoes to be made easily. Because the shoe was made of natural materials it could be easily discarded to decay and return to the earth. (Shawcross to Ciokajlo 2011)
The moccasin construction seems to be the shoe construction of choice for primitive cultures. Most famous is the Native American Indian moccasin mostly made of soft elk skin, deer or buffalo skins (fig 6,7,8). The construction was one piece of leather wrapping around the foot with some top element to drawstring the construction together. (Shawcross to Ciokajlo 2011)
The Native Americans were unbelievably good at recycling and reducing waste. Skilled hunters, they would utilize every possible part of their catch – using the meat for food and the animal skins for clothing. The tough hide, which was too inflexible to make into clothing, would be used to make strong, durable moccasins… One of the reasons that Moccasins have remained so popular for so long is their ability to mold to the foot, meaning they are warm and snug. Their flat soles and soft leather make them unbelievably comfortable. They get better over time, as the leather softens and mold to your foot.
These “shoe bags” (O’Keeffe 1996:241) the American colonialist adopted were…
Extremely well crafted in supple leather with careful stitching to allow for ease of wear as much as for sensitivity to the landscape, something that would have been essential to Native Americans so skilled at traversing the land and tracking things on foot. Those tribes to the west that lived in drier, more rugged terrain would have had shoes made of tougher leather with soles to match and would be constructed of two or more pieces of leather for sole and upper. Tribes further east would have relied on soft-soled moccasins, typically constructed of one piece of hide and sewn with seams at the sides or at the top.
This care of the sole in relation to the experience of feeling the earth was very important to the Indians. It shows how considered the union of material construction was in the design of the shoes. According to the Colonial Williamsburg Historical society in the US…
Moccasins were functional, natural footwear worn in early America by Indians of many nations for protection, and comfort. They are felt to be a part of what allows them to be close to the earth-literally. They are not sacred items (unless used in a special ceremony), but rather very personal items for the owner. (Burroughs www.history.org)
This notion of object and materials imbued with an almost ethereal quality is taken to an extreme with the Aboriginal Kurdaitcha shoes. These “shoes” are made out of emu feathers, woven human hair and blood as an adhesive. The myth goes that the offending member is banished from the group into the wild. The medicine man then takes a fine bone shaped to a needle and enchants a curse into it. The execution team wear these shoes whist hunting the banished member. Then once found the needle is pointed with some further chants at the offender never piercing the skin. The victim mysteriously dies a certain death within days or weeks. The natives deeply believe this to be true. The interesting part of the ritual is why the shoes are worn. The shoes still show human tracks and direction of movement. What appears important is the menace of the footprints. So much so these footprints are left in rival territories with an aim to pose a threat. (Shawcross to Ciokajlo 2011)
The weaving of the fibres to create footwear is evident in the Russian Valenki boot. The shoe of choice for the upper classes as the shoe could withstand minus 40 degrees weather. The boots were felted from wool without seams. A kind of early form of polymer moulding! “Reputed to be beneficial to health; the texture of the felted lambs wool stimulates blood circulation in the feet and lower legs.”(Carson 2009) The peasants in Russia wore woven birch laspts shoes. Again the shoes were made of one material a woven birch, unfortunately the shoes wore out quickly and a person could go through up to 60 pairs a year.
If we widen the research to different primitive and indigenous cultures we see patterns start to emerge in the constructions of footwear. Colder climate tend to all have a moccasin sole construction wrapping around the foot, warmer a sandal and platform.
The opanke shoe evolved from the Bosnian and Yugoslavian regions. Again we see the materials are limited although beautifully woven together. The construction was based on fit around the foot first, not a machine. The front turn up of the shoe demonstrates a beautiful design resolution to finishing the material and becomes an emerging stylistic identity to the group of people who wore the shoes. (Shawcross to Ciokajlo 2011)
Outliers in Footwear and Fashion…
In 2009 Malcolm Gladwell got everyone talking about his book “Outliers” which means a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system. In his book his aim was to enforce the theory we all have the potential to be geniuses if we put in the 10,000 hours practice required and are lucking enough to live in a time with a “window of opportunity”. In footwear the window is opening. Already we have outliers challenging the industry staring to emerge. One of the earliest designers notably working this way was Issay Miyake and Dai Fujiwara with their A-poc range, which is an acronym of ‘a piece of cloth’, and a near homonym of ‘epoch’. Epoch means the beginning of a distinctive period in the history of anything.
The Real Design exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery curate by Konstantin Grcic has this to say about the work…
The A-POC method requires no sewing, thread goes into the loom, and the dress comes out. Specifically, a flattened tube of material emerges that contains the finished shirt, skirt, or pants, which need only to be cut out along the faint outline already woven or knit into the fabric. Moreover, the material can be snipped anywhere without unraveling, a feature that allows for complete customization.
The complete garment system’s advantages lie in 1) a further reduction in materials beyond even fully-fashioned production by eliminating seam allowances and 2) faster time to market by eliminating the need for sewing any components.
The curators make comparisons of A-poc to rapid manufacturing. I can see comparisons to the woven primitive footwear. The changes are just the tools.
Marloes Ten Bhomer shoe designer is pushing the boundaries applying industrial design manufacturing techniques to fashion footwear. What is so interesting about her approach is she challenges the shoe paradigm. When playing with vegetable tan leather she lets the processes and materials dictate the forms. When working with rotational moulding she expresses the spirit of the flow of the rotated materials in the form. Marloes was interviewed as primary research in late 2010. She said her aim was to move away from the heal, insole, upper constructions. I was fascinated to understand how she as a designer evaluates her work outside of familiar visual queues. She said, “Usually when something does not look right it means the design is not to the concept.” (Ten Bhomer to Ciokajlo 2011) This brave egoless approach to design is in keeping with the mindset of indigenous cultures. Her Beigefoldedshoe design in 2009 returns to the primitive approach of using a single piece of leather not until the approach of the moccasin. She updates the construction by wrapping the vegetable tan leather around a stainless steel heel. I was fortunate enough in my interview to hold these beauties in my hands, the same hands that held the archive moccasins in the Northampton shoe museum. Both are imbued with charm and a sensitivity of a true craftsman.
In September last year we were introduced to the innovation of spray on clothing. Manel Torres in connection with scientist at the Imperial college of London invented a spray made of short natural or synthetic fibres and a polymer solvent. When forced out of a high-pressure spray gun they mix, dry on contact with the skin and form a fabric. This mixing of fibres to form a solid has been around for centuries in the form of felting. It would be interesting if the solvents used could be biodegradable and non-toxic.
The approach of applying a “wet material” directly onto to the skin to mould to a fit is evident in the Shetland moccasin, applied when raw, moulds to the foot.
The fresh cutting edge approach of Eyewear by Studio Swine recently showed at the RCA show. These frames use human hair encased in a biodegradable resin. Using human hair “glued” and bound can be observed in the Aboriginal shoes (fig.26, 27).
There are designers testing the concept of growing fabrics created by yeast, bacteria and other microbes, a kind of Kombucha skin. At current this innovation is limited as it is not water resistant but in time with a few more outliers minds applied maybe it will be a reality. For now these mavericks remain outside the industry.
Stine Hedegaard, Danish Fashion Institute development coordinator was recently quoted…
“One of the first things I learned [in my doctoral project on corporate social responsibility and fashion] was that people don’t always do what they say. It’s not going to come from the consumers. It’s got to come from the designers themselves.”
Indigenous shoes were made in the community, by the community using vernacular materials within the fabric of their lives, within the natural world surrounding them. Today we have the opportunity to close the gap between designer and user through the aid of innovation with materials and new technologies sifting our “business model” to that of primitive cultures, a demand and supply system.
We could radically shape what we know as tomorrow’s footwear industry. Potentially every area of the chain from idea, manufacturing, and retail to the relationship with end consumer could be altered. Adjacent product industries have exploded the way we shop, the way markets are researched and developed, how information is gathered and the way designers approach new technologies. Unfortunately fashion is lagging behind. (The Big Picture) The reason for this? Today’s fashion footwear is driven by economic imperative. Short-term profits have obscured innovation lead strategies. Caravanning has been fashion’s biggest contribution to innovation in the past decade.
The hot new technology for footwear, rapid manufacturing, has been on anchored the “horizon” since the early 1980’s. In this utopian vision a complete shoe comes out of a machine whole or as reduced as can be with the number of compensates and parts. (fig.28) The only issue worth flagging is the material has to be polymer based. (Fig. 29) This excludes all leathers, wools, cottons, wood, cork, etc… The reward for giving up natural materials is a truly efficient shoe.
However the human side is lost as feet can be sweaty things to shroud. Not to mention the enduring emotional attachments natural materials can evoke and the 1000 year plus landfill life of most polymers based footwear. Before we steam ahead into this new technology we can learn so much still about how to innovate from indigenous cultures. In identifying the desired benefits of rapid manufacturing parallels are drawn. In these cultures function was essential and early man worked at the cutting edge of the tools and materials available. By going back to the essence of protecting our feet using the best tools and materials at hand whilst maintaining respect for ourselves and the natural world around us, maybe designers can re-educate themselves as to how best to approach new technologies and even how to imbued charm in the process.
Only by studying the past can we give actuality to the future.
Confucius 2000 BC
Baumgarten, L., 2002 What Clothes Reveal, The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Boer, C. and Dulio, S. 2007 Mass customization Myth, Salvation or Reality. London: Springer-Verlag London Ltd.
Chapman, J. 2005 Emotionally Enduring Design. London: Earthscan
Design Museum, 2009 Fifty Shoes That Changed the World. London: Octopus Ltd
Homer, K., 2008 Things a Woman Should know about Shoes. London: Carlton Publishing Group
O’Keeffe, L., 1996 Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers and More. New York, Workman Publishing
Pedersen, S., 2005 Shoes: The Grace the Glamour and the Glory. Newton Abbott: Davis and Charles Books.
Sennett, R., 2008 The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Interview s with author
Ten Bhomer, Marloes, November 9th 2010 London focused questions of her work aproxamiately 60 minutes Appendix 1
Lectures author attended
Ten Bhomer, Marloes – Talk at Golden Lane site London College of Fashion May 5, 2011, an overview of her work
The Big Picture Trend forecasting talk at JPS May 2011
Archive research and interview with author
Shawcross, Rebecca (curator) and Northampton Shoe Museum and shoe archive June 14th for three hours. Ms Shawcross gave time to explore the archives, highlighted issues of interest and answered questions.
Design Real January 2009 Serpentine Gallery curated by Konstantin Grcic. Information is supported online at www.design-real.com
Bowdler, N. September 17, 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11339057
Burroughs, F., The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume2/november03/primsource.cfmCarson, A., OCTOBER 5, 2009 www.gentlemanscorner.com/
Swine Studios http://www.dezeen.com/ 27th June 2011
Vitra Muesum on A-pock
www.designboom.com/eng/funclub/apoc.html July 1, 2001