Self-lacing sneakers have been a dream ever since Marty McFly pulled on a pair of futuristic Nikes in Back to the Future II, but they’ve never come to market despite the promises of Nike design guru Tinker Hatfield. Now Canadian footwear designer Frederick Labbe thinks he’s figured them out with the Powerlace, sneakers that self-lace as soon as you slip them on your feet. But does the world really want auto-lacing sneakers that don’t look like McFlys?
From a style perspective, the Powerlace sneakers are about as far from a set of McFlys as you can get. Simple black sneakers, with highlights in orange, they hardly look like the sort of sneakers you’d see pounding across the court on the feet of LeBron James. To put it in terms a 13-year-old can understand, they look like the sneakers your mom buys you instead of the sneakers you beg her to buy you.
What makes the Powerlace special isn’t the looks, it’s the laces. The Powerlace automatically tighten just by sliding them on your feet. It’s all accomplished by using the weight of the foot as a counterbalance to tighten the laces. Once you slip the foot in, you just flick a small lever on the back of the shoe to lock the laces in place; unlock them later, and the shoes easily slide off.
It’s an elegant analog solution to a problem that has been troubling the designers of would-be McFlys for ages. Since there’s no motor involved, there are no moving parts, cutting down on the possibility of your Powerlace breaking. But in a way, that also sort of dilutes the Powerlace’s coolness factor: part of the charm of the McFlys in Back to the Future II, after all, was in how wildly impractical they actually were.
Labbe doesn’t care. A mechanical engineer who has been working on the Powerlace since 2001, Labbe tells me that the people he really designed the Powerlace for are people with special needs who might otherwise have difficulty tying their shoes. Durability, comfort, and simplicity were the main goal.
Which is not to say that Labbe and his team wouldn’t be willing to license their technology to Nike if they came a-knocking. “The door is always open,” he tells me.
Now on Kickstarter, you can pre-order a pair of Powerlace now, starting at around $150.