Any parent knows, a growing child burns through shoes as fast as you can buy them. But if a child’s foot grows, why don’t we have a shoe that grows along with it?
That’s what Kenton Lee, pastor and founder of the nonprofit Because International, wondered when he saw the toes of children at a Kenyan orphanage, bursting out the front of their old shoes. And so by working with the Oregon-based shoe design studio Proof of Concept, he developed an ingeniously simple solution: A pair of sandals that expand as easily as a belt.
“We started out with the goal of creating a functional shoe. We didn’t care at all about fashion,” Lee writes via email. “We didn’t care how it looked. We just wanted to create a shoe that can 1) grow as much as possible 2) last as long as possible 3) cost as little as possible.”
The resulting Because shoes have a utilitarian construction that could cost as little as $12 a pair with bulk pricing. The upper is made of notched leather, sort of like a pair of Birkenstocks with snaps. The sole made of durable pressed rubber, similar to tires. The shoes technically come in two sizes, small and large. The small takes a child from kindergarten to fourth grade. The large lasts from fifth grade through ninth.
The real trick to expandability is that this rubber sole wraps up over the toe–kind of like a running shoe or a jester’s shoe–and so as a child’s foot grows, this rubber can unfurl to expand the toe box.
Lee shipped his first batch of 3,000 shoes abroad in 2014, and from resulting feedback, and as expected, he has planned a series of improvements for a v2 shoe launching this fall. “The main improvement will be lengthening our middle strap and adding another row of snaps,” he writes. “Basically, for many children who have been barefoot their whole lives–their feet are wider than other children’s feet. So we are going to widen our shoes a little bit.”
What Lee didn’t expect was that he’d receive so much interest from parents in the U.S. who would want these shoes, too. As a result, the second version will also ship for the U.S. market this year.
“We did not create it with the goal of selling it to an American consumer,” Lee writes. “But now that we do have a lot of demand/interest from an American consumer–we will be offering a program for sales here…[though I’m] not sure what it will look like exactly yet.”
It begs the question, will these sandals–or expandable sandals like them–be successful in the U.S. market? Lee says that Nike and Adidas both passed on his idea when he originally pitched them on it, but admits that he “was just a weird kid with a weird idea,” not a savvy business man with the right contacts to infiltrate the shoe industry.
As a penny-pinching parent, I can see the appeal of a one-size-fits-forever shoe. On the other hand, as a design writer, I see that the entire apparel industry is embracing faster fashion–and that includes shoe companies–to implement niche trends on a month-to-month basis. In a quest for profits, the fashion industry is marketing more expendable clothing that dates you faster than ever, not shoes that will last kids longer than ever.
So even if I were to buy my son a pair of sandals that could last him a quarter of his childhood, chances are, the greater marketing machine at work will make him too embarrassed to wear them for very long.