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Could modular shoes be the next big sneaker craze?

Move over, Nike and Adidas.

Sneakers are quickly growing into a $90 billion business–but they’re all built the same way, more or less, constructed out of a combination of soles and uppers. Nike has React and Flyknit. Adidas has Ultraboost and Primeknit. What if we could replace just part of a shoe, rather than the whole thing? It could be greener, cheaper, and more customizable, too.

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[Photo: Iris Rijskamp/courtesy Lucille Nguyen]

That’s the premise of a new project from University of Eindhoven student Lucille Nguyen, who developed a series of working prototypes called “Up-Part” shoes. “[We] would sell the sole and the upper separately. Either can be replaced when damaged, hence limiting waste,” says Nguyen. “Since every parts can be detached by the user, it is also easier to recycle.”

The shoes wouldn’t be sold as shoes, but as kits designed to be crafted together. You start with the sole. On top, you add the upper itself, complete with tongue, secured through lacing or straps (depending on whether it’s a Converse-esque tennis shoe or something more akin to a Birkenstock sandal).

[Photo: Iris Rijskamp/courtesy Lucille Nguyen]

“The challenge of this concept was to find an easy and recognizable way the user would attached the shoe together,” says Nguyen. “We are used to attaching our shoes with laces or straps, so I pushed these gestures just a step further and made the connection technique part of the sneaker personality.”

Indeed, each of these structural elements is another opportunity for modular design, featuring different colors and textures. It’s easy to imagine how easily these customizable components could be sold piecemeal–if you can’t afford the new Jordans, maybe you can swing the new Jordan tongue and lacing.

Of course, the question is not whether a modular shoe is possible, but whether it’s practically feasible. Would the shoes hold together well enough versus traditional production methods? It’s clear that Nguyen designed the shoes for extra stability–the soles have a large lip that wraps up around the sides of your foot, while multiple designs feature reinforced heel straps. I don’t know that you’d need to play basketball in these things to make them marketable. There are many successful shoes on the market made for little more than strolling–just look at Tom’s.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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