Performance is the muse of the $60+ billion sneaker industry. In the last few years especially, new foams, fabrics, and production processes have truly moved the needle for athletes, allowing them to run faster and crush old marathon records. But the technologies drive new aesthetics, too, turning physics into fashion statements.
And that’s what we’re seeing today with the introduction of Adidas Futurenatural, the company’s latest technological breakthrough. In layman’s terms, Futurenatural allows Adidas to form a shoe without seams. How? The shape of the top of the shoe is molded (rather than sewn)—and at the exact same moment it’s being shaped, this “upper” is fused to the bottom of the shoe with high pressure and heat. Adidas goes so far as to call the shoe “forged,” like a piece of steel, even though the core components appear to be polymers.
Why? The big motivation behind Futurenatural was to create a shoe that fit people better, explains Rashad Williams, senior director of footwear at Adidas Basketball. Specifically, Futurenatural creates a better feeling of “lock down”—or when a shoe pulls the top of a person’s foot down tightly to offer more stability.
The project began with two years of research, during which Adidas scanned thousands of people’s feet from around the world. As the second-largest global sportswear manufacturer, you’d think Adidas would already have a huge library of 3D scans. After all, even Target scans its own customers to better design clothing for the growing American waistline. But in all actuality, Adidas did not.
“A lot of companies don’t [have a library],” Williams says with a laugh. “They have scans of some of the athletes [they] work with. We have James Harden’s feet in a library for sure—a mold of his foot. But we don’t have regular consumers. There’s a generic approach around fit . . . and I think that’s probably one of the areas our industry is a little slow on.”
After scanning, Adidas developed a new last—the term for a 3D model that represents the shape of a foot. “[We were] trying to figure out what’s the right sweet spot between wide feet, narrow feet . . . or you play a lot of basketball, you might have a lot of calluses on your feet,” Williams says. The company wanted to accommodate all of these edge cases better than it had in the past.
But the shape is only part of the equation in shoe design. How a shoe is built is as important as why and for what purpose. Alongside this newly modeled last, Adidas questioned its own manufacturing process. Working with one of its factories, designers and engineers developed the aforementioned production process, which could support this new last shape. Crucially, Futurenatural is made to be compatible with Adidas’s existing technologies, like its energy-return Boost foam and Lightstrike cushioning.
Aside from benefits of fit, Adidas claims this production process is better for the environment than traditional methods of shoe manufacturing, because it minimizes the glue and thread needed for the shoe.
The only catch of Futurenatural production seems to be that because the upper is formed with so much heat and pressure, many design details would literally be crushed and burned in the process. Shoelaces, for instance, would carbonize if included during the work.
So Adidas adds these components later. Overlays are attached after the fact. And rather than hiding that premise, for its debut shoe Adidas is celebrating it. The Harden Vol 5, which will go on sale in early 2021 for an unannounced price, is a basketball high-top. But it’s hard to see past the colorful amoebas on its surface, which curve and squiggle their own ode to Memphis Design (aka the 1980s design movement that you might remember best from Saved by the Bell’s original credits).
The future of Futurenatural will include more materials and approaches to design, and it won’t be a hobby like many of Adidas’s experiments, but a foundational technology for the company moving forward. “Futurenatural will definitely be the future of basketball for us,” Williams says. “That’s the beauty of the tech. It allows us to [mix] different technologies to make a superior product.”