Best Foot Forward

Athletic shoes go higher tech

By Amy Mindell


For centuries, regular folk wore “straights” — shoes that could be worn on either foot and eventually adjusted with wear. Only the wealthy could afford comfortable, custom-made shoes.

With advances in mechanization and mass production during the Industrial Revolution, better footwear became available to the middle class. The invention of rubber soles in 1899 propelled the United States to the top of world shoe production, with Keds, owned by Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine Worldwide since 2012, becoming the first nationally known brand. 

Gym shoes quickly took off worldwide; and passionate devotees bestowed a host of nicknames, including Plimsolls (after the Plimsoll line on a ship: If water rose above the line of the rubber sole, the wearer would get wet), sneakers (so quiet), tekkies and trainers.

One of the earliest entrepreneurs to understand the potential was a young footwear-firm manager named Marquis Mills Converse who saw how sports captivated the imagination of young Americans at the beginning of the 20th century.

Marquis founded the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Malden, Mass., and introduced the world’s first performance basketball shoe, the All Star, in 1917. He then made a smart move that sealed his company’s place in posterity: He recruited a young college basketball player, Chuck Taylor, to pitch his All Star shoes. The future Hall of Famer took to the job with alacrity, becoming a worldwide “ambassador of basketball” who went on to represent the company for 50 years.

Over the next few decades, athletic shoes became increasingly specialized.

In 1925, German Adidas founder Adi Dassler developed the first shoes specialized for soccer and track and field, introducing studs and spikes. He also constructed shoes for various distances and used state-of-the-art materials for reduced weight. In 1952, Emil Zatopek won three gold medals in one week wearing Adidas shoes in the Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

In Oregon, Phil Knight founded Nike with legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, and stumbled upon an innovation that set the company on a trajectory to greatness. The iconic, waffle-soled running shoe made a very distinct impression on runners in 1972, particularly with its nubs, which gave traction but were light and durable.

Nike continued the specialty shoe revolution a decade later with the Air Force 1, a basketball shoe with far-reaching innovations like mesh side panels, a concentric outsole and Nike air cushioning.

Around the same time, in Boston, Reebok released its Freestyle, the first athletic shoe designed especially for women. Timing couldn’t have been better as the shoe hit a hot new fitness craze called aerobics, which propelled the specialized athletic shoe — and the company — into history.

Gym shoes haven’t been the same since. 

By 2008, Nike was using strands of high-strength fibers, called Flywire, to reduce a running shoe’s weight by as much as 50 percent. Nike’s Flyknit system was introduced in 2012, aimed at creating a snug fit like that of a sock but with structure and durability. Known as the Flyknit Racer, the shoe weighed 5.6 ounces.

One of the world’s first tech-enhanced running shoes, the Altra Running IQ, introduced in 2015, has an integrated chip for sensing metrics of foot strike, cadence, impact force and form. 

But high-tech kicks aren’t limited to the basketball court or gymnasium. 

In 2015, Dolly Singh, owner of Los Angeles-based startup Thesis Couture, found a way to reconfigure the stiletto into a shoe that was kinder to the female foot. Tapping the skills of a former astronaut, rocket scientist, orthopedic surgeon and fashion scientist, Singh created a high heel shoe that is more comfortable than traditional heels and less likely cause foot pain. 

Singh isn’t the only one to re-think the stiletto. 

London College of Fashion graduate Silvia Fado Moreno designed a hydraulic high heel using sports footwear for inspiration. While no one would run a marathon in these shoes, Moreno worked with an architect and an engineer to create a comfortable high-heeled shoe with the help of springs, rubber balls and pneumatic hydraulics.

Indeed, shoe designers and visionaries are stepping creatively and comfortably into the future.