Claire Russell, head of design at Start-rite Shoes, explains how looking to alternative industries, including military, policing, safety and sports, can provide a vital source of inspiration and innovation for children’s footwear design.
Fashion is, by definition, innovative. Pervading technology, new textiles, modern manufacturing methods and creative minds all ensure that fashion never stands still. The fashion industry abounds with creative people at the forefront of design and innovation, constantly exciting the industry. Each season brings new styles and changing demands.
There are, then, direct parallels between fashion and children. They both never stop, always develop. They are both fast paced, relentless. Children are constantly growing and exploring and consequently, their footwear needs are continually changing, whether through ever-growing little feet, or through shoes destroyed through exuberant play. The cost of buying and replacing children’s shoes quickly adds up, which is not ideal for parents, or indeed, the brand.
And yet, to my mind, children’s footwear can often be left by the wayside when it comes to innovative design. Buyers need brands that can be trusted and styles that are perceived as being quality and durable. Designers must now seek influences from outside the box in a bid to meet the customers’ changing needs and the demands of busy children.
Through my 20 years in footwear fashion, with leading brands such as Dr Martens and Kickers, it’s clear to me that children’s footwear can and should, learn and apply lessons from many different industries – sports, safety, military and policing, to name but a few.
The sports and safety footwear industries have always been at the leading edge of innovation and can provide much inspiration with regards to how they support, protect and enhance movement in the foot’s structure. In these industries, comfort, protection, ease of use and durability are top priorities.
If we apply some of these principles to children’s footwear, especially during the foot’s developmental stages, shoes can nurture, support and protect the child as they grow. Shoes could potentially even allow greater growing room, which could increase brand loyalty as it will be perceived as a huge added bonus to parents.
Another area of design is the soling on shoes. The sports and safety footwear industries again have a lot of best practice in this area. Together with rigorous biomechanics research, technologies in safety footwear can provide lightweight materials with durable qualities, whilst research into running shoes can implement more flexible, structural designs that are perfect for the different stages of the growing foot. Safety footwear also boasts innovative tread pattern designs, which can grip and adapt to different surfaces.
Furthermore, upper leathers and materials can be pattern engineered to protect, support or flex on the relevant areas around the foot, whilst linings can be breathable and uppers can be waterproof or scuff-proof.
Safety clothing and footwear is well known for using an innovative product called D3O, a soft, pliable material that goes hard on impact – commonly used in protective clothing at shin and elbow points, or to provide ankle support and protection.
Children’s footwear fashion must look further afield, too. Industries such as mattress manufacturing can provide insight into the latest comfort technology, such as honeycomb cut, structural and breathable foam inserts for padded areas of the shoe, with the added advantage of being lightweight and ‘barely there’.
We should also look to military footwear for innovation. Here, the soldiers themselves have adapted their footwear to be fit for purpose after being exposed to different types of terrain and use. Tank boots came about after extreme heat burnt off one soldier’s laces, so he took off his belt and wrapped it around the boot, making the boot easier to get on and off quickly. This ‘design’ was so efficient, it has since become standard issue.
Soldiers on parade use all sorts of tricks to ensure a mirror-shine on their boots that is also long lasting and dirt-repellent – here, children’s footwear can find good inspiration for school shoes that stay shiny.
Even police riot gear has useful technologies, such as moulded met-guards and uppers or soling materials that can withstand high abrasion, which designers could look to adapt to protect small feet. Imagine an all-day comfort, all-protective, all-weather, all terrain, all-year school shoe, complete with growing room and the ability to stand up to daily scrapes on a bike or scooter.
As a children’s footwear designer, my job is to design and develop premium quality children’s fitted footwear that strengthens our reputation and makes us a brand that all retailers want to stock.
Success in our sector will come from putting the consumer central to our business to drive innovation and best in category product portfolios.
Learning lessons from other industries and implementing exciting new technologies into products will be key to this. Those brands who achieve this will stay ahead of the crowd and be a buyer’s choice.