Sneakers
From the ground up

To the worlds of fashion and design, the name “Sruli Recht” is synonymous with darkness. Since his 2007 debut shoe collection, the Jerusalem-born, Iceland-based, McQueen-tutored Recht has refined a design language best compared to an Arctic Circle winter: inky, unrelenting, even morbid.

It is under this medieval cloak that the name “Sruli Recht” came to span the worlds that it does. While he produces seasonal apparel collections, it is Recht’s hallmark “Non Products” – “specially-made low-run [pieces], either hand-tooled or machine-made, that would lose [their] context as a mass-produced item” – that grab headlines worldwide, as civilization at large either recoils from or marvels at Sruli’s imagination run wild.

Examples of particularly-notorious “Non Products” include “Carradina” (an auto-erotic asphyxiation belt made from dolphin skin) and, perhaps Recht’s best-known work, the “Forget Me Knot” – a leather ring whose source material was a surgically-removed strip of his own skin. The ring retailed for €350,000 (approx. $390,197).

Yet, Recht himself is anything but brooding. Sruli Recht (the person, not just the name) is affable, forthcoming, and naturally curious. In fact, it’s his devotion to materials science innovation – to boundary-pushing leather work, to avant garde design without financial pressure – that, paradoxically, casts Sruli Recht as one of fashion’s foremost luminaries. His work has fundamentally altered the scope of possibilities for many natural materials past just leather, applying state-of-the-art design technologies like 3D printing and laser cutting to purely-organic materials (for example, wool from the sheep that dot the fields outside his workshop). While the final products of his designs trend towards darkness, the effects of Recht’s work is nothing short of enlightenment.

Perhaps it was this reputation for illumination that brought Recht, the controversial “dark star,” in step with a shoemaker best known for convention. ECCO Leather, the tannery owned by the billion-euro Dutch leather house, was pursuing a mythical task: the world’s first translucent calfskin leather. ECCO Leather had the vision, the R&D budget, and the facilities – all they needed was the right visionary at the helm.

This April – just as the first spring sun chases away the shade of the Arctic winter – Sruli Recht once again grabbed headlines. After several long years of development, success had come: “Apparition”, the world’s first translucent calfskin leather, had been realized. It was supple, durable, and water-resistant (just like tanned leather), yet, translucent like plastic. Better still, it could come on an outsole.

With a 1/1 “Apparition” sneaker protoype in hand, we chatted with Sruli Recht about design, footwear, and the will to innovate in the face of the impossible.

Why the quest for translucent leather? Briefly walk us through the process.

When you look at the landscape of what has been achieved and attempted with leather, suggesting that there could be a new innovative approach is often met with raised eyebrows. With this project, however, there was a fairly obvious gap. The simplest answer is [that] large scale translucent leather had not been viably produced to make it commercially ready [as a material]. Up until ECCO Leather took this on, tanneries either didn’t want to invest the R&D, or didn’t see the market possibilities, or perhaps didn’t have a client willing enough. Every which way, they couldn’t crunch the numbers. It drove them crazy.

When I’m told something can’t be done, I am inevitably attracted to that particular challenge. In the past, I’d used various types of parchments and vellum skins with translucent qualities – lamb, goat, fish, etc – though they all have their limitations in scale, and more so in application. You couldn’t let [the leather] near any type of moisture or it would absorb, swell, weaken, then tear.

I had been looking for a material for outdoor garments that could be both translucent and still desirable to touch, and yet not be plastic, to keep within the context of the collections, the market’s orientation, and the large size of our pattern pieces. Being exposed to the options at the ECCO tannery and their eagerness to experiment meant it was possible to try.

What was the biggest hurdle during development, and how did you solve it?

Probably the first thing to take into consideration would be to ask “how is this different from other incarnations of translucent leather we have seen?” So, let’s start at the beginning. All skins during the tanning process become translucent at a certain stage before the final tanning process. Vellum, for example, is a well-known form of translucent skin, used in the past for bookbinding. This is where designers, including myself, have used it to create objects and garments. Yet, these [vellum] skins are not finished or stable in the same sense that leather is. They are still reactive, meaning their molecular bonds are still open. They will become hard in short time, or grow bacteria, and can never be exposed to moisture. In most cases, this is where the various tanning agents come in to close the bonds, but at the same time the leather loses the translucency.

The remarkable thing that ECCO Leather R&D managed to achieve was to stabilize the skin at the point of translucency [while] keeping it supple, waterproof, and colorful, all in enormous cow skins. This stuff can be cut without cracking, sewn without tearing, worn without falling apart. It is soft and matte to the touch, not oiled or dehydrated. The technique of keeping the leather in this state is obviously a trade secret.

Some things are plain hard, and by that nature inescapably attractive to creatives, but not necessarily to the budget holders. The impossible, the undone, the “unhappened” – these are where creative and scientific minds endeavor to plant the first footprint in the dust. A “go science!”-type establishment such as ECCO Leather sparks the fire. It says: “Go out into the dark forest, with not enough food or clothing; freeze; hurt yourself; pass through the sharp flames and come back changed, holding in your left hand the remnants of your shattered ego, and in your right something new, tempered from the hydraulic pressure of what happened.”

Of course, when we started this, it was assumed it could take several years. But ECCO Leather believed that there was value in developing this beyond what an artisanal brand would do with it. During these innovation marathons, the question came up whether it was truly possible to achieve this type of thing – soft, non-funky, and a non-tearing leather that wasn’t the color of various stages of oxidizing urine. When you take someone like Panos Mytaros [the EVP of ECCO Group], who is always ready to push and defy the conventional nature of the leather industry, you can be sure you can cut a way through the dense undergrowth. There are some projects that haunt you, and then there are some that call upon you to unburden yourself of the accepted state.

What functional qualities differentiate Apparition from other water-resistant translucent textiles?

Apparition is first and foremost a leather, which as a finished material is not traditionally translucent, or not naturally water repellent. It wouldn’t exactly make sense comparing it to other natural, spun or engineered extruded materials, or even anything else that isn’t another leather type. They are simply different things, made for a different purpose, constructed and worn differently.

With this material you get the qualities of leather, and more specifically the intellectual, emotional and tactile relationship we have with one of the oldest, most familiar, culturally-entwined materials. The new qualities provide an alternative aesthetic function, more so than an adjustment to the functional material properties. You will experience an object that would otherwise be a plastic, now in a leather.

This is where it became innovation in the sense that ECCO senior tanner Makis Sachperoglou made it stable, usable, and with longevity. The first [Apparition] coat we made is still soft now after a year and half of testing.

Did you have specific applications in mind as you were making Apparition (and if so, what are they?), or was this more pure research and development to simply see what was possible?

The aim, first and foremost, was to make a new material [then] tell it as a story through product and imagery.
The initial plan was always to make it into a material that could replace plastics in raincoats, shoes, and bags for the premium market, making it usable, accessible, tactile, and desirable. Finally, [we had] to commercialize it – not just have it as an artisanal fancy you see online.

This is a very good example of applied R&D focusing on an end goal, and not stopping for any obstacles. From early on I could see the garment and shoe types that I would benefit from this.

Tell me about your favorite shoe from the collection. What made designing that one particular piece such a joy?

Of all the styles we made, this is the one we brought forward, named “Apparition” after the leather. The light play of this style was the most elegant – the photons passing through with very little obstacle.
The different components inside a shoe are very rarely translucent, so again there was a series of substitutions and experiments during the design process to see what would work, maintain structure, keep the shoe on the foot, and make it walk while still maintaining this formed, distressed look.

What is nice about this process was being able to pull in my technique of folding on the form, along with a phenomenally-faceted direct-injected sole. This is the first time I’ve worked with DIP, so that is in itself a very interesting process with a steep learning curve. I began the process began with hand sculpting clay maquettes on a scaled-down printed last; 3D scanning them; scaling them back up and printing them out; then reforming them again by hand. After this initial design process, the whole sole then had to be remodeled. There were at least 4 different modelers working on this by the time it was being CNC milled in aluminum for the samples.

ECCO’s DIP technology is very advanced. I’m told they are one of very few companies that casts directly onto the lasted upper, as opposed to making cup soles and gluing them on. There are many limitations, though, with DIP – each time you change the design or substance of the upper, or even change an internal layer quality, the mold may not fit anymore, and then the injected polyurethane plastic leaks out the side. So after what could be called an “intuitive design” stage, this whole process became more of an engineering pursuit than anything.

What makes translucent leather the perfect functional material for this shoe?

“Perfect” is not the word. The design was developed to consider the material, not the material to the shoe. This shoe can be made of various materials, so it’s the other way around: this is the perfect shoe for this material.
The upper is a wide interlocking single pattern piece, formed by pleats that create light gradients, and an equally translucent internal structure that allows the seams to combine with the overall form to take on an x-ray quality. You can see the way the pattern construction is forming the shoe in a single fold with strategically placed open ended pleats. There is no lacing – the tongue holds the foot in place with a web.

Other versions of the uppers we worked on were intricate, and created beautiful spectral shades. However, for this first shoe, a more refined and minimized upper felt like the best way to feature the Apparition leather as the main character, and not graphic logos, hardware or [other] distracting elements. It’s just you, the shoe, and the light.

What kind of response do you expect from sneaker collectors?

None. These are a prototype set with no plan for production at this time. Well, maybe the reaction would be “Shut up and take my money. Oh… I can’t have it?”

In your own words, how do you see these resonating in fashion?

I look at it from the designer’s end more than the consumer reaction side. Materials science engages with developing materials, obviously, but frequently the person who knows how to apply [the final material] to something relatable is not in that team. From that perspective, it should open up more options for designers to shift the material from “look at this cool property, now what do we do with it” to you seeing it turned into something tangible like a shoe.

Making clothing is not just about the application of style and technique. At some stage, you want to experiment with new materials, or experiment in making materials. When you have a material to yourself, you get to make something totally new based on how that material acts. The access afforded by this tannery pushes you beyond your comfort or knowledge zone of hue and texture, forcing you – the designer – to think about how that flat plane will act when it enters the third dimension.

No doubt several [other] tanneries, students, and designers have presented other types of skin with spectral qualities. You will probably see comments on posts about the Apparition leather that it is not new or innovative, however this comes most likely from not reading the information in the article beyond the headline. [Apparition] is the first successful cow skin. That is a big deal for the industry. This means the skins are 4-8 times larger than what has been available before. If you – the reader – have ever made anything from a pattern, you understand the limitations of material dimensions [as well as] the achievement and promise of “larger.”

It’s always a race to who is going to discover or use a new material or technique first. Where ideas are the currency of innovation, usually the first one to stake their flag in something like this essentially owns you. This is a little different. The aim of these projects by ECCO Leather is to create new materials, present them as objects to express the nature of the discovery, and then contextualize it in a narrative form. The Apparition project is all three things coming together – material, design, story.

This leather is an evolution. Where we have begun with coats and shoes, we can go to translucent furniture and all the way across the board to things we don’t yet know. I would be lying if I didn’t want to keep this material exclusively for myself, but it really is a material larger than any one designer.

Find out more about Sruli Recht’s Apparition leather on the ECCO homepage.

Now check out the resale data on Nike’s rarest 23 sneakers.

  • Photography: Roberto Brundo / Highsnobiety.com
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