In a small leather atelier on the outskirts of Paris, adidas’ best minds are bringing leather footwear into the future. Following up on the announcement of a 3D-printed Futurecraft midsole, the Three Stripes now present a second installation in the Futurecraft series.
The upper of adidas’s new Futurecraft Leather Superstar is machined from a single piece of leather in Paris, before being sent to the adidas factory in Scheinfeld, Germany to be finished. When adding more components to a design, the likelihood for failure increases, but Futurecraft’s new, reductive approach to construction provides numerous benefits toward the end result, allowing for a simple and robust shoe that balances modern and traditional characteristics.
We met up with adidas Originals VP of Design Nic Galway, industrial designer Alexander Taylor and shoe designer Joachim de Callatay in the French capital to find out more about adidas’ futuristic footwear initiative.
In your own words, what did each of you contribute to the project?
Nic Galway: I’m on the adidas Originals side, and during our discussions of milled leather, the Superstar came up. People wear it casually today, but the Superstar was one of the most innovative shoes we’ve ever made during the period it was designed, and it was one of the first shoes to really use leather in an innovative way. So I thought there was a nice connection there, and it provides the chance to tell a story from the past, which actually ties into innovation in the future.
For this project we wanted the milling process to do the talking, and we’re using the Superstar as a blank canvas. But this is something we will explore more in the future.
Alexander Taylor: I’ve worked on other projects with adidas, including other explorative and innovative projects that offer new points of view. Within that remit, I wanted to explore machined leather, and that is when Joachim entered the picture because of his experience with leather, shoe assembly, and pattern-making.
We wanted to go back to a material that resonates with adidas’ heritage, thinking of how we can work with leather, and just through conversation we came to the idea of machining leather in the same way that aluminum blocks or wood are treated.
Joachim de Callatay: This is my first project with adidas. My background relates more to handmade footwear styles, so I have my own workshop and I’m collaborating with other fashion brands to make their footwear.
But this project also coincides with the Superstar’s 45th anniversary?
Nic: Yes, it’s a bit of good luck, but it’s also a chance to celebrate leather, which is a material that adidas is known for. I’ve talked before about collective memory and things that people associate with the brand, and leather is something that is hugely part of adidas. It’s a historic material but its also an innovative material, and it’s a refreshing approach from all the plastic and synthetic materials that are associated with modern shoes.
We also want to have an open mind, and invite people like Alex and Joachim in to see how they view us.
Is there a red thread or a philosophy that connects the Futurecraft 3D initiative with this milled leather project?
Nic: We’ve talked a lot about the power of making. Not drawing or sketching, but getting away from the computer and working hands-on. The beauty is in the making, and encouraging other designers to do so by saying “We want you to bring what you studied, and bring that into our company with the freedom to explore.”
So it could be 3D printing, it could be leather, and we will have other things coming. But it’s all about hands-on and creating.
How did this milling process even come up in the context of footwear?
Alex: It was one of the first meetings we had, we just started talking about the way leather shoes are made and about leather in general. So quickly this turned into a discussion about how we can remove material to make the shoe more flexible, rather than adding more material.
We grabbed a hand-held router and started going away at the leather as if it was a piece of wood. From that moment on, the dots connected and we realized we can use this industry to our advantage. There were several unknowns at this point but we went forward trying to understand the possibilities. It was a very quick moment
Joachim: After the first discussion, we followed up on the idea of making the shoe’s upper from one piece, because normally a shoe is like a sandwich of different layers. The first idea was to create a flat pattern that becomes the shoe’s upper, and keep it really simple.
Nic: It’s putting a stake in the ground and we’re trying to show the potential. We are bouncing ideas around all the time in terms of where we can take it next. What I think is really interesting is, when you normally make a leather shoe, you’re using multiple layers, glues, reinforcements and things that fight against the material, because what’s so nice about leather is that it’s breathable and it’s natural.
This milling process allows the leather to stay in its natural state, and we can get the best properties out of the material. It’s a reductive process instead of applying more. After the Superstar, of course, we are thinking where we can take this.
With the actual product, how are the fit and details affected?
Jaochim: In the toe, we keep all the thickness, and the same in the back because you need the support. Also we keep the lateral side relatively thick because you need reinforcement for the lacing.
Nic: It’s playing with the subtleties of the material, so the tongue is the same piece of fabric as the upper, and you can see how thin the tongue is. The only other way to achieve these variations in thickness would be to compress the material, and when you compress the leather you will change its properties.
Jaochim: During compressing, leather will become stiffer and that’s something we didn’t want .
Alex: If you take the leather from the tannery, then split it up into different thicknesses and glue everything back together, it’s the opposite of building up to something. In the end it actually takes something away. So this new method is more efficient, it’s far cleaner than laser cutting because you’re not burning or scorching the material. Milling allows us to keep the natural qualities of leather as intact as possible.
Talk about the implications with respect to sports, specifically with leather football cleats.
Nic: Depending on what leather you choose, you can use it to decorate a shoe. This isn’t about decoration, it’s integral to the product. The different materials you use will provide different properties, so fit, support, and other characteristics will change depending on the leather. So you can really fine-tune the materials.
If you look at a regular Superstar with all its components, it’s a sizeable number of pieces, whereas this is a singular piece. This process allows us to select the hide we want with the properties we want, then set the program with different milling depending on the athlete. Milling is very flexible in this way, and the skill of the technician isn’t affected in this way, it’s a very minimal amount of stitching to finish the product because most of the work is finished through an automated process.
Jaochim: If the milling is deeper in the leather, then you get this glove-like fit.
What is the source of this leather?
Jaochim: This is a full vegetable leather, no chrome, no chemical products, and we bought it in a tannery in Argentina. We wanted to choose a very natural leather to keep the idea of having a natural product.
Why not use something more malleable to create a one-piece upper, like a synthetic material?
Nic: There is a reason why people like leather shoes. The thing about the future and progress is you tend to leave the past behind, which results in losing some of the charm and some of the connection. We have a lot of advanced materials, but it’s easy to forget that leather is an advanced material as well, it’s just become forgotten about. The breathable qualities of leather over a synthetic, the natural molds and it getting better with age are all things to consider. Very few synthetic shoes get better with age. The future doesn’t have to be futuristic.
Alex: If the players want to wear leather, and they get the best possible product from that, then it’s up to us to offer the best possible solutions and to find the best ways to work with the material. It’s part of the exercise to revisit, update and fine-tune. Sports are about millimeters and fractions of seconds, and if we can improve the product by a small margin then it’s worth addressing to allow athletes to perform at their best. It’s exciting to think about the applications to clothing and accessories also.
Alex: From a style point of view, for sure. We are only looking at footwear here, but it’s obvious that things will migrate into other aspects of the brand.
Is the milling process expensive?
Nic: I think it’s like anything that you do for the first time, to pioneer – by its very nature – is to go into the unknown, and exploration leads you where you want to get. At that point, yes it’s relatively expensive, however, if you think about where this could take us, then it’s very scalable.
But there are lots of benefits, there is very little labor in this product, very little shipping of components. We are breaking new ground, and once we figure out where we can go then we can start fine-tuning the ideas.
Sneakerheads will be wondering, how does this affect toebox crease?
Nic: A lot of the sneakers today that people wear are very reinforced, there are multiple linings.
Jaochim: It’s the reinforcements that cause this problem, because the reinforcements aren’t leather, they are mostly technical materials. But if you work in leather, of course it will become softer and it will always go back to the same place.
Nic: A lot of the modern sneakers don’t break down with any charm, they just break down. But a great leather jacket gets better with age, so it’s a different mindset. But I’ve always loved something like a Stan or a Superstar, personally I think they get much better with age, especially if they’re in a premium material. I believe that by using premium materials, the shoe will grow with you.
Why is it important to brand this project as Futurecraft?
Nic: It’s not so much marketing, it’s a shared vision for creatives within the brand and the people we partner with. We should talk about what we stand for – there’s a certain integrity to that. We are a pioneering brand, we want to create the future, and we want to connect these elements together and form the future through the past. The status quo is there to be challenged, and this is what we stand for as adidas.
Will this process be integrated into mi adidas?
Nic: When it comes to products like mi adidas, we are just touching the surface. You can put your name or a photo on a shoe, and we’ve done great things with apps, but it’s just the beginning. We really want to be able to fine-tune products to your feet. Using the right materials, whether it’s leather, whether it’s 3D printing, whether it’s what we will share with you next, these are all elements that allow us to make better products through a process of working with experts, and being an open company as creatives.