The Highsnobiety Footwear Forecast is Highsnobiety Footwear Editor Fabian Gorsler’s monthly column that digs deeper into the biggest storylines, trends, and happenings across the global, multi-billion dollar sneaker industry.

The footwear and sportswear industries live and die by innovation. Whether it's cushioning technologies, manufacturing processes, or material innovations, there’s always an arms race in the sneaker industry — to be the lightest, fastest, most comfortable, and the best.

Over the years, digitalization has thrust that race into overdrive, with new technologies speeding up advancements and changing the landscape of footwear design at a neck-breaking pace. Digitalization has always been a big part of the industry, but with 3D printing and robotics streamlining processes and becoming more commonplace, digitalization in all its form will be the main factor shaping the industry moving forward.

Daniel Bailey, co-founder of CONCEPTKICKS and a mercurial product designer in his own right, believes that digitalization in footwear design is already commonplace from a designer standpoint, but it’s how the consumer interacts with it, where the biggest developments will come. “I think over the next couple years it will become the norm to buy sneaker NFTs, balanced with physical versions of that same file/design. It's without a doubt the present and future of the industry,” he explains.

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Bailey, who has footwear projects with Heron Preston and adidas to his name (the results of which have a very digitalized, futuristic aesthetic), explains that digitalization touches his work in many ways. Whether he’s sketching on WACOM tablets or building 3D models during product design studies, the evolution of technology offers Bailey more flexibility and increased precision when plying the tools of his trade.

“It’s something that I’m fascinated by, and I’m constantly trying to educate myself on the latest software and the new construction possibilities that come with them,” he says. “My personal creations tend to lean toward the more conceptual, so the possibility of creating NFT’s of my designs is something that has come up quite a few times. It’s something I’m interested in, I’m just waiting to implement it in a way that feels organic to who I am as a designer.”

Zellerfeld — newcomers to the scene — worked with Bailey on the aforementioned Heron Preston project. They’re an example of how digitalization can enrich the industry, and have been making waves for their use of circular 3D printing. “Digitalization lowers the barrier of entry for new designers and more creative designs. What we see now is the very beginning,” the team tells Highsnobiety. “Digitalization of design, combined with additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), is the inevitable future of manufacturing. Every day we see incredible advancements in the lab, and we can’t wait to share it with more designers.”

That lower barrier to entry is a direct result of digitization cutting costs and lead time. Whereas previously, creating samples or prototypes was expensive and required access to factories and specialized equipment that not everyone had, it’s never been as easy as it is now. This is something that big brands, such as adidas and its 4D and Strung projects, have highlighted and benefited from. However, smaller brands and independent creatives are now also able to benefit. “Digitalization eliminates the required upfront investment of money and time, and empowers anyone to design, scale, and print a shoe in hours with just software,” says Zellerfeld.

Bailey adds that the design and development process has benefited greatly after being stagnant for many years. “In the past, digitalization has predominantly played a role in creating a proof-of-concept during the footwear development process, but it’s quickly changing through constant innovation within the space and becoming more of a commercially viable way to create a final product,” he says.

The CONCEPTKICKS co-founder and Zellerfeld are two of the most interesting players in the game, but there are several other names to keep an eye on, as the field and its talent pool continue to grow. Bailey highlights Scry, founded by Zixiong Wei, whose designs straddle the digital and organic world, blurring the lines and making it impossible to tell one apart from the other. RTFKT is another major player that Bailey pinpoints, with the company approaching digitalization from an investment and reselling perspective. RAL7000Studios, like Bailey, has worked with adidas on a footwear project heavily influenced by digitalization, and is challenging the way sneaker components are put together. Finn Rush-Taylor is another name mentioned by Zellerfeld, who consider the designer and his penchant for working in VR to be the future of footwear creation.

There are already a lot of names that could be added to that list, which speaks to the direction the industry is moving in. There's no better combination than young, hungry creatives that have access to technology and tools to realize their vision. If footwear design continues to evolve as it has done in the last couple of years, exciting times lay ahead for the industry as a whole — both in many brand and consumer-facing ways.

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