Footwear innovation means many, many different things. For some, innovation rhymes with performance; to create faster or lighter shoes. For others, it might mean responsibly designing products that won’t harm our planet. For still others, footwear innovation might mean bringing sneaker culture to the metaverse.
The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has opened the doors to its latest exhibition and accompanying Rizzoli book, titled future nowwhich presents a comprehensive exploration of footwear innovation in all its meanings.
The exhibition is curated by the Director and Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, Elizabeth Semmelhack. Semmelhack tells me she studied Japanese art history and majored in 18th-century art history, a subject that first brought to light the similarities between Japanese prints produced serials and footwear, which drew Semmelhack to the nuances of sneaker culture. His subsequent exploration of the latter was the starting point for Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, Semmelhack’s first exhibition in 2013, and the resulting book in 2015, which delved into the collection, culture, and commodification of sneakers. The traveling exhibit and post sparked a new set of questions about the future of not just sneaker culture, but the footwear landscape as a whole, and Semmelhack began to reflect on the growing impact of technology on the shoe.
Featuring quotes, interviews and contributions from over 50 industry greats, including Salehe Bembury, Steven Smith, Mr. Bailey and others, the book itself is rightly covered by the RTFKT project.” Metapigeon” by Jeff Staple, generously loaned by RTFKT.
Below, Semmelhack speaks with Highsnobiety about the whole future and the Bata Shoe Museum future now exposure.
Footwear innovation gives us a lot to say. First, how did you structure your exhibition and the accompanying book?
I decided to divide it into four distinct categories, but they all overlap. The first category is innovation, so I’m looking at things like 3D printing and some new materials.
The second section is about sustainability, thinking about global climate challenges and how so many shoe designers and shoe companies are trying to solve this problem through circular economies or new materials. Looking at mushroom leathers and ocean plastics like Parley for the Oceans.
For the third section, I wanted to see who addressed a wide range of accessibility issues and used shoes in transformative ways. Of course, Nike Go FlyEase is there, but also Kerby Jean-Raymond is there with Pyer Moss. He makes some very interesting political statements through the cartoons he does. I also have Allyson Felix after leaving Nike, who started her own sneaker company that was very focused on women and the specific needs of women in the sneaker industry.
Then the last section, of course, is about shoes in the metaverse. Think about NFTs, think about games, think about collecting sneakers in the metaverse space. Then too, given the opportunities in the virtual world, what can shoes be when shoes have no work to do?
future now covers a lot of material. What were the most enjoyable parts of making this exhibition and this book?
Talking with Steven Smith is always interesting, he’s a real futurist. I think my answer to your question is that so many creators within the industry are really trying to solve problems. It’s not just about creating the next desirable item, but actually solving a problem that also creates desire. I’ve been friends with Steven for a long time, and I think the way his mind works is really, really interesting, and he’s willing to share those ideas, but someone like Mr. Bailey is so open. Everyone in the book was so willing to really talk I think one of the things that was so fun in the book is all my interviews from Steven Smith to Salehe to Daniel I went over my number of words in each interview.
The exhibit contains many shoes that Highsnobiety readers are familiar with. Which products are you most interested in?
Converse Renew Chuck 70 – Durability is key to the future of footwear, and one of my favorite sneakers in the exhibit is the Converse Renew Chuck 70. I think the historian in me loves the Converse All -Star made its debut over 100 years ago, yet it is still relevant today. I also love that the knit upper includes a nod to the traditional ankle patch and the translucent sole incorporates scraps of recycled rubber.
SCRY by Zixiong Wei – One of the things I was looking for doing this show was shoes that really pushed the boundaries of design. SCRY co-founder and designer Zixiong Wei harnesses the possibilities of 3D printing in footwear to create shoes with a strong sci-fi aesthetic, including this remarkable pair of boots.
Takashi Murakami x Mr. Bailey – There are several reasons why Mr. Bailey’s Octopus sneakers are among my favorites. The first is that this remarkable design isn’t just a concept, it’s fully wearable. The other is that it is related not only to the work of Takashi Murakami but reminds me of the famous 1814 print by Hokusai called The dream of the fisherman’s wife.
Jeff Staple x RTFKT – I’m very interested in where shoe design might go in the metaverse. I love this collaboration between Jeff Staple and RTFKT because it straddles the divide between the real and virtual world. I also think that NFTs offer an attractive option for creators since 10% of each resale is returned to the initiator, which is an interesting way to approach the resale market.
Salehe Bembury x Crocs Pollex – I love Salehe Bembury’s Pollex Crocs because they represent the first time Crocs has allowed a designer to reinvent the traditional Crocs silhouette. I also love that Salehe did this as a freelance designer and that his own fingerprint inspired the design. Talk about putting a personal stamp on a project.
While we’re at it, do you have any predictions for the future of sneakers?
My prediction for the future is that innovation will take us back to making custom or bespoke shoes and making things tailored to our individual needs and specifications. In 500 years, people are going to say, “Wait, what? There was a time when you had to walk into a store and fit a size? This is going to sound very strange, and we’re just getting out of it.
I think we can see this happening very easily in the metaverse. But I think the bigger issue will be that since so many of us are creating our own identities through brand alliance, how will the possibilities for hyper-individualization through products continue to allow us to build a identity thanks to the alliance of brands?
Future Now is now open at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto until October 2023, while the accompanying Rizzoli book is available from the Bata Shoe Museum for CA$75 (about US$58).