In my first contribution to this magazine I stressed that in shoemaking the ‘last should be first’. To recap a little, a shoe last is an interpretation of a so called average foot shape, ‘rounded off’ to become a smoother surface to aid the degrees of workmanship that then follow in the manufacture of a footwear product, and thus make it into a shoe.
Lasts as we know them with lefts and rights are a relatively new innovation in terms of the evolutionary time scale of our industry.
My emphasis was on the need to adopt a single global sizing system so that we could start to understand the different anatomical needs of the various cultures we now have to satisfy with globalised products and globalised sourcing. It’s obviously one thing to have agreement on a standard method of arriving at a common size marking system, but the battle will intensify as we then find out that the world as we know it is not all one harmonious same shape and size grouping.
Looking at the history
Before globalisation radically affected our lives, nations operated very independently of one another. As a result, a series of national sizing systems were developed that while all meaning well and following quite similar reasoning, they worked well for local needs but were ill prepared for international clientele that was to follow.
It is a fact that we have lived for past centuries with British sizes that evolved from Edward the Confessor’s medieval times, when everyday needs used everyday standard length items to define a length of measurement, and thus for some obscure reason the English shoe sizes you buy now are based on the length of three barley corns making up one inch, and we have three shoe sizes per inch.
Yes, we have sent people to the moon and now have a roving robot on Mars as we speak - but we still have a sizing system based on the length of a barley corn.
We need measuring systems that can be adjusted to our new needs.
A sizing solution
As more and more government contracted footwear is tendered across national borders, it’s likely the industrial footwear industry will adopt the Mondopoint sizing system used for military footwear. Many major players are already adopting Mondopoint although sadly, without the girth measurement, which to me is a vital element of good fitting.
I believe it is essential that any international standard system must include three dimensional aspects of foot measurement, as we still live in a global environment where different cultures have different foot shapes. It is even more difficult to accurately fit workers as labour migration to other parts of the world now means that major manufacturing ‘commissaries’ have a tremendous variety of foot shapes, and extremes of sizes to service.
A global context for design
It is true to say that with globalisation we have youth with much more similar hopes and aspirations than in previous generations. In many cases it is fact that global marketing of foodstuffs somehow seems to have bred a new type of youth who is larger, wider, taller than ever before and all of this growth is seemingly also happening at an earlier stage in a child’s development than ever before.
The good news about this emerging similarity of global tastes is that the industrial footwear market has the chance to logically benefit from such a trend. The youth of this decade are the job hunters of the next. It is their tastes that we have to think about as we start to plan our seasonal collections some six months before they are due to be shown at a trade show, and another six months before they are available to the consumer.
Industrial footwear is and should always be about function, but these new ‘Global Villagers’, or international youth, are also very style conscious, not to forget gimmick prone, too.
Industrial footwear was for decades considered the ugly duckling of the footwear business. Our history books show us the workers in their overalls as they sit eating their lunch time sandwiches, perched on a narrow metal girder at the top of the then emerging Empire State Building, impervious to the dangers of such an environment and just happy to have a job.
Industrial footwear evolved from military footwear. It was as if ‘if its good enough for war, it’s good enough for work’, and many major employers of labour were made to supply suitable foot covering for arduous, labour intensive activities.
Needless to say, in those early years of ‘robber barons’ the emphasis when it came to the development of suitable footwear was more about price than skillfully developing a product for the functional need of the industrial occupation.
Thankfully, because the then industrial footwear was so basic in design its simplicity begat healthy competition and not all were products based solely on price.
In the United States, the 1900s were periods of incredible economic growth and the birth of new and dynamic industries. Automobiles. Aircraft. Mass farming techniques, medical developments and new service industries that included fast food concepts.
The basic boot became a ‘job fitted boot’. It could be bought for an occupation in a series of standard shoe and boot heights. The soles and constructions were selected for their suitability for the job needs.
From such new concepts evolved new categories of footwear. Boots were made for hunting and fishing and created a new outdoor category that is still highly popular. Shoes were created for the service and uniform industries that were lighter, whiter and more comfortable than the old forms of industrial footwear where they wore the foot in, rather than the other way around.
The military also noticed the improvements in the design of occupational footwear and the old concept of ‘one concept fits all’ went out of the window when boots made for the rice paddies of Vietnam were no longer functional in the hot desert sands of Arabia.
The military became a major investor in new product technology once they saw how crucial the right footwear was to the best performance of its field forces.
It isn’t a coincidence that the foreign legionnaire classic Palladium style canvas boot with vulcanised rubber soling became de rigeur for special forces operating in desert activities, or why Navy Seals like the Vibram five fingers neoprene slip on. They like these shoes because they are functional for the conditions they are required for.
The purpose of footwear is always first and foremost to offer protection against the elements no matter what they be. After that criteria, it is a menu of features that exist to satisfy the various needs of protection against such elements.
For cold climates we have blends of materials for linings to keep us warm and vice versa; for hot climates we have ventilation systems.
Influence of research
The invention of breathable membranes enhanced the comfort values of both hot and cold lining technologies. New soling materials have made our industrial footwear both lighter and more flexible, comfortable and durable. Scientific research on both soling compounds and traction pattern design has resulted in improved performance conditions for many types of industrial occupations.
Today, the shoe designer for industrial footwear is no longer the white haired, advanced age fellow with a plastic pocket liner holding the tools of his trade.
Many designers in this industry are Industrial Designers, trained to design the most eye appealing of car body shells one could imagine, but given the fact that only so many Bugati or Aston Martin cars can be sold, many such designers finish up in more mundane industries such as ours, where their attempts to revolutionise rather than evolutionise sometimes fall flat in terms of success because the mindset of the car designer does not match that of the average shoe buyer.
Economics, style and function
At the moment, the impact of off price retailing generally has created a world of style rather than content. It seems it is easier to be successful today simply by acting as retail carrion living off the carcasses of bought competitors’ shoes, tearing them apart and finding ways to make them cheaper in Asia.
Take heart, though, for if you study history’s cycles, ‘The Cycle of Discounting’ is reaching its full epoch. Now if one looks at what companies lead the world in imagery as against animosity, it is those companies who have made a dedication to good design. Companies like Apple, BMW, Nike and so many more.
The next generation of industrial footwear users will be a part of that IPOD generation. They will want well designed products and have an affinity for synthetic materials that their parents never had.
In the West, many so called industrial footwear operatives will not be wearing the shoes of yesteryear for their tasks of employment. Many will be controlling machines, be they cranes, lathes, giant trucks or computers that cost millions of dollars and require substantial training. Their footwear needs will require in depth functional analysis at the pre design stage; there will be in depth testing of the suitability of materials for selection and a willingness to develop and adopt new processes and technology.
One such example of this is in the advancement of polyurethane injection moulding for industrial footwear applications. While the performance sport industry led the world in such developments in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the leading brands gave up and accepted the fate of having to make everything in Asia to be price competitive - or so the story goes.
To their credit, it was the European industrial footwear industry that kept on with pioneering new injection moulding techniques and compounds, and Italy in particular. Today, as an onlooker to this industry it is pleasing to the eye and heart when perusing through industrial mail order catalogues to see the extent to which technology plays a part in the product development of industrial footwear today.
Bringing manufacture home
While a lot of the traditional industrial ‘foot covering’ production went off shore to satisfy the ever decreasing price points of the retail vultures, it’s good to see how many healthy and dynamic industrial and safety footwear producers remain in the West and, if the cycles of socio economic trends are anything to follow, it looks as if much of the high technology products are returning to Western shores to be produced.
I don’t find it coincidental in the schemes of social timing that a major film version of Les Miserables is about to hit our screens at the same time as political trends seem to be moving?to the left as well. Even the term ‘globalisation’ is challenged as being a positive thing for the West, as economies still flounder and more and more youth are unemployed. Call me crazy on this forecast, but a return to domestic footwear production is already happening in the United States. Some major companies are bringing it back home while others are contemplating similar decisions.
In Canada, the only factories left are those basically making boots, which includes industrial footwear products. In Europe, many dynamic companies still survive and offer some of the most advanced technologies available.
To my way of thinking, we have to think past the paternal domestic factories of yesteryear where investment was more a saying than an actual doing. If we can do that then the West will always win with a commitment to good design no matter what the product.
It’s the one thing the Asians still can’t master because the Westerners who taught them based it all on style, not design, and somehow we forgot the values that made Western industrialisation great.
Published: 19th Dec 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East