What kicks are made of
Featured on Tuesday, March 8th 2016 in the Oregon Business Tribune
Written by: Joseph Gallivan
When you think of the outdoor and athletic industry you probably think of technical running shoes or basketball shoes, long in the design process and heavy on marketing. Not something squirted out in seconds like a knockoff Croc.
But that’s how the shoe industry seems to be going, given what was on display the Northwest Apparel and Footwear Materials Show at the Oregon Convention Center last week.
It’s not that the quality is low, but that the means of making shoes has become much more automated. Little hands on sewing machines are giving way to heat presses and molding looms.
Today, great rainbow-colored sheets of shoe uppers are stamped out and shipped off to be attached to soles. The uncut panels, which look a bit like flat Darth Vader helmets, were everywhere at the show.
Jonathan Luo runs Dong Guan Li Hong Sports Goods Co. and was showing off shoe uppers he had made on his machines for Adidas (SpringBlade), Nike and Puma. His book of samples included sandwich mesh and stretch mesh, in bright colors, and his table was laden with samples with the prices in the corner.
“The customer sends us a 3D file and we can make it in two or three days,” he says. “We can print a million in 25 days,” he adds matter of factly. They’re then usually sent off to the factory where they are “lasted” or made into a shoe with a sole. “No sew, no sew,” he says, running his finger over the fabric loop that will hold a shoelace. The flat pieces are often made in layers, with raised panels and different colors. Now that sneakers no longer need dozens of parts and panels that must be sewn together, the speed of constructing them has dramatically increased. Luo sells these upper components at around $4.30 a pair for a simple design, $4.90 for something a bit more textured and complicated.
Dong Guan Li Hong Sports Goods Co. has factories in Dong Guan City and Guanto Town, China, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, employing 1,300 people.
Luo also has a separate business that makes soles. He’s very proud of the fact that they make them for Deckers brands such as Uggs, Hoka and Teva.
His next stop after Portland? “I’m flying to Baltimore. Curry 2.5,” Luo says, referring to the home of Under Armour. The rising star of apparel makes basketball shoes in Steph Curry’s name, the star of the Golden State Warriors.
Walking the aisles of the show, there were still signs of the neon colors so popular this decade, but the dominant look is “busy” prints, fine dots and swirls of color often on a black background. Nike ushered in a revolution with its Fly knit shoes (saving money and time by weaving sneaker uppers out of yarn instead of assembling them from multiple panels). Now everyone else has jumped ahead to making shoes out of mesh that can be printed by the kilometer. Woven jacquard was everywhere, as was “high abrasion” molded polyurethine, (P.U.).
That high abrasion texture, which is useful whether you’re driving to the basket or just to the sports bar, is usually a PU casting. It can be in the pattern of a spider web, flowing water or brain cells: whatever can be imagined and saved in Adobe Illustrator
Kenny Li, an exhibitor with Taiwan Kurim Enterprise Co., was showing off a blue and yellow basketball shoe with the Golden State Warriors logo (see cover) on the tongue and a brief, curved, logo on the ankle. It was all-star point guard Klay Thompson’s signature shoe. Made, not by Nike, but by Anta Sports Products of China. Li pointed out that his firm also made the square pattern on the Jordan 4, “long ago” and pulled up a picture of it from the web on his phone. He promises that Taiwan Kurim can make a rubbery casting of any pattern, and apply it to fabric for use in a shoe. “Some people buy a whole sheet, or open mold, some buy just the upper,” he said.
Other vendors were from the nitty-gritty of outdoor apparel making. They had multi-colored shoelaces. Non-slip synthetic soles. There were signs for “rice rubber” and “silicon leather.” A man from something called eVent fabrics demoed a vapor barrier glove which lets a person’s wet hand dry out while underwater. Vibram had all its chunky soles on view. Alice Chiu of Ta Jow Metal Industries had an array rainbow-colored grommets, bag clasps for Coach (the real Coach) and belt buckles for Calvin Klein.
Chiu talked at length with a woman she met at the show a year ago. Jan Hayden works at Sorel, which is the boot brand of Columbia Sportswear in Washington County. She manages the materials lab for Sorel, so she and her designers are always scouring the trade shows (and the internet) for new uses of materials. Anything she finds at this show, assuming her designers like it, goes through a full battery of tests and would not show up on a boot until Fall 2017.
“I’m looking for interesting finishes and new technology,” she says. “Things like neoprene and TPU, if someone’s doing something fresh with them. The better vendors shop the whole world and develop materials they think will sell.”
Hayden said the one-piece upper has been around for a few years, but it hasn’t been easy to scale it, and that many factories don’t know how to work with that type of upper. For all the choice on display, there are many limiting factors.
One man who knows all about shoe factories is Luis Carrega, owner of Axion LLC. Axion is a one-stop shop that can take a someone’s idea for a shoe — from sneaker to work boot — and do everything.
“We’ll take an idea, paper it up in non-disclosures, do the design and tech packs, cost it, build the tooling, everything, the QC and the QA, shipping...” He estimates that his firm charges from $30 to $60 for a high-end running shoe.
Carrega’s Axion network consists of two people in Asia, one in Brazil, one in Mexico and himself in northeast Pennsylvania. Between them they find the right materials and factories to get it done, even if the idea comes from a novice. They also work for big clients. Icon Health & Fitness owns several brands, including NordicTrack, Weider and Gold’s Gym. When they wanted a technical running shoe they contracted with Axion, who came up with Altra. Another client, which he prefers not to name in print, is a very high end Italian fashion house which wanted an array of sports shoes around the time of the London Olympics. They got them.
The days of China as a cheap labor pool producing shoddy goods are over, Carrega says.
“Labor costs in China have gone way up. Right now it costs less to have shoes made in Portugal, because of the austerity measures. There are more people who just want to work. Plus they’re more efficient.” He estimates that for one Portuguese worker, he would have to pay four in China. “I’m looking at Myanmar next,” he says.
Chau Nguyen, Market Segment Manager, Performance Materials, at chemical company BASF in Wyandotte, Michigan, showed off Infinergy, the puffy, foam sole that Adidas began using in 2013 in some running shoes.
“We helped take Adidas from a lifestyle brand to a performance brand,” Nguyen says proudly. BASF makes the orange rubber midsole in Timberland work boots, and the wavy grey midsole in many Keen hikers. It delivers the chemical as a liquid, by the drum load. It is injected into a mold between the upper and outsole, and fuses to both. Again he says, BASF’s work on the Ignite XT foam for Puma, used in Usain Bolt’s training shoe, “helped transform Puma from a lifestyle to a performance brand.”
Lisa Will was down just for the day from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. looking for innovation. She started her company Stonz when her son was five months, because she couldn’t find a waterproof bootee that worked in the snow. She says her products look like climbers’ chalk bags, but they work. And they are tough enough to be hand-me-downs. “I was tired of baby mitts and shoes that were designed to fall apart — fast fashion,” says Will. She was in Portland looking at breathable nylons, rubber boots made with non-toxic chemicals, and anything recyclable.
“Really, we need to stop throwing things away.”
For all the flashing LED jackets and fake fur camo, one traditional material still has a presence: leather.
There were several vendors showing leather for footwear and bags. Steve Lange is director of the Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. He came from the automotive leather world (seats) and now oversees a team of scientists. They research how to treat flaws and stains in the leather so it is more consistent. (Cows lying in their own caustic waste can have their hides damaged.) They teach a two-day Leather Orientation course for $925. They also promote different kinds of leather. He showed how 0.3 millimeters of kangaroo hide is stronger than 1.2 mm of cow leather. They also do species tests. For instance, a pair of what look like ostrich skin boots may just be cow hide that has been dyed yellow and given a bumpy texture.
“And there’s dog. In Asia, some people pass off dog for sheep skin.”
He hastens to add that no animals are killed just for their skin — they are all meat products first. So the big tanneries (Eagle Ottowa and GST Auto Leather), which have consolidated a lot in the last 20 years, are in Michigan, near the big cattle slaughterhouses. The fresh hides have to be chilled or put in a “wet blue” state so they don’t start to go bad within eight hours of the cow’s death. Tanning uses chromium to remove natural oils and toughen and preserve the hide. It takes about 12 weeks for a hide to go from the cow’s back to the car seat. In fact, with automakers being asked by consumers more and more for leather interiors, there’s a good chance your Mercedes and your McDonald’s are related.
And even this industry is taking care to be environmentally friendly.
“Tanneries now have their own water treatment systems, they make sure the chromium goes in the leather not the waste water,” says Lange.
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About BASF’s Performance Materials Division
BASF’s Performance Materials division encompasses the entire materials’ know- how of BASF regarding innovative, customized plastics under one roof. Globally active in four major industry sectors - transportation, construction, industrial applications and consumer goods – the division has a strong portfolio of products and services combined with a deep understanding of application-oriented system solutions. Key drivers of profitability and growth are our close collaboration with customers and a clear focus on solutions. Strong capabilities in R&D provide the basis to develop innovative products and applications. In 2015, the Performance Materials division achieved global sales of € 6.7 bn. More information online: www.performance-materials.basf.com.
At BASF, we create chemistry for a sustainable future. We combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility. The approximately 112,000 employees in the BASF Group work on contributing to the success of our customers in nearly all sectors and almost every country in the world. Our portfolio is organized into five segments: Chemicals, Performance Products, Functional Materials & Solutions, Agricultural Solutions and Oil & Gas. BASF generated sales of more than €70 billion in 2015. BASF shares are traded on the stock exchanges in Frankfurt (BAS), London (BFA) and Zurich (AN). Further information at www.basf.com.