Dave Dombrow, Under Armour's senior creative director of footwear, is tucked away in a random conference room in Chelsea Piers. It's the second time we've spoken to each other but this time it's a little different. Dave isn't showing me what shoes the Baltimore-based sportswear company already has in the market. No, this time he's promised to show me something new, something the company hinted at back in February at the launch of Armour39, its performance heart rate monitor. It's a shoe, unlike any you've ever seen.
"We're changing the way that footwear is being manufactured," he looks at me with a straight face. "No one outside the company has seen this yet." He handles the brightly coloured SpeedForm like you would a baby. It's a new type of running shoe with virtually no seams that’s made in a bra factory in China. You've literally never seen a shoe like this before now. But that’s not even the coolest thing. The SpeedForm’s heel cup is devoid of any stitching and is made from one piece of material. The shoes launch in June for $US120.
Back in February, Dombrow asked the audience to imagine creating the first running shoe from scratch. “What if footwear factories didn't exist? Would you clothe your feet in a different way? Imagine a shoe that isn’t made in a shoe factory,” he said and walked off the stage.
Fast forward to late April. Dave is telling me about NASA's original Apollo Project, and how Playtex, a bra manufacturer, had won the contract to build the space suits that would eventually land on the Moon. (Truth be told it was actually Playtex’s industrial division that won the contract and eventually spun out before the latex suits worn by Armstrong and Aldrin took humanity’s first supposed steps on the Moon.) He’s telling me this story because it was Playtex, not a military contractor, that won because of the company’s intimate knowledge of the human body and how to make things fit nice and snug. And it was this inspiration that lead to the SpeedForm.
“Under Armour is all about soft goods and we wanted to take our apparel DNA and put that into our footwear,” Dombrow tells me while taking out multiple colorways from his backpack. “We looked toward bra manufacturing for the ultimate fit experience. To our knowledge, it’s the first athletic shoe that hasn't been built at a footwear factory.”
The shoe doesn't look any different at a glance, but once you peer inside at the heel cup and notice the absence of an insole or any stitching, you get the sense that this might actually be different. When you put the SpeedForm on, it doesn’t even feel like an athletic shoe — or any shoe, really. It feels like the most comfortable pair of socks you’ve ever worn. Except that there aren’t any seams to irritate your skin.
Look down at the heel of your shoe. Notice the gaps around your ankle? With the SpeedForm there is zero gap between your ankle and the shoe. It really looks and feels like second skin. A tiny bit of silicon beading around the inner edge of the shoe certainly helps with the grip too.
Under Armour's goal was to clothe runner’s feet with a more anatomically correct shoe. But like anything else high performance, the better the fit, the faster you’re going to go. Take, for example, F1 driver seats, which are custom moulded to each driver’s body to keep them in place while they’re whipping around the track. “If it fits, you’re faster,” says Dombrow. “We obsessed over the fit and feel.”Though it isn’t obvious at first glance, the top of the shoe follows the curvature of the top of your foot and even ever so slightly separates your toes to really wrap around your foot.
If you look at the way shoes are constructed today, you’d notice that the basic structure of the shoe and by virtue of that, the manufacturing of said shoes, hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Seriously.
"The industry has not only been brainwashed but programmed to manufacture in one way," remarks Dombrow. “We’re going to change that for a variety of reasons.”
And that's no exaggeration. If you look at high-performance athletic gear, it's typically ultrasonically welded, which is to say that separate pieces of material are compressed under heavy amounts of pressure and then blasted with acoustic vibrations to fuse them together. Manufacturing processes like these don’t exist in the shoe world, says Dombrow. The SpeedForms are made by one of Under Armour’s apparel — specifically, bra — manufacturers using similar material that’s found in some of the company’s high performance gear. He won’t tell me which factory or which pieces the SpeedForms are built from but that they have the "same genetic makeup as a bra."
When it comes to shoe manufacturing, there are certain levels of tolerance that each shoe can deviate from without being considered a defect. But Under Armour wants to change that, insisting that there shouldn’t be any tolerances. Completely built with precision machines, the SpeedForms weigh just under 170g, which Dombrow says was a byproduct of how they were built and not a set goal. By comparison, Nike’s closest competitor, the Lunaracer+3, tips the scale at 179g.
The seamless upper helps, but it’s also the sole and materials used there that help cut down the overall weight of the shoe. Using its Micro G platform, with its articulated sole and a new compound called Lightspeed Grip, Under Armour cut about half the weight of its traditional sole in the SpeedForms. The TPU-based material is not only lighter but offers better grip with the same amount of durability found in traditional carbon rubber soles.
The shoe has been in the works for three years, nearly double that of the normal cycle in the industry. The earliest versions were reminiscent of Nike’s '80s hit/miss, the Aqua Socks. Other versions along the way included straps, no laces, toe shoes and even track spike-like variations. Prototyping mostly took place in China at the bra factory for a more hands-on approach. During the whole process, Dombrow tells me, others in the company would routinely tell him and the team that they were “nuts”. After dozens of ill-fated attempts, the team finally had their aha! moment with the seamless heel cup.
"No matter what business you're in, I strongly believe that you need a hook, and in this case it was a performance hook," Dombrow says with a grin. "In footwear there's a lot of rehashing of things and there are rarely any breakthroughs. But when we got to the heel cup, I realised we stumbled across something that's bigger than a shoe. It's a new way of manufacturing. And then I thought about where else we might be able to apply this."
While this particular version of the SpeedForms are built for racing — Under Armour-sponsored athlete Chris McCormack just won the Challenge Rimini in them — the company says it will offer more cushioned versions soon and that the tech will go even broader in 2014. “This shoe is geared towards an efficient runner, not those who suffer from heavy pronation or supination,” says Dombrow as I tell him that I pronate and require motion control shoes.
So how long can you actually wear these delicate sounding footwear? “Hundreds of miles,” Dave tells me. “I’ve logged over 150 miles (240km) and that’s without socks.” So basically, if you’re looking for a trainer, these aren’t the shoes for you. They’re built for linear motion (read: running), not basketball. Those will come later.
Up until last month, I'd never thought of Under Armour as an innovations company. I thought more about the marketing, the garish graphics and little less. But after seeing the SpeedForm and wondering why an innovations company like Nike, a company built on running shoes, hadn't come up with it first, I couldn't think of an excuse for my hometown favourite.
If Under Armour can come up with the equivalent of a bra for your feet, why wouldn't they be able to come up with this?