An innovative look at shoe design

Friday, 19 September 2014
INTERVIEW _ One of the world's most innovative design schools opened a year and a half ago in the sleepy town of Waalwijk (The Netherlands). The masters course in shoe design, known as SLEM, attracts students from all over the world, from China to the United States. Shoe designers and footwear   companies looking for the latest techniques and applications flock to SLEM. But other famous design schools also turn to SLEM when, for example, they need advice on how to update their curriculum.

"It might have been more appropriate if we had called ourselves SLIM, with the 'i' for innovation instead of the 'e' for eduction," says director Nicoline van Enter, for although SLEM is an educational institution, it has little in common with an ordinary course. Two groups of ten new students each will be starting the 'Master Class for Footwear Innovators' in October and January. The principal course takes nine months and costs ten thousand euros, after which you will (almost) certainly be guaranteed a job in the footwear industry. "Before we kicked off the master class in February 2013, we conducted a feasibility study," Van Enter explains. "In no time, we were contacted by Nike's head of design recruitment in Oregon, who was interested. Which is surprising to me because I always thought Nike was the kind of company which is perfectly self-sufficient when it comes to providing manpower for its innovation department, but apparently that's just not the case."

On a sunny Tuesday in August, a Chinese student is busy piecing together scraps of leather and rubber in the SLEM classroom in Waalwijk. The rest of his group are out on a company visit. He is following the summer course 'Interactive footwear design with Arduino' (Note: Arduino is an open-source platform for prototypes). It is one of the five summer courses, lasting one or two weeks, which can be followed separately or consecutively. Next week he will be developing a web shop for his concept - an innovative shoe label for teen girls - during the follow-up course 'Building your web shop'. After this he will be ready to launch his own footwear line, which he intends to sell through the Chinese shopping platform Taobao.

The driving force behind SLEM is Nicoline van Enter. Two years ago, the trend watcher and part-time teacher was invited to share her thoughts on the future of the Leather and Footwear Museum in Waalwijk. The museum was looking for ways to innovate itself. With SLEM, which is merging with the museum later this year, the museum's board and subsidizer Midpoint Brabant have acquired their own innovation centre. The next logical step for Van Enter was to unite her trend forecasting business Ytrends and her work as a consultant and teacher with the institute; the result is an educational institute annex consultancy firm annex innovation centre.

Van Enter speaks and thinks fast. The energetic SLEM leader is a skilled networker with technical know-how. One of her talents is to couple the inventors of advanced technical developments with footwear producers. "There are numerous innovative companies here in Brabant. Not long ago I came into contact with a company that develops self-healing material which can be used for wind turbines, but I immediately thought of shoe soles. That hadn't occurred to them." Innovative ideas about matters such as sustainability also rarely appear to derive from the footwear sector itself. "In the past few years, shoes have actually only become cheaper, which does not leave much room for innovation in the industry."

A shoe has more in common with a coffee maker than with a item of clothing

During SLEM's master course, students develop their own shoe label. Most of them arrive with a plan and subsequently work on that plan for nine months until it is ready to launch. The new group of students includes a young lady from India. She would like to start a mid-market business in bridal footwear. People with a technical background appear better prepared for the master course than she does with her design degree. Van Enter: "Shoes may be categorized as 'fashion', but it is actually industrial design. A shoe has more in common with a coffee maker than with an item of clothing." In the first three months, students start off with a concept and a business plan. Subsequently, they visit China for three months to study the entire range of production and retail channels. The last three months are either spent in Waalwijk or in their homeland, dependent on where the student wishes to locate his or her footwear business.

SLEM differentiates itself with its pragmatic approach. Van Enter calls it 'meaningful innovation'. All activities revolve around four factors: technical development, sustainability, new business models and, of course, shoes. "The end result must be attainable, wearable and affordable. You can design the most beautiful things, but if you can't manufacture them, if no one wants or can afford them, they're worthless. I think it's important that designers are familiar with the technical aspects of this business, because I think that can improve their designs." This opinion is based on experience. Van Enter: "I was 18 and worked at footwear chain Fooks on the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam. Someone had organized a design competition and the winning design was to be sold in the store, but the end result was so ugly that no one wanted it, not even at a discount in the sales." When Van Enter compared the original design with the store-based product, she was amazed. "The design had been completely altered during the production process, because the shoe had been too expensive and complicated to manufacture. When I asked why they hadn't spoken to the designer about it, the answer was that there was no point. I was baffled." She finds it regrettable that most design courses still place little emphasis on the commercial and practical aspects of the business.

Although interest in the course is growing, the consultancy division has thus far been the main source of income for SLEM. Together with her team, Van Enter thinks up innovations for footwear manufacturers. A company might come to them because it wants to 'do something' with 3D-printing. This inquiry for the consultants subsequently becomes a case study for the students of the master class. "We ask a reasonable fee, I don't believe in competing with student fees." But that also means that serious work has to be done and students are faced with solid deadlines. "For those without work experience, this can prove to be tough."

Step by step Van Enter is managing to ally the institution with the many footwear companies located in the vicinity of Waalwijk. "They were cautious at first," says Enter, "but their enthusiasm is growing." Two companies (Stahl and Red-Rag) have already agreed to finance the tuition of talented students who cannot pay for the master class themselves. These are students who will later be able to join these companies as 'Footwear Innovators'.

Original text: Esmerij van Loon
Translation: Wendela van den Broek