If the Shoe Fits

November 2021

What if the best or most comfortable footwear was simply less footwear? What if shoes took their cues from what indigenous communities have been wearing for centuries? And what can ancient knowledge and craftsmanship teach us about shoes that are sustainable for both feet and planet? Catherine Willems’ research combines anthropology, design and biomechanics to provide revealing answers to these questions and the basis for some innovative practical applications.

Willems is an anthropologist, a shoe designer and founder of the Future Footwear Foundation (FFF). She currently combines her work as a designer with a role as lecturer and researcher at Kask, School of Arts Ghent. With an educational background in comparative cultural sciences at Ghent University and footwear design at Ars Sutoria in Milan, Willems works across three disparate fields: biomechanics, anthropology and design sciences.

In 2008 she combined her passions when she began her PhD and chose to focus on ways of walking through geographies and cultures. Her interest was threefold: exploring how we create shoes, looking at what footwear does to the body (humans have been suffering from foot injuries and diseases, like bunions, at an increasing rate since the 1970s) and studying what making footwear means for the environment (shoe production is one of the most polluting industries in the field of fashion and it takes about 12 different materials to make one pair of shoes).

Willems concentrated her research on communities in different climate zones and environments and examined how they made shoes and what their biomechanical properties were. Her research looked at, among others, eland skin sandals made by the San people of the Kalahari Desert, reindeer moccasins made by Saami artisans in Finland and footwear created by Kolhapuri artisans in India.

What her work in the field showed was that the indigenous footwear the team researched could functionally be considered minimal. Rooted in centuries-old traditions, these shoes are often wide, thin and flexible, provide very little interference with the natural movement of the foot and follow the shape of the foot while protecting it, through minimal means, from the surrounding environment. These ‘less-is-more’ shoes also move and breathe with the feet, perfectly serving their purpose and adapting over time to the changing needs of their users. They also prove to be perfectly of our time and, in that sense, a lesson to us all.

After completing her PhD in 2015 Willems began a new project in which she compared the production of hand-made shoes to mass-produced shoes. Once again, she analyzed everything from peoples’ relationship with their shoes and the impact of footwear on the body, to the flexibility and resistance of the shoes, the amount of material required to make them and their afterlife. A significant difference between handmade and mass-produced shoes, is that the former focuses on the individual foot the shoe is being produced for, while in mass-produced shoes, companies work from (and for) an average foot, which, apart from size, is the same for everyone.

In 2017 Willems founded the Future Footwear Foundation, based at KASK & Conservatorium, the School of Arts of HOGENT in Belgium, to level up research activities. During an 18-month research project, her team used 3D technology to scan feet and analyze barefoot communities, developing 3D-printed footwear that replicates barefoot walking based on indigenous designs. The foundation’s current research, titled 3D2WALK, is funded by the Industrial Research Fund, Ghent University Association, Belgium and using material sponsored by BASF. It follows up on previous research carried out by FFF that showed that after three months of wear, there is an increase of more than 40% of power in the forefoot, meaning balance and stability in the users’ feet and a feeling of being more grounded and connected.

This current study aims to see if after five months of barefoot walking humans develop an even more trained muscularity, which could lead to even greater stability and lessen the risk of falls and hip fractures. Simultaneously the study looks at how this research can be translated into something sustainable and ethical for the indigenous communities involved. The initial design belongs to the community and constitutes its cultural heritage. For every pair of shoes made, a royalty is committed to the community with whom FFF collaborates.  The prototypes are now being produced as part of the study and Willems is exploring how to bring the product to market in collaboration with London footwear company Vivobarefoot.

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© Future Footware Foundation
© Future Footware Foundation
© Future Footware Foundation
© Future Footware Foundation
© Future Footware Foundation
This article appeared in DAM79. Order your personal copy.