Design Trends

Material Matters

The Hottest Looks Have Performance to Spare — and Relevance Off the Trail.

The desire to make shoes faster, lighter, more durable, more cushioned or just plain more comfortable has driven some of the biggest franchises in the footwear world. (After all, where would Nike be without Air?) But as consumers look to simplify their wardrobes and pare back on specialized kicks, it’s technologies that offer function with fashion — or vice versa — that have been attracting heat. Even in the performance-obsessed outdoor world, there’s a renewed interest in materials that get the job done in the harshest conditions but that quietly make life better for the wearer while running errands or walking to work, too.

Here, exciting new material stories — look for them soon on the trail, or at a tavern, near you.

Vibram’s XS Flash 2 compound is non-marking and comes in colors other than black.

Spring Heat

The temperature-regulating properties of wool have made it a staple in cold-weather footwear: Cozy shearling linings, felted slippers and warm plaid fabrics are classics for a reason. But this season, more and more footwear brands are following the lead of apparel specialists (and casual-world trendsetters like Allbirds) and bringing wool into spring styles for the same temperature-modulating reasons.

Irvine, CA-based OluKai is making wool the focus in its $110 Pehuea Li sneaker, and Vancouver, BC-based Sole is following up its fall Jasper Wool Eco Chukka (created in conjunction with sustainable apparel label United By Blue) with the $85 Jasper Eco Flip, which features ethically sourced merino wool and recycled PET in the engineered mesh strap.

For natural movement specialist Vivobarefoot, a partnership with Woolmark for spring ’20 is critical to its commitment to looking for materials that are either biological, recycled or natural. To that end, it worked with Woolmark to put the material (along with Tencel and leathers from Leather Working Group Gold-rated tanneries) in two of its classic styles, the Primus Knit ($180) and Magna Trail Leather ($220).

“Merino wool’s natural breathability and temperature regulation make it an excellent option for us when designing shoes that are comfortable all year-round,” said Karla Peckett, creative director, Sole and ReCork. “It’s also soft to the touch, making it perfect for the uppers of barefoot-friendly shoes and sandal straps. Most people associate wool with heavy, warm clothes, but when used in a light, flexible knit, it provides a naturally sustainable, versatile material that can keep you more comfortable than a synthetic equivalent. More and more it’s becoming recognized as the comfortable, sustainable material it is.”

Flash Forward

Color the climbing world ready: At Outdoor Retailer, Italian outsoling master Vibram debuted its newest compound, XS Flash 2. It’s sticky, stable — and oh, yeah: It comes in colors other than black. The new material is nonmarking and designed to maintain its properties even in cold weather, but the company is betting that ability to play with different hues on the outsole will make XS Flash 2 a compelling story for climbing brands. To show it off, Vibram debuted a line of climbing styles at the show it had made in house, all soled in a vivid turquoise. (The shade is becoming a signature one for the brand: It’s the same shade Vibram used in the launch of its Wrap and Go midsole and outsole earlier this year.) According to the brand, the material currently is being shown to Vibram’s partners, with the potential to be brought into climbing lines in future seasons.

OluKai Pehuea Li.
The North Face Activist Futurelight Low.
Vivobarefoot Primus Knit Wool.

The North Face Looks to the Future(light)

When the North Face debuted its proprietary nanospun Futurelight waterproof breathable membrane technology in pinnacle apparel in 2019, it marked the beginning of a new era for the brand. (It also marked the end of its longtime partnership with Gore-tex.) For spring ’20, the newly Denver-based firm is bringing the same technology into footwear.

Created by spraying a polyurethane solution through nano-scale nozzles to create a film, the Futurelight membrane is dense enough to stop water penetrating — but porous enough to let air molecules through. It’s also customizable: Tweaks to the process can dial up or down the permeability and porosity to suit different performance or weight needs. The process gives the materials some distinct advantages, allowing the film to function when applied to stretch fabrics, unlike more traditional membranes, for better fit with a bootie construction. It also lets the company improve the sustainability: Futurelight is PFC free, and the facing and backing fabrics the company uses to create it are made from 100 percent recycled fabrics. Styles showcasing the technology include the performance Ultra Traction Futurelight and the Fastpack IV boots; it will also be a critical feature of trail styles like the Activist Futurelight boot for men and women, designed for a sneaker-like feel on the trail and style off it, which is available in mid ($145) and low ($135) heights for spring.

Sanuk Brings Yulex to Footwear

Sanuk is getting ready for a deep dive.This fall, the Goleta, CA-based brand, a division of Deckers Outdoor Corp., will be the first brand to use wetsuit favorite Yulex rubber in footwear. The plant-based material — first used by Patagonia as a neoprene alternative in its wetsuits — will bring performance capabilities of warmth, durability, stretch and waterproofing to the brand’s new $90 Chiba Journey, a do-everything style for men meant for fishing, hiking and beach-combing. It also aligns with the brand’s push to use renewable materials: Yulex rubber emits 80 percent less CO2 during manufacture as conventional neoprene.