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Materials Magnified: New Consumer Expectations of Performance and Comfort Hit the Textile Level

Welcome to FN’s latest monthly column, “Materials Magnified,” which will look at the newest developments in textiles and their applications for the footwear industry. So much focus is placed on the design and style of a shoe, but the raw materials can be equally important in achieving the right end result. This column will explore the changing role that these materials play in footwear production.

During a year spent predominantly at home, people have been free to wear the shoes that feel best – if any at all. Unsurprisingly, slippers and comfort styles saw impressive sales throughout 2020. But consumers also participated in outdoor activities at greater rates, with sneaker sales booming. For many shoppers, purchasing multiple styles might not have been in budget. Instead, they wanted product that could fulfil both needs: high quality performance but a comfortable fit.

Now, as regular activities begin to resume and consumers start to explore classic styles again, they are bringing that reevaluated comfort expectation to the larger marketplace. From a material perspective, this can be quite a challenge. Traditionally, the comfort and performance categories have functioned separately, but this overlap requires looking at design in a new way.

“We increasingly see the request for ‘more comfort’ without compromising performance,” said Richard Leckenwalter, global business leader for GORE Consumer Footwear, Gloves & Accessories. “Knitted uppers is an example of where there was an adjustment phase. Everyone likes the flexibility, the lightness, the great fit that is available through stretch materials, and it took a while to adjust performance to this kind of footwear without compromising the advantage of these materials.”

The REPREVE Recycling Center in Yadkinville N.C.
The Repreve Recycling Center in Yadkinville, NC is designed to reduce environmental impact throughout each production stage.
CREDIT: Repreve/Unifi

These adjustments have to come at both ends of the spectrum: performance brands offering a more cozy feel, just as comfort brands offer greater technological innovation. For GORE, this has meant looking at ways to maintain its standards in weather-proofing and even advance those capabilities, without changing the comfort level of the final product.

“In the GORE-TEX case, adding performance like waterproof-breathable technology into footwear always has the opportunity to impact to the shoe – the feel, the stiffness, the design, the materials overall,” said Leckenwalter. “Minimizing these impacts, while adding waterproof-breathable performance, creates significant value for the consumer. We believe we can offer performance as an added advantage. It protects you when it’s needed and doesn’t bother you when it’s not.”

This idea of added, almost hidden, value can also apply to other material benefits, such as sustainability. At Unifi, the emphasis has always been on developing environmentally-friendly alternatives to existing textiles in the marketplace. But while most brands would prefer to offer a sustainable product, they won’t do that at the expense of quality – even though customers are increasingly asking for it.

“Consumers are now demanding three things: comfort, performance, and sustainability,” said Jay Hertwig, SVP of Commercialization, Unifi. “Consumers are part of a highly connected world. More and more, they understand we have large plastic gyres in our oceans, they understand our natural resources are being depleted, and as a result, they have a heightened awareness of the importance of protecting our environment for future generations.”

Inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 Gore-Tex
Inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 Gore-Tex.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Inov-8

In order to make sustainability truly adoptable at the mass market level, these fibers need to be as appealing as their counterparts, in as many areas as possible: performance, aesthetic, comfort, cost. For the materials manufacturers, there is the added challenge of keeping up with innovations happening at other companies that don’t prioritize environmental impact.

To that end, Unifi has invested in a series of technologies that can be added to its base level Repreve fiber, a recycled polyester. Unifi reports that the original Repreve fiber reduces energy consumption by 45%, water consumption by nearly 20% and greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30%. It also offers a performance-driven Profiber and has just expanded its range of textile technologies.

“We are always stretching to do more and recently debuted our innovative ChillSense performance technology,” said Hertwig. “When embedded in the fiber, fabrics made with ChillSense transfer heat from the body to the fabric more quickly, creating a cool sensation to the touch. In addition, our TruTemp365® technology allows year-round comfort in warm or cool weather.”

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