Indeed, it is the increasing access to technologies usually associated with architecture and product design that drives the most progressive footwear today. Philip Delamore, director of the Fashion Digital Studio at London College of Fashion, cites the accessibility of CAD (computer-aided design) software as the single most important factor affecting how shoe designers work. “Traditionally, shoes were defined by the shape of the [shoe] last, which of course represents the form of the foot,” he says. “But with 3-D modeling, you can sketch an idea in space—like the McQueen armadillo shoe shape—and address matters of structure and comfort later by scanning the last and locating it inside the shoe. If you look inside the McQueen, there’s a pretty conventional shoe in there, situated on top of that massive platform.”
A completed 3-D design can be used to create a cast for injection-molding multiple shoes. Or, most mind-boggling of all, the shoe can be “printed” in its entirety from the computer. Chinese designer Chau Har Lee, whose sculptural Lucite shoes were a highlight of the NewGen showcase at London Fashion Week in September, is a devoted convert to the 3-D design process. “I used to wrap paper and masking tape around a last so I could form a pattern to work from,” she says. “It was hugely time-consuming. But now I can immediately see on a screen what the shoe is going to look like. My Rapid Form shoe was designed entirely on the computer and then digitally ‘printed’ in one piece of resin. A laser beam darts across a platform, dropping layer after layer of liquid resin. Once finished, all the liquid drains away, and you’re left with the remaining resin shoe.” Because of the new technology, Har Lee’s Rapid Form shoe took a mere 28 hours to go from a 3-D drawing into a prototype fit for production.
This instant turnaround is a boon for designers wishing to cut costs and reduce lengthy manufacturing schedules to meet ever increasing retail demands. But how has the digital footwear revolution eased the plight of consumers who need to, you know, walk? “In view of all this technology, it’s astonishing how little we really know about feet,” says Delamore, who is embarking on a new research project with podiatrist Trevor Prior. The two will use 3-D foot scans and pressure readings to make recommendations on how to achieve that holy grail of footwear: a comfortable high-heeled shoe. Of course, many have tried over the years to bring high heels down to earth, and the lust for impossible shoes has not waned. After all, it’s hard to imagine Lady Gaga rocking Easy Spirits.