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Gender Specific vs. Customization: The Running Shoe Industry’s Latest Debate

Shoes built on sex-specific lasts may be the most efficient way to keep consumer cost down and fit comfortable—but the call of customization can't be ignored.

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Back when I was researching our 2018 Buyer’s Guide running shoe reviews, Triathlete queried 20 different brands, asking whether they had women’s-specific lasts—the foot-shaped form used to build shoes.

While all but one of them make shoes marketed toward women, less than half said that those designs go deeper than the shoes’ upper portion. Many companies conceded that their women’s versions were merely scaled-down men’s models with different colors, a practice commonly known as “shrinking and pinking.”

Other companies explained that they’re backing out of the gender-specific market altogether, focusing not on fit differences between genders, but between people. “After years of research, we have found more differences from runner to runner than there are between male and female runners. So our approach is not to create gender-specific shoes, but rather to build technologies that adapt to the individual,” says Carson Caprara, Brooks’ director of global footwear product line management.

In the fall of 2017, Brooks partnered with Hewlett Packard to launch a new personalized shoe program that uses 3D scans and pressure-plate analyses to create custom 3D-printed shoes.

Under Armour, Nike, and adidas have online platforms to customize shoes with specific colors, materials, and patterns through UA Icon, NIKEiD, and miadidas respectively, but at this point, those are mostly cosmetic selections. Salomon, however, offers S/LAB ME:sh, a tailor-made upper, built around the customer’s foot, available through an appointment at the company’s headquarters in Annecy, France for about $375.

The shoe industry, it seems, is eager to tap into growing consumer demand for custom products. But it hasn’t collectively decided whether the cost of making customization more than skin deep is worth it. Just like in cycling, decisions about whether shoes should be designed them from the soles up with gender in mind—comes down to how companies interpret the biomechanical and physiological data they’re using. And cost.

A little history on how we got to this point, teetering on decisions about gender and customization: Running shoe design has come a long way in a relatively short time period, given advances in materials, manufacturing, and biomechanics. Nike developed the first women’s running shoe last in the mid-80s, when the U.S. saw big gains in women’s athletics, Title IX, and female buying power. As the result, shoe companies took notice and found it good business to perform their own research alongside funding independent and academic studies on female athletes’ biomechanics and physiology.

Early on in this gender-ized gear revolution, researchers found a few points that still guide the design of many women’s-specific shoes today: Women often have narrower heels, wider forefeet, lower impact on midsole compounds, and different heel to forefoot drops and Q-angles from wider hips.

For the most part, options created for a woman’s foot based on generalizations like these—pulled from in-house and other data—seem to be serving runners just fine. That’s one reason why companies catering to women aren’t jumping on the fully-customized Brooks-style bandwagon just yet. As for the more than 10 companies we polled still operating under the “shrink-and-pink” mantra, the main driver behind their decision is cost. It’s pricier to make each model on different lasts, and ultimately, if customers are buying their shoes, there’s not much incentive to change that business model.

With those facts in mind, it’s unlikely we’ll see any kind of industry- rocking revolution totally eliminating sex-specific shoes anytime soon. Because the only way to achieve that is to design for individuals—and at this moment, the cost of customization is high—particularly full-customization, the type that addresses performance and goes beyond simple color decisions.

Brooks’ Caprara explains that full- customization is expensive (custom Brooks will likely cost more than $200 a pair) because building a shoe on-demand for the individual breaks from the standardized shoe-making methods the brand has used for decades. As a result, Brooks had to start from scratch to build up this capability. “The higher price of these running shoes comes from the investment in these new systems and platforms that allow the consumer to personalize their shoe in fit, feel, and ride.” That said, as the technology necessary to make fully-customized kicks comes down in price—and it always does—the future looks bright for shoes built just for you, no matter your gender.

“We are still working through pricing,” Caprara says, “but our goal is to make our personalized footwear as accessible as possible.” We’re sure other companies will follow suit.