Nicoline van Enter is founder and creative director of The Footwearists, an international network of experts that aims to optimise the footwear industry, so that shoes will only have a positive effect on people and the planet. “We do not feel that it is up to the younger generations, who are still in school, to fight for these goals, but to the people working in the industry right now, since they have the experience, opportunities and power to do so. That’s why we offer training, advice, and conferences to footwear professionals.”
How did you react to the Coronavirus pandemic?
In September of last year, we launched Footwearology, our online footwear academy, so when the health crisis started we were ready to offer a range of online courses that we have since expanded, targeting professionals from all over the world, at different levels of seniority and with different types of expertise (innovation, design, technology and business).
During the lockdown, we held free webinars (https://www.crowdcast.io/footwearists) every Saturday aimed at keeping people informed and inspired. More than 350 professionals from all over the world – from Alaska to New Zealand – watched each one live, while more than 200 watched the replay.
What’s your next goal?
We are now taking the first steps towards our biggest goal: to make the footwear industry fully compatible with the principles of the circular economy. This requires redesigning the entire system from scratch. For this reason, we will expand further into research and experimentation that will lead to a new type of training, of which we cannot yet reveal much.
You have worked and continue to work with leading footwear brands. What do you think they can do now to manage this terrible social and market situation?
I feel for the companies that are struggling, but I also think this crisis is a giant wake-up call. First of all, we need to start being much more resourceful, and super creative with fewer means. There’s no point in wanting things to go back to the way they were before, when we are not even able to say whether that prospect will ever be possible again. The only way out is to look ahead!
So let’s start by digitising the supply chain. For years, companies have been fighting against the possibility of having staff work from home or against the use of digital communication as an alternative to travel, but now they have discovered that in most cases those systems can work, they no longer have a choice! Look at how much money they could save! That’s why, together with FDRA – the US association of footwear retailers – we have launched F.L.O.W., an online training programme that helps footwear companies build their digital workflow in a very pragmatic and affordable way.
In addition, I hope that companies will be stimulated to use what they already have in stock for their next creations! In the Western world, we are complaining about staying at home or losing our jobs, but the real tragedy is happening in developing countries where our goods are produced. Many orders have been cancelled, so there is an even bigger surplus of materials and components than ever before. I hope that the design of new collections will take this into account, and not develop any more new things.
You have also worked with machinery and chemical companies. What kind of innovation do you think they can offer to improve the industry?
The real innovations we need are not about a single technology, it’s about drastically redesigning our entire business model and supply chain, which requires strategic collaborations. I believe that machinery manufacturers, chemical companies and technological developers such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple, more than footwear brands can – and will – work together to play an important role in this process. This is because these companies have the knowledge, the means and the motivation to develop systems that enable manufacturers to make custom and on-demand products, with minimal waste. A system that can work in the Western hemisphere as well as in the growing economies of Asia and Africa, for example. More importantly, these companies are not hampered by an existing outdated footwear design workflow or by a sales network that would make it financially and logistically difficult for local and customised productions to be profitable.
Chemical companies are already quite far ahead with research on chemical and biological recycling, so if we add them to the renewal process from the beginning, we might be able to close the circle.
The latest innovation that blew your mind away (not just in the fashion industry, if you want)?
I am convinced that we need to reinvent our way of living and working. This is why I really enjoyed reading the catalogue of Neri Oxmann’s exhibition at the Moma in New York: Material Ecology. I appreciate her work as such, which combines high-level biotechnology and robotics, and also the way she works, with multidisciplinary teams and without the usual narrow vision of what each discipline could contribute. I also like her goals of designing for longevity and decay; I would like to apply them to footwear as well. In August we will start a new online course on circular business and design models in footwear and we will also include its key principles.
You are an expert in applying new digital (3D printing) and biological technologies to footwear. What does the future hold for this type of technology?
I like both of these fields of technology because they make it possible to produce things on demand, fully customised in terms of size and style, with little or no waste and which, therefore, could have a positive effect on the planet. The positive side of 3D printing is that it is much closer to the market than bio-manufacturing. The downside is that it still revolves largely around (toxic) plastic. Once we are able to merge both technologies, we can really expect a revolution: making a shoe with 3D printing, using materials that could be regenerated and last a lifetime.
This is still a utopian thought, so in the short term I would like to encourage footwear companies to pay more attention to the benefits that the concrete use of our current 3D printing methods could offer on-demand production. The technology is already widely available, but we need to improve recycling options and develop generative design systems that can automate and optimise the creation of customised products to be printed in 3D or made with 3D printed moulds.