EA PUMP Mega & Mega Lace
Reebok : Emporio Armani Collaboration (FW 2010)
In 2010 Reebok and Armani announced that they would partner to produce a collection of apparel and footwear. I was fortunate enough to be involved from the beginning, working with senior leadership from both brands to help to define and lead the direction of the collaboration, and ultimately was responsible for designing the majority of the footwear and overseeing the remaining shoes (working in close partnership with the Armani team).
Here I would like to give some insight behind the design and development of the marquee shoe in the collection.
The main goal of this product was to tell the story of these two brands working together and establish the creative direction for the collaboration overall.
The starting point was the juxtaposition of iconic elements from each brand; last shapes, luxury materials, emotional connection and craftsmanship from Armani, performance driven cushioning and fit, sporting heritage and a focus on fitness from Reebok, as embodied by one of my favourite shoes, the Insta Pump Fury.
We developed a story for the collection about these contrasting brands becoming wrapped up in one another and the concept of "Skin and Bones" - a luxury Armani skin with a technical Reebok skeleton. This did not mean hiding all the technical parts of the shoe behind a luxury skin, but instead led us to think about the function and role of the various parts of the products and what that would say about our respective brands.
We explored how these contrasting elements could reveal themselves in the product and how we could make it consistent across both the footwear and apparel collections, while also having the scope to grow and evolve over multiple seasons. This thinking led us to explore construction and material ideas that were multi-functional or adaptable to fit multiple needs, both emotional and technical.
Translucency and reflectivity emerged as important tools in developing the identity and story for the whole collection. Making the products as light as possible was also always a key goal in both the lifestyle (EA) and performance (EA7) ranges.
Mr. Armani personally spoke of liking to play with how people perceive weight, and how he enjoyed products that were surprisingly light when picked up. As we would with technical sport product, we reduced weight where possible to address performance requirements and improve comfort. We did that by looking to simplified, utilitarian inspired constructions and patterns. Combining this approach with luxury materials and carefully crafted details, we hoped to build exciting products that had authenticity to both brands.
We went through several design iterations, initially exploring the option to open a new Pump bladder, in which we aimed to evolve the function of the Pump and pave the way for new Pump products. We also explored and visualized using a variety of cushioning technologies. These decisions were not only important for this specific shoe, but for all the products we would make over the course of the collaboration. I always enjoy these explorations, they can lead to new ways to approach product and strategy. It is critical to ask "what if?" and withhold judgment.
If you can't imagine a different future then you'll never make anything new.
This product was undoubtedly niche and was not intended to be high volume. The questions we asked and the process we went through challenged how and why we build our current footwear, and how we can explore new ideas in order help both brands move forward.
The outsole quickly became an especially important and interesting part of this shoe, it would be heavily influenced by the unique last shapes we were planning and the need to accommodate whichever cushioning technology we would use. As a team, we wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between a traditional hand finished, welted outsole, with a functional and iconic technology. One challenge was that we may need to design around existing components and find a way to integrate them into a bespoke outsole system. This would not prove easy, but I think that is why we were all motivated by the idea.
Worst case, we would learn from the experience of trying something new.
We made the decision to use the PUMP bladder from the Insta Pump Fury, a Reebok icon if ever there was one.
This was an important milestone because it would have an impact on the last development. The last would basically be the forefoot of an Armani dress shoe, married to the instep and heel of the Pump Fury last, allowing us to use its bladder. The last would also be influenced by the heel cushioning, so as a team we made the decision to go with a DMX Mega component. This meant the last needed enough rise from toe to heel to accommodate a traditional leather forefoot (which is very minimal) transitioning to the quite substantial DMX component in the heel. It would be an interesting last to say the least.
DMX is a Reebok technology that utilizes connected chambers of air, where the pressure changes to provide stability or cushioning depending where the user is in their stride.
This is the Adobe Illustrator line art for the final design. After handing off all the technical specs and blueprints, we would now wait to see the first attempt at making the shoe in 3D. This product was unlike anything I had been involved with previously, a lot of the norms that we rely on to make product went out the window. It made the process particularly exciting and engaging.
I literally had no idea how this would turn out, but we had a great team, great factory and, as was the expectation, I was sure that we would end up with something interesting, challenging and original.
Having confirmed the direction of the product and having made final decisions on lasts, PUMP bladders and choosing to use a DMX Mega component for cushioning, we started development of the lasts we needed. Last shape was a key factor in making this product authentic to the Armani brand, so we were developing 2 different toe characteristics and the final decision on which to use would belong to Mr. Armani. Since we were developing both the uppers we needed on both lasts and initially 2 outsole concepts, this meant a doubling of our work in some parts of the project, but it is nice when people do not compromise their values - we all thought that was worth accommodating.
Finalizing these key parts of the project meant we were able to make a decision on which factory. The factory needed to be able to work with our bladders and DMX parts, work with high-end materials and be able to make traditional leather outsoles. The factory we worked with gave me a great opportunity to see different types of products being engineered and manufactured. It was a privilege to work with experts in fields that were new to me, it was a fast learning curve, we didn't have time to indulge, but we had ambitious plans that I wanted to see come to life.
Once the last was finalized we could make progress on the outsole development. The leather would be cut and finished before being co-molded with dual density injected TPU, which would provide forefoot traction and form the housing for the DMX component.
Once removed from the mold, a leather welt would be added and the edge of the leather treated to protect it and provide the desired look.
A great benefit of this solution was that we were able to leave the leather out of the mold, so when injected we would have a full TPU outsole.
We would take advantage of this opportunity on some versions of the finished shoe.
This was one of the last "pullovers" before we went to our first sample round. It uses substitute materials and is seen here sitting on a rapid prototype (RP) heel part and the classic trick of using an eraser to make up for the missing forefoot outsole.
I took this photo while working at the factory. It seems I used the back of an old range plan to provide a white background (if you look closely you can see an excel spreadsheet is just visible since it reminded me of where and when this picture was taken, I couldn't bring myself to Photoshop it out...
"pullovers" are prototype uppers used to develop and refine the pattern, they are not intended to be completed shoes.
The most successful part of this pullover was the molding of the leather that conceals the Pump mechanism. This was one of the most challenging parts of the upper design, so to see it looking this clean gave us hope we were on the right path. We would add a cluster of perforations in order to allow more air to pass through the leather and then hope that, with the help of our developers and factory team, we would be able to find a way to use this solution in production. We knew it would be a close call though, this execution was already proving to be challenging.
This was the first complete development sample, with a fully functional outsole construction and mostly correct materials, finishes and colours (the exception being the black Pump bladder which should have been white to match the TPU parts).
"samples" are generally completed and functional shoes. We would normally go through 1st and 2nd development samples, followed by a variety of pre-production samples, including ones for fit and wear testing and sales samples used to sell products to retailers.
The main issue we needed to address at this stage of the project was the execution of the pump ball and release valve. It had been our ambition to construct the shoes as seen here. The upper leather was molded around and over the Pump mechanism, with air being introduced and released through a cluster of laser perforated holes. The idea was that the consumer would still have the interactivity and functional benefit of the Pump technology but with a much more luxurious tactility, encouraging the user to engage with the materials and technology in a new way.
We all knew it would be challenging to execute, as we had struggled to get enough air to pass through the leather. Finally we were able to make it work. The next issue was that the whole forefoot of the shoe was one large piece of leather, asking it to take the complex shape of our last and then, not only stretch and mold around two more complex and small forms, but also be consistently lined up and mated with the mechanics of the Pump in manufacture. This was proving to be too risky for commercial production. The development and factory team basically made the decision that it was not going to be achievable. We were all disappointed, especially having seen it executed so well on this sample,
but this is the reality of making products for manufacture; compromise is always just around the corner.
Sometimes these compromises give you the chance to try something unexpected and can have really positive effects. In this case I would always look at the finished shoe and lament that we couldn't find a better solution. Because of this,
I felt as though this sample was as good as this shoe ever got,
as a designer, you always hope that the production shoe will be the best version of your vision, but the reality is this isn't always the case.
It was now time to put this disappointment behind us and focus on finishing and refining the product. There were still many unique and interesting ideas in the shoe which demanded attention and I was determined to make every other part of the shoe the best it could be.
Final production version.
Collaborations are not always easy, but they can be incredibly rewarding. The team of people from both brands that worked together on this collaboration is the reason why, from my perspective, this collaboration was so successful both aesthetically and commercially. We had the challenges of time differences, cultural differences and operational differences, but...
these differences became opportunities. The process of exploring together and merging two brand's DNA to life in a single product, was a great learning experience for me both professionally and personally.
As it so often is the case, the people on both teams made the difference in the end. We worked hard, we had to, but we also had a good time. Being a part of this project was like having two jobs at times. We all took advantage of the opportunities to work on unique products, learn new skills, work with new people, make new friends, visit new places, eat new food and, yes, dance until the sun came up at "The Club" in Milano.
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Copyright © 2013 Mike Kirtley.
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