INTERVIEW: The Duo Behind the Under Armour SpeedForm Talks Spacesuits, Bras, and Their Plans for the Future Fit of Performance Footwear
Written by Calvy Click / @clickmasterflex
Under Armour’s campus is situated on the edge of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, formerly the headquarters of Proctor & Gamble, which explains why each building boasts a Tide product name. The neighboring Domino Sugar factory still brings in sweet-smelling shipments of brown sugar, while next door an entirely new American essential is being cooked up. This is where we meet Dave Dombrow, Senior Creative Director of Footwear, and Kevin Fallon, Creative Director of Innovation, to discuss the latest footwear technology to emerge from the newest contender in the running shoe category.
The brand’s first foray into footwear started seven years ago with baseball and training cleats, a natural development considering UA’s strong stake in team sports. Training and running shoes appeared in 2009, introducing a lackluster lineup of well-cushioned models as the brand struggled to find their unique point of view.
Enter Dave and Kevin, an inventive duo that have worked as a team at Nike, then Puma, and 4 years ago found themselves in separate talks with Under Armour, as both saw the brand as an opportunity to expand from their initial “me too” footwear products into something far more innovative. Though both knew that the company which was so famously built on innovative performance apparel, the risk would be great for the brand looking to complete with already established footwear brands like Nike, Asics and adidas.
Dave puts his decision to move to Under Armour into perspective, “This is a brand that has a lot of momentum. They’re kind of the paradigm shift in the industry, starting in apparel and getting into footwear much later. All their competitors, Nike, adidas, and Puma started with footwear and got into apparel much later and so anytime you’ve got something that’s totally opposite, it’s an opportunity.”
“…Anytime you’ve got something that’s totally opposite, it’s an opportunity.”
Dombrow took full advantage of the opportunity, as he is responsible for some of Under Armour’s most eye-catching shoes, including the Cam Highlight trainer (Cam Newton’s first signature traininer with the brand) and the Micro G Toxic Six, while Kevin Fallon is the man behind the materials: “My job is to fill the toolbox and let Dave’s team pull out of it what’s going to be relevant to the season, so I think this [innovative shift] is a good example of this.”
Both knew from the beginning that they had to focus on the fit of performance footwear in a completely new way if they wanted to push the brand in a new direction, which meant shifting the manufacturing of the product out of the shoe factory.
“How do you get a better fit if you’re making stuff the exact same way as the competition?” prompts Dave, “Same machines, same operators, same everything—you’re not going to get a better fit if you’re working at the same factories as the competition.”
It was then that the apparel company returned to its roots, by way of requesting a prototype from the same factory responsible for sports bras. The initial prototype was an unimpressive one (shown above), as the designers were exploring the use of manufacturing methods and textiles only before seen in apparel. From that came a slightly different version of the original booty with an outsole added, along with a BOA closure system.
“The point of these experiments was: Should we do a slip-on? How should we approach the closure? Do them in a typical way? A new way? The first sample we received from the bra manufacturer used some really innovative techniques, as they did a lot of seamless bonding. The whole idea started with not going to a footwear factory. For us, not making this stuff in a footwear factory was really encouraging, even though it was just looking like an office sock at this stage.”
It made sense for the originally apparel-only brand to leverage what they did best into the footwear category, though this “let’s-see-what-happens” approach led to an unimpressed reaction from the folks at UA three years ago. The team pressed on, adding an outsole and midsole to the interior of the shoe to add structure to the shoe, while the original closure system slipped away to reveal a more performance-focused product. The product of the bra factory was exciting to the team, as the seams were far more sensitive than anything spotted on a sneaker before as the bra world is used to working from a next-to-skin approach. Perforations were delicate and effective, ultrasonic welding could be introduced to footwear like never before.
The next step brought them to the above prototype, a lightweight, minimal silhouette, that was already trending in the world of running shoes. After adding a closure system, this was the first time the bra experiment had turned out something that looked like a shoe. Still, nobody was sold at this point. This was two years ago.
Placing the existing tooling on a normal midsole, the team put the upper on a few midsoles to experiment with the different bonding film possibilities. This is the silhouette that got CEO Kevin Plank on board, a key step in making the shoes a reality. The team still needed to answer the question, “Who is going to care that it’s made at a bra factory?”
“Regardless of what happened, we were out on a limb. We didn’t care what anyone else in this place said at that point. We were going to own fit.” It was at this crucial point that Kevin found inspiration in a book, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (by Nicholas de Monchaux) that outlines how spacesuits were a critical component to the early space program.
…if a bra and girdle manufacturer can turn something like NASA on its head with their technology, you can do it again with footwear. This wasn’t as crazy as we were making it out to be.”
Keith explains, “In this “midcentury modern” period of time, the suits looked like robots, made of rigid fiberglass. Then entered an industrial latex cooperation, later known as Playtex, the same people who were making America’s bras and underwear began developing the space suit. Because the custom fit was so well contoured to the body, wearers were allowed more freedom and movement, and therefore by far a favorite of astronauts. So this inspired us, if a bra and girdle manufacturer can turn something like NASA on its head with their technology, you can do it again with footwear. This wasn’t as crazy as we were making it out to be.”
At this point, stars were aligning for the bra factory-made shoe. The “fit” focus now made sense to their peers at Under Armour and gave the team a renewed energy, a turning point as the search for the right outsole continued.
Before this, the heel of your shoes was created with two separate pieces, but the molding capabilities from the bra factory made the new anatomical fit possible.
“This changed everything,” Dombrow explains how the new anatomical fit allowed a new level of control, stemming for the heel. At first the team was chasing the idea of putting foam on the collar because that is usually how shoe companies make a shoe fit, by adding foam around the collar of the ankle to lock a heel in place. This approach goes the opposite way, molding and shaping the heel cup so that it’s got a great shape initially and is so minimal so that it does conform to your heel.
The final pieces of the puzzle fit into place when the team pulled together a custom spike for ’08 Gold Medalist in the 4x400m relay, Natasha Hastings, who was at the time a hopeful for the London Games. Though Hastings did not make it to London, the completely molded spike acted as a point of inspiration in early 2012.
“That’s the unique part of this, there is no last involved. It’s all molded. So it’s opposite of how you make a shoe. Traditionally, you have your lasts and you stretch your materials over the last. This is an inside out approach. I like to tell people to put your hands in it first to feel that there are not any seams. That’s what we were going for when we designed it. The inside is more important than the outside.”
Final steps included the toe indentions on the top of the upper, which speaks to the anatomy of the foot and gives the SpeedForm it’s iconic look.
“Weighing in at under 6 ounces, a totally seamless interior, ultrasonically built– there is nothing else like this out there.”
The UA SpeedForm will hit retail in early July at $120. Subscribe here to the limited edition release.
Calvy Click is the Editor-in-Chief of Sneaker Report. When she isn’t writing about performance footwear and apparel, you can find her running around Manhattan to Rick Ross anthems.