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Catherine Willems has shared her way of working and views on footwear in the book

“Better, Fewer Things. The Hidden Wisdom of Objects” (Glenn Adamson, 2018).

“This principle also has pride of place in the work of another, very different specialist: Catherine Willems, a Belgian design researcher who is trying to (in her words) “combine ancient wisdom with new technologies” in order to solve certain problems in the footwear industry.

Shoes are among the many things contemporary society produces badly-not in the sense that they are technologically unsophisticated (Nike, Adidas, and other brands spend a fortune on R&D) but in the sense that they are disastrous for the planet. Willems notes that the average consumer in Europe and-America buys two or three pairs of shoes a year; billions are produced annually worldwide. Most of these end up in landfills. Footwear is not generally recycled, because of cultural predisposition against reuse and the complex combination of materials involved, which makes it difficult to separate and process shoes. Many shoe designs are outright impractical, too. High heels are the most infamous example of restrictive footwear. Wearing them regularly produces severe orthopedic problems, but even low-heeled shoes can be damaging to feet if they are fashionably narrow or otherwise ill fitting.

As a way of addressing these problems, Willems has gone back to the fundamentals of footwear. She has extensively studied the physiological effects of walking and running, both barefoot and with different types of footwear, measuring biomechanical variables like ankle joint rotation, muscle activity patterns, and “peak acceleration at foot strike impact.”

The science involved in assessing this interplay of factors is complex, yet she likes to say that she does her most important research sitting on the ground-studying sandals that are handmade by communities in India and Africa. She considers this traditional footwear, which has been tried and tested over many generations, to be a fascinating source of ideas for sustainable footwear. With all the advanced technology of modern shoe companies, Willems feels we still have a lot to learn from indigenous peoples. In India, Willems has worked in Karnataka, and Rajasthan, where sandals are made using vegetable-tanned buffalo hide. In Finland, she has collaborated with the Sarni who make ‘ boots out of reindeer skin. And in the Kalahari plains of Namibia, she has worked with the Ju/’hoansi, who make hunting sandals out of the skin of elands, a type of antelope.

In each of these cases, Willems has been interested not only in the craft techniques used to prepare and assemble the materials, but also in the gait that the footwear encourages. Though each of the handmade solutions she studies is distinct, all achieve an effect that approximates the experience of walking barefoot, while also providing a layer of protection (and, in the case of the Sami’s fur boots, warmth).

From a health perspective this is clearly a superior design to many shoes on the market today. Over the course of her research, Willems has realized that there are many unexpected connections between 3-D-printed shoes and handmade local footwear. Most striking is the scale of the production. Both approaches concern the making of customized single products or small batches to order, at minimal cost, usually in just one ·material. Her shoe designs, developed in conjunction with the London-based company Vivobarefoot, are based on continuous engagement with artisans. She is trying to avoid the “hit-and-run” tactics often adopted by Western designers when they parachute into craft cultures, extract ideas and feel-good symbolism, and then move on. Willems therefore insists that the indigenous communities with whom she works retain intellectual property over their contributions; once her designs enter the mainstream market, profits will be shared with them. In her practice, we see how learning about materials can serve as a powerful means of cross-cultural motion, even if only one step at a time.”

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