Bespoke running shoes are here and not from who you’d expect

If you’re Mary Keitany, Eliud Kipchoge or Kilian Jornet, having running shoes tailor made to perfectly fit your feet and running style is par for the course. The rest of us have to make do with off-the-shelf footwear that’s built to fit the many. Until now. Trail running specialists Salomon has just unveiled new technology that promises fully customised perfect-fit shoes for everyday athletes. That’s us by the way.

Runner’s World was given exclusive access to the breakthrough technology at Salomon's brand new S/LAb ME:sh Unit at its Annecy Design Centre in France where the company walked us through its vision for the future of how we’ll buy our running shoes. While this is, even by the company’s own admission, still very much an experiment, it’s got us more than a little excited. This isn’t colour-tweaking Nike ID-style customisation either, powered by a new design and production process and innovations in materials, Salomon ME:sh now lets you dictate a range of factors and create a shoe that’s genuinely tailored to your unique needs.

Salomon isn’t the only company working on bespoke shoes, Adidas has also built a state-of-the-art new production plant at its HQ in Herzog and is also testing tailor made for size but so far only very limited runs of shoes have come from the new Speedfactory and these aren’t widely available. ME:sh will be the first fully customised footwear for general sale.

How ME:sh works

The Salomon ME:sh running shoes will be launched first with selected retailers in France on 1 June 2017, before being rolled out next to the UK, US, Germany and China. From 1 September anyone who wants to, will also be able to purchase a pair of shoes and travel to the new ME:sh Lab at Salomon’s headquarters in Annecy, France for a VIP fitting experience. Although you’ll have to pay for your own travel.

The lab experience will include a 3D foot scan to capture your foot’s unique anatomical detail – what Salomon calls ‘anatomical fit’. It’s not uncommon for some people to have one foot longer than the other, or a slightly different shape and as part of this project Salomon intends to start offering bespoke shoes for each foot.

There’s also a treadmill assessment with sensors that reveal your biomechanical quirks, the opportunity to customise your shoe based on the conditions you run in and your preferred feel. For the latter you’ll be able to choose from four different shoe widths (another first from Salomon), catering for those who might prefer a wider toe box versus a more snug overall fit.

You’ll also have the opportunity to say what terrain and conditions you intend to run in, choosing between light trail and road, to dictate what kind of outsole you need.

Finally you can tweak the upper and lace colours and brand your shoe much like Nike ID and according to Salomon all of this means there will be 531,441 different potential combinations of usage, fit and colour.   

The in-store experience will be similar although the 3D foot scan will be replaced with a more analogue method – good old fashion manual measuring.

Salomon will also launch an app and a website so much of the customisation can be done remotely, although the treadmill assessment and measurements will need to be done in person at a retailer. In addition to all the measurements, the app and site ask you  to answer a series of questions to help define exactly how and where you run and what your preferences are. These include where you run, how far, how frequently, in what temperature and whether you want the shoes for racing, training or fitness. You also prioritise a set of functional preferences that includes things like cushioning and protection.

The in-store process should take 15-30 minutes and once ordered the delivery time for your very own bespoke running shoes is pegged at 3 weeks so not quite the instant gratification of walking away with your new runners.

At launch there will be three different versions available. The first is a full customised shoe, made entirely to your needs for €300. The second is a replica of the shoes made for Salomon ambassador and running legend Kilian Jornet at €230-240. Finally retailers and regions will be creating ‘community’ shoes, tailored for their own specific local running environment, for example the Chamonix shoe and the Paris shoe and these will cost €230.

The tech in the shoes

Nike’s Flyknit and Adidas Primeknit single piece uppers have been around for a few years now. It was technology that enabled them to cut a great deal of complication from the shoe-making process. Salomon has taken that principle and kicked it on stage. Where the uppers on its traditional shoes are made from 30 separate pieces, ME:sh shoes will have just two main components.

The main one is a new Twin-Skin looks much like a sock. Made from four different types of yarn, it features nanoparticles that respond under heat and when applied to the second component, a plastic skeleton, with a little glue forms the basis of the shoe.

There are four different types of skeleton that offer a ride that’s either more stable, dynamic or protected and the type of polyurethane used has properties that allow it to be moulded more with more accuracy and flexibility than you’d find on other shoes.

Making the shoes is done with a combination of two machines, one of which is a robot powered by a super precise piece of proprietary Salomon software, and as little as two trained shoemakers. A single pair of customised trainers can now be made in less time than it takes Kipchoge to run 26.2 miles (112 minutes to be precise). Compare to a traditional production line that can involve up to 150 people and you can see why this has captured the brand’s imagination.

So why is bespoke happening now?

A few things have had to change to make bespoke running shoes possible. For a start there's obviously new technology at the production end where a combination of new materials, techniques and robotics are changing the way shoes are made. Secondly, the cost of labour in places like China and Vietnam isn’t as cheap as it once was and this rebalancing of the labour market, means that it’s no longer a no-brainer to manufacture remotely and ship shoes around the globe.

Then there’s the whole environmental argument. As consumers become more discerning about how and where there products are made, big brands will have to beef up their sustainability and eco credentials. Producing shoes regionally should mean a cut-down carbon footprint.

Finally, there’s a need for specialist running retailers to offer something different than the big online stores who can offer bigger discounts. By offering something that’s highly tailored and bringing a retailer’s expertise to the fore, this could help those local outlets stay competitive and relevant.