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Plastics and resins usually seem like the anti-sustainability. They are often made from petroleum, they rarely biodegrade, and without industrial facilities and resource extraction, they wouldn’t exist. But as technology and manufacturing advance, moldable materials are converging with sustainable design practices.
In the footwear industry, as in many others, plastics are being put forward as an environmental solution, when paired with production methods that reduce waste and enable recycling of surplus materials. Take Melissas, the Brazilian footwear company that produces injection-molded plastic shoes for women. Nothing about these glossy, candy-colored kicks suggests they’re a fashion choice for the green set, but indeed they’ve become exactly that.
Made with a proprietary plastic known as Melflex, the shoes lean toward a cradle-to-cradle model (at least in this one respect), in which the material input can be drawn from the outflow. The shoes are composed of a single, smooth unit, much like the plastic chairs that first emerged in the mid-20th century from modernist designers like Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Melissas are optimal for mass production, and they’re an obvious candidate for design experimentation, since they can be conceived as pixels in a 3D rendering, rather than as a hand-forged prototype.
Because of this, Melissas have become a way for designers of large-scale objects to play around in a microcosm. Architect Zaha Hadid applied her futuristic aesthetic to a series of limited edition shoes that exhibited her signature asymmetrical forms and unique use of empty space. The Brazilian design duo Campana Brothers brought the haphazardly woven appearance of their PVC furniture down to the scale of footwear for several collaborations with the popular brand.
When producing molded plastic goods from 3D-rendered models, some unique possibilities arise—among them, the ability to impregnate the raw material with fragrances that, the theory goes, create a subconscious emotional connection between consumers and their shoes. Instead of the neurotoxic chemical smell of PVC, Melissas smell like bubblegum—a scent that sends most people to happy memories of childhood.
As materials science advances, injection molding may give way to 3D printing—a strategy that’s widely used in design studios for pushing formal boundaries, but as yet not ubiquitous on the footwear market. Most polymers used in 3D printers are too hard and inflexible to make a comfortable shoe, although fashion students and designers have not been deterred from producing them, if only for one lap down a runway. The existing concepts invariably look rather sci-fi, with web-like lines that wrap the foot.
Swedish designer Naim Josefi envisions a consumer environment in which a shopper’s foot would be scanned in-store, and a shoe printed on demand that perfectly fit the wearer’s anatomy. Brazilian designer Andreia Chaves’s Invisible Shoe pairs a common leather pump with a 3D-printed cage-like bootie, while Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen’s Morphogenesis shoe more closely resembles a platform wedge. And at the London College of Fashion, student Hoon Chung created a line of 3D printed shoes for a final project, which look perhaps the closest to contemporary styles, though the molded shapes betray a high-tech production method.
Potential future applications for 3D printed footwear aren’t merely fashion-oriented. One could imagine using this kind of rapid production of athletic attachments for prostheses or extreme weather gear. And of course at some point, it will probably be possible to customize the smell of your shoes so they transport you to your own happy place—a bacon-scented stiletto can’t be far down the pike.