The concept of tailor fit is nothing new. With the advent of polymers and then devices for additive manufacturing, this has become even more prevalent. Major brands are using these technologies to develop fully custom shoes.
For good reasons, this same process was modified and reinvented for high-end loafers as well. If you’re spending all day negotiating painful decisions in business, shouldn’t at least your feet be happy?
So, the idea is good. The technology is there. Why do climbers, in the world of Oculus, Prusa I3, and Snapdragon processors, do not have a custom made shoe? Well, besides quite a bit of other reasons, it is flipping hard and expensive. Customers are finicky, the technology is in its infancy, and we live in a world of instant gratification. Again, why?
Well, we like to think times are a’changing. Millenials are a much different breed than the Baby Boomers and Generation X. It seems that the idea of less is more has created a lust for quality. Living in a van, or in general hiking in to your favorite crag, means you don’t want to be carrying 3 different pairs to make sure all your projects can be tackled with the right gear. With this, climbing shoe companies are always developing better fitting and more effective climbing shoes to create “just the right fit” for anyone. But, this is an open ended problem. You can’t control the foot variations, and there are no parameters for the climber to really know if this shoe is designed to their style of foot without climbing in it. So, why not take these foot variations and design to complement them? Creating a shoe that is made to fit specifically for your feet means that won’t need tape up your heel or walk around with numb toes.
Therefore, for those who want quality over quantity and those who want to focus wholeheartedly on the climb rather than the get distracted by pins and needles in your toes, we decided to take on the challenge of creating the shoe for every climber.
There are certain steps you take on the road to developing a new product in an already existing market. First step is imitation. Everyone does it when starting out. Patents and copyrights are moot at this point. All you’re trying to do is prove that you can make a similar product. This is way before business plans and market research come into play. This is the stage when you stay up till 4AM in your garage trying to get rubber to stick to suede with Barge cement, a couple wood clamps, and some blocks of foam you stole borrowed from your real job. You don’t need style for the prototype. You don’t need style to prove it can be done. You can steal other people’s style for this step. This product is not for sale.
The stolen style
In my garage kN shoes were modeled after Acopas. There’s no denying the early shoes looking just like them. At the time they were my favorite. I still have eight pairs of them, some barely worn. Their style was simple and easy to replicate. The seams were minimal and could be sewn up in a flat bed sewing machine available at Jo-Ann Fabric*. People would often comment on how much they resembled Acopas when they saw me out climbing in an early pair of kNs. I knew however, that if I was to sell shoes to the public I’d have to develop my own style. I kept this look which I was comfortable with until my shoes reached a high level of quality. At that point I was free to experiment.
In my real job I have a lot of down time. In my down time I draw, and every time I draw people ask what I’m drawing. ‘Shoes.’ Every time the answer is, ‘shoes.’ I have pages and pages of shoes drawn on printer paper. Different enclosures, high tops, low tops, Velcros, laces, not many slippers… I got to the point where I drew up a basic shoe outline on my computer, made a matrix of the outline and saved the file so I can print out a page of blank shoe outlines whenever I need them. It’s like in kindergarten when the teacher would pass out a full sheet of paper with large lines across it. Two solid lines with a dotted one running in between them.** On this paper you would practice writing large letters. Over and over and over… I had these for shoes.
The kN style
One thing I’ve always been a fan of is patterns. Houndstooth, herringbone, hickory stripe, paisley, plaid, argyle, dots… etc. One of my favorite patterns is ticking, sometimes called mattress or pillow ticking. This pattern showed up on the very first prototype kN shoe and is still used for the tongue and lining of the shoes today. It consists of an off white background with three stripes of color (usually blue, black, or red). The center stripe is thick and the two outer stripes are thin. It is used mostly as a utility fabric.
Quick story. When my mother was pregnant with my oldest brother her and her then husband went to a flea market. After browsing for a few hours our mom got tired and sat down on a small children’s mattress. It appeared to be nothing special. Little did she know this mattress was the final item up for bid in a live auction that was happening right next to her. When the mattress went up for auction she was too tired to move and no one else wanted a mattress that an 8 month pregnant woman had been sitting on for an hour. So she gave the auctioneer five dollars and took the mattress home. Our mom knew what she was doing all along though. The mattress was not only comfortable, but also was filled with 100% goose down and made with sturdy mattress ticking. When she got home she cut the mattress into four equal rectangles, sewed them all back together and had four new pillows. Today a goose down pillow would cost you $100-200. My entire life I’ve slept on one of those old mattress pillows. At this point mattress ticking is all but printed on the side of my head. Therefore it will also be a part of kN in one way or another until the very end.
The look of the shoe is in the refinement stage. The lines of the suede and rubber, what lines continue through breaks, what lines terminate when overlapped, all these things are currently being sorted with test pair after test pair. This is another beauty of our manufacturing procedure. We as kN are not bound by the patterns that this machine can stamp out. We aren’t hindered by how this shoe has to fit in this press. If I want the rubber to be shaped a different way, I cut it that way and glue it on. When developing our machinery for future manufacturing we must make it flexible and open to customization and therefore we will always be able to change and adapt our shoes and styles to fit a wide variety of needs from our growing customer base.
kN shoes still have hints of the old Acopa shoes. Some subtle shape or line will remind an old trad climber and he’ll remark, “Those look kind of like Acopas,” and I’m fine with that. In fact, I hope those comments never go away. The shoes John made were the reason I started making shoes, and if people remember his shoes because of mine then I can’t think of a better way of saying thanks.
*Never buy a Singer from Jo-Ann Fabric and expect it to sew through two layers of leather.
**When I was in kindergarten the class ran out of that lined paper, so I had my mom make some on our computer at home and print off a bunch. The next day I went into class with a stack of lined paper for everyone. I was so proud. I showed the teacher and all she said was, “Oh that’s nice. So you can practice at home.” I told her it was for the class, but she didn’t want it. She didn’t appreciate my efforts. I felt like an idiot.
This blog will be the recountings of the collective efforts of Arturs Bergs and Raymond Klose, of kN Climbing, on the project of creating a better climbing shoe from the ground up. Better in the sense that each pair of shoes will be custom shaped to fit the climbers individual feet.
If this project is successful in doing that, this blog will be posted publicly on the internet for all to view. If, however, we are not successful we will burn this and all evidence of us even trying for such a lofty and outlandish goal.*
*no statements in this blog will be legally binding in any way shape or form.