It's a good thing that so many people on the planet have feet. For 2005, the outdoor industry presented more new styles of footwear at Summer Market than most can recall in recent memory. While the sheer number of manufacturers has not increased significantly, many of the usual suspects have not only increased the number of product categories represented in each of their lines, but they have also turned over or completely revised their offerings from previous years. Specialty retailers will undoubtedly have their work cut out for them as they make product selections for spring and build programs that will give their customers compelling reasons to buy.
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Across the major brands it would seem that technical innovation took a backseat to product refinement. With very little in the way of new groundbreaking features meant to revolutionize the application of rubber, leather and nylon to bipedal locomotion, footwear providers took great pains in giving the public more of what it has always demanded: comfort, durability, water resistance and breathability. An increasing number of manufacturers, it seems, will also offer a great deal of value by providing with their products, or as an after-market accessory, high-quality removable insoles for additional comfort or a customized fit.
The SNEWSÂ® team -- which included eight editors -- spent the entire four days of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2004 scouting out the trade show scene from the paddle tank to the climbing wall and even around the dusty and quiet corners of private rooms and hidden booths. We continue this week reporting on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations that caught our eyes. No, each report is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. We're only covering product that stood out to us and was ready for prime time, so if you're not mentioned, we either did not see you, we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently, you were showing the product behind closed curtains which implied you didn't want us to talk about it, or we were just plain clueless -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on what's moving and shaking in the world of products for trail and performance footwear:
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AKU -- The Italian footwear manufacturer brought to market a unique-looking collection with some models featuring an asymmetrical closure that reduces the extra material common to symmetrically gusseted boots and as a result, reduces the pressure of stitching on sensitive areas of the foot. According to the company, by eliminating the medial gusset, AKU successfully reduces restriction to blood vessels to allow better circulation and more comfort. The asymmetrical gusset is prominent in the Utah Plus GTX, which sports an all-leather upper with a bare minimum of seams and a Gore-Tex liner for maximum protection. Also, AKU offers three after-market anatomically designed insoles. The Orthoform combines several proprietary materials to keep feet dry through transpiration. The Combiform offers transpiration as shock absorption in reinforced areas. And the Actiform features antibacterial and fungicidal properties for order control as well as comfort.
Asolo -- Another Italian footwear manufacturer that keeps turning up the heat and adding fire to retailer sales by providing color, style and cool features to its lines of very functional footwear is at it again. The company's new Aso-Sorb technology -- essentially a flexible and protective lasting board that utilizes two gender- and weight-specific shock-absorbing materials in the heel area -- finds its way into the Enduro category of trail shoes. The company has made the technology visible to the consumer too, which makes it even easier to explain.
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Columbia Sportswear -- With perhaps the most significant turnover of new products redesigned from previous models, Columbia was the clear winner for those counting numbers of SKUs with more footwear across more categories than any other manufacturer -- whether that is a good thing or not depends on how you handle sorting through the catalog. Known as a volume retailer, selling equally well in big-box stores and specialty shops alike, Ma Boyle's company literally has something for everyone. With a nod to hiking boot rivals steeped in years of high-performance heritage, Columbia's Titanium collection features a Vibram outsole, a molded polyurethane midsole and a contoured polypropylene lasting board for torsional rigidity. Some Columbia models will feature a removable dual-density EVA footbed containing an odor-absorbing material called Serida. Carried over from last season, the Diablo Pass, with waterproof full-grain leather and Gore-Tex, continues to be the company's most technical boot. New this year is the Altasaurus Pass GTX with a nubuck leather and nylon mesh upper.
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Gates -- Wait, doesn't this company make gloves? Yes, but Gates, now owned by footwear veteran Rocky, stepped out a year and a half ago with a new assortment of hiking boots and like hikers featuring its own waterproof/breathable Micro5 moisture-management system. A moisture-transferring membrane attached to a hydrophilic fabric allows for dry active comfort. In addition to being waterproof and breathable, four of Gates' products feature a specially designed interchangeable footbed system called Switchbak that works in conjunction with a shock-absorbing midsole/outsole called Retraction. The most technical among us will really appreciate this. Under an extra-thick polyurethane footbed, Switchbak allows the consumer to select one of two full-length support shanks called G-Core tracks, one for greater flex, the other for rigid stabilization. Now pay close attention, because here's where it gets complicated -- heck we were writing so fast we can hardly read our notes. Combining the construction of the midsole and the outsole, the Retraction system features dual-density EVA, a heel shock reducer, and indented retraction chambers attached to a rigid three-quarter-length flex-nylon shank that receives the shock-absorbing impact pods built into the TrailGripper outsole. Even if it doesn't work, it looks cool. All of these features are found in the Gates Tomah.
Hi-Tec -- Hi-Tec returned to Summer Market this year with a number of products featuring Event instead of the "better-known" waterproof/breathable laminate. The Ascent backpacking boot offers a nubuck leather upper lined with a Dri-lex moisture-transferring fabric that is both hydrophobic as well as hydrophilic. In between the two is the Event membrane. The Apex combines nubuck leather with nylon mesh for better breathability. Adding to the moisture-management story, Hi-Tec offers the four-layer Comfort-Tec Max removable insole. The layers include a moisture-wicking top layer, a Poliyou antibacterial/odor control mid-layer, a contoured compression-molded EVA cushioning base layer, and a shock-absorbing polyurethane heel pad on the bottom.
Montrail -- The footwear company that can legitimately lay solid claim to being the one that first got the industry really talking about fit presented a small assortment of new products with the introduction of its latest hiking boot the Blue Ridge GTX. With a one-piece leather design, a lining of stretch Gore-Tex and Montrail's signature Integrafit system, the Blue Ridge adds features to several models fulfilling the hiking category. The surprising introduction for the company came in the form of a new thermomoldable after-market insole called Endro-Soles. The new custom accessory features the benefits of the Stabilizing Insoles with the nylon Structural Arch from past seasons with a dual-density foam footbed that can be heated and molded to the foot for a made-to-order fit. We also love its CTC shoe (short for car-to-car) named for the shoe's intent -- outfitting a person's foot for the day from the car to the adventure and back to the car.
Salomon -- For a company with solid roots in adventure racing/outdoor athletic footwear and, of course, alpine and Nordic ski boots, Salomon has now made a very aggressive foray (or perhaps it is best viewed as a re-entry) into the hiking boot category. With three new models in the Mega Series, the company blends form and function into a rugged oiled nubuck leather upper with Gore-Tex lining. Other features in the Mega Trek 7 LTR GTX include lace-locking eyelets for a snug fit, rubber randing and a rubber toecap for extra protection. The Mountain Contragrip offers traction and the Advanced Chasis provides stabilizing support with a nylon stiffening plat for rigidity and forefoot protection. The Ortholite sock liner gives the product a little push with anti-odor and antimicrobial properties, and its open-cell PU structure allows for breathability and moisture management.
Vasque -- Just when you thought you'd seen everything, like Vasque becoming a serious player in the trail-running game, the company brings back a redesigned Sundowner to underscore the company's commitment to its backpacking roots. The new manifestation is called the Sundowner Summit GTX. A beefier version of the original, Vasque updates the new model with waterproof smoothout leather, shock pods for impact absorption, a patented Kinetic insole for extra stability, a dual-density PU midsole, Vibram's Summit outsole and, of course, Gore-Tex. Additional features include a rubber toe guard as well as roller ball eyelets for a clean draw on the laces, and a removable dual-density EVA Dry-Tech footbed.
QUICK HITS:La Sportiva continues to develop the company's athletic line with new mountain running and trail sport shoes. The Rajas particularly caught our eyesâ€¦ Lafuma's Active Raid XCR -- targeted at the adventure sports market -- features a very unique lacing system and allows the user to independently snug down the forefoot or upper lacing using one lace with a sewn middle area and two cordlocks, one on each end of the sewn section. Tuck the lace end and cordlocks into a pouch on the vamp to secure awayâ€¦ Lowa is building on the successful introduction of the Biomex ankle stabilization system with two new boots, the Vertex Mesh (we especially liked the look and feel of this one) and the Tectrek GTXâ€¦ Italian footwear manufacturer, Zamberland, tweaked styles for an American public with its Rapid Hiking line. The Razor for men and women's Zircon look like they'll perform equally well on a groomed trail and groomed restaurant carpet when travelingâ€¦ Garmont is getting into the adventure running game with two new shoes, the AR2 and the AR3, and yes, they get zero points for naming creativityâ€¦ Dunham's new water-friendly trail shoe, the Alcatraz, caught the eyes and fancy of a number of our editors as it looks to be a nimble performer in and out of the waterâ€¦ Merrell gets a nod from our editorial team yet again for being the one company on the entire show floor that has been able to present a full and once fairly complex mix of SKUs in a very understandable format and presentation. That, more than any new product it introduced this year, is worth applause again and againâ€¦ Timberland's new outdoor collection is looking, well better than it has in years and our initial impression of the fit in its multisport collection, which includes the Expedite is, well, WOW! Kudos to Steere and his teamâ€¦ and finally, The North Face added nicely to the company's Flight Series program with a new shoe, the Sieve for men and women. Designed for in and out of water, the mesh in the upper is designed to allow water and fine debris (forget large rocks) to exit the shoe naturally.