Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '06 Trends: Socks

Socks are socks right? Wrong. Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2006 proved that sock technology and -- even more importantly -- comfort is continuing to evolve both in design and materials. The latest sock innovation centers around three Cs: cut, contour/cushioning, and corn.

What a show this was! We don't know about you, but our dogs are still barking after all the aisle-walking trying to hunt down booths that had moved and trends that were moving even faster. What follows, then, is a very select summary of product that caught our wandering editors' eyes and it is by no means complete! So if you're not mentioned, we were either too hyped up on Kinetic Koffee shots to see you, too tired from wandering for miles to care, didn't think your product was trend-setting, or we were just plain clueless -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on trends and new products for socks:

Socks are socks right? Wrong. This show proved that sock technology and -- even more importantly -- comfort is continuing to evolve both in design and materials. The latest sock innovation centers around three Cs: cut, contour/cushioning, and corn. With trail running growing in popularity and a rising demand for low-profile socks, more manufacturers are offering micro mini cuts to round out their lines. Likewise, sock makers are putting cushioning in the right spots and offering breathe-ability in less sensitive areas in a trend similar to the “body mapping” that was the rage in shirts over the past few seasons. And corn? Merino (especially authentic New Zealand and Australian merino) is still the top environmentally-friendly-yet-comfy material for socks, but manufacturers are also weaving vegetable crops -- corn being the hot veggie -- into functional fabrics with conservationist cachet.

Long the top brand in the UK (where it claims 50 percent of the market share), Bridgedale has had trouble overcoming its stodgy old hikers-only image in the flashy US market. So the company has re-branded its entire line with a focus on performance, which made it the most interesting sock maker at the show. Always known for durability, Bridgedale is now promoting its intense woolfusion manufacturing which wraps a strand of wicking fiber (e.g. CoolMax, Isofil, or Be-Fresh) around a strand of merino yarn. It’s a long process to create the material, taking 13 hours to wrap enough merino for 12 socks, but the company trusts their durability enough to offer a 3-year comfort warranty, meaning if they no longer give you that warm fuzzy feeling, send them back. Another big performance innovation comes in T2 anti-compression cushioning technology in lightweight X-Hale socks, which allows for ventilation and padding in hotspots. But the biggest news was a (very hard to believe) 3-year anti-stink guarantee for Ventum socks woven with Be-Fresh anti-microbial yarn. Give those to your Uncle Max to test. www.bridgedaleusa.com

Fox River
This Midwest-based manufacturer has found new sock technology in its backyard, leading the way with Ingeod fabric, a fiber created out of renewable resources—in this case, good ol’ corn. Ingeo has many synthetic benefits—it wicks well, it doesn’t pill, it has low odor-retention, it’s surprisingly comfy—but it’s biodegradable. There are some issues about corn as an environmentally crop, however, since so much corn has been genetically modified and it’s close to impossible to stop GMO corn from pollinating non-GMO corn. Yet, Fox River has set aside a percentage of non-GMO corn and donates to One Percent to the Planet and gives five percent of profits from its women’s Ingeo socks. www.foxsox.com

In a lineup of oh-so-similar socks, Injinji certainly stands out with its signature five toe/glove fit that keeps endurance athletes form developing toe blisters. This year, it upped the ante by adding a NU-wool version of its popular Tetrasock. The fabric is a micro-fine merino that is core-spun with synthetic fiber for higher performance in any season. www.injinji.com

SmartWool has already asserted the comfort and performance of its merino socks, now the company is focusing on fun. The line of socks has expanded to include more micro cuts, more cushioning, more styles, more women’s options and more colors. The cleverly named No Show features a super-low cut that makes it look like you’re not even wearing socks. www.smartwool.com

Cashing in on a customer desire to equate socks to activities, Thorlos renamed its socks form the tech-y Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 to Everyday Outdoor (thin cushioning), Light Hiking (moderate cushioning), and Hiking (thick cushioning). Following, the low-rider trend, the company also introduced a new micro mini style. www.thorlos.com

Jim Heiden of Boulder, Colorado-based Teko makes huge strides to bring sustainable, environmentally friendly socks to the shelves. To wit, the company released a biodiversity plan for Dungrove Farm Enterprises, the farm in Tasmania which supplies all of Teko’s merino. The sheep here even feed on 100 percetn native grasses. Teko has also introduced comfy, high-performance Ingeo- socks (corn fabric that has all the advantages of polypro yet is biodegradable) and Heiden stresses how he wanted to use American crops. “We grow a lot of corn in this country," he says. “I wanted to give the farmers another chance to sell their product.” www.tekosocks.com

Wilderness Wear
This lesser-known Australian company had some of the comfiest merino socks at the show. The S372 Extreme Hiker is a burly asymmetric beast that has Schoeller polypro cross-stitched in high sweat areas for ventilation, so that it’s authentically Aussie yet fits in with the latest trends in foot mapping. www.wildernesswear.com.au