When The North Face launched into outdoor footwear in 1999, it was with the realization the company had to do more than dabble and it could not offer product that was just me-too, or, company President Steve Rendle told SNEWS®, TNF couldn't expect dealers to support the line.
While progress has been good, and various shoe awards from national and international magazines served as evidence of that, Rendle told us that the company realized by 2003 it had to bring all of its footwear design in-house to accomplish its goals of innovation, quality and to-market efficiency. After several reorganizations of the department since then, enter Barry McGeough, vice president of footwear for The North Face, who joined the company from Deckers in early 2006. In just 11 months, the footwear team now boasts 14 full-time staff, including three product line managers, five product developers and five in-house designers.
"When I joined the team, we sat down, analyzed what had been accomplished, looked at where we had perhaps stumbled a bit, thought about market segments we were not in and perhaps should be, and then asked, 'Where is the high water mark for us?'" McGeough told SNEWS® during a private showing of the footwear line in early March.
Everything, from lasts to outsoles to color palettes and upper designs, was fair game when it came to seeking answers to the one driving question McGeough kept pressing everyone on: "Here is where we are…where could we be?"
McGeough noted that it was a real plus to be a footwear company that is part of a much larger apparel company when it came to considering designs and colors.
"Being able to interact with the apparel team does allow us, as the footwear team, to create designs that take into account how a collection would be merchandised from head to toe in the store," McGeough told us.
His team also turned to outside experts in foot morphology, last construction, and running and walking biomechanics. TNF performed 3-D foot modeling and compiled detailed measurements of virtually every curvature of the foot, including widths of joints, heights of cones and calcaneus angles.
During their research, McGeough told us the experts discovered some fascinating things that the TNF footwear team has utilized in its most recent shoe designs.
"We know that that the human foot can expand and swell up to 2 cm over the course of a long run, so our designers have adjusted for a larger toe box in our endurance running shoes," said McGeough. "We also discovered during an intensive morphology study that there are no differences in foot length measurements in either men or women. However, there is a statistically significant difference in ball and heel width, instep height and width, which we took into account when creating our women's footwear lasts, each of which has a proportionately unique build than a comparative last for men."
McGeough and his team also used the knowledge gleaned from field-testing and laboratory studies to create a new three-tier system of footbed design. The system is designed to help athletic consumers find the perfect shoe based on their unique, individual stride, instep and foot roll.
The three tiers are: Unleashed Performance for neutral strides, Terrain Harness for medium-arched pronators, and Torque Control to accommodate low-arched pronation. Each of those platforms are now cross-categorized throughout TNF's running, hiking, multi-sport and lifestyle footwear lines.
Several other technologies will be spread judiciously throughout the TNF line, ones that McGeough was practically giddy about in our early spring meeting with him at TNF headquarters in San Leandro, Calif.:
Perforated Plate -- Working with an outside lab to analyze how feet are impacted from the heel strike through to the toe push off, The North Face discovered that the size, radius and shape of rocks and other obstacles encountered underfoot directly correlated to foot pain. While that is, in one sense, most obvious to most we are sure, the lab used a mathematical model to uncover the specific relationship between the type of contact by a typical forefoot and varying degrees of surface irregularity, such as stones, rocks, pebbles and more. It was only by understanding the exacting sizes and shapes that cause pain that an underfoot plate with strategically placed gaps and holes to protect the forefoot from rock penetrations could be properly designed. The end result is a shoe with a footplate that protects against stone-strike discomfort, while lightening the shoe weight and improving shoe responsiveness, according to McGeough.
SnakePlate -- The patent-pending SnakePlate consists of a forefoot plate that winds back and forth between the medial and lateral sides of the foot. Because it is not one solid element, it creates a forefoot plate that allows the foot to flex, bend and contort to changing terrain. At the same time, the SnakePlate delivers rigidity where and when it is still needed, McGeough said. The SnakePlate's thickness, composition and size varies. For example, a thicker, more rigid SnakePlate addresses the technical, ever-changing demands of a long trail run that may involve off-trail scrambling. A thinner, more flexible SnakePlate reconciles flexibility with a decreased demand for protection while on smoother dirt paths.
Heal Cradle -- The heel plant starts the stride cycle by absorbing the forces of impact generated by body mass, momentum and torque. It also is the first point of contact for stabilizing the foot plant, and sets the tone for the rest of the stride. TNF created the Heal Cradle, which consists of a polyurethane foundation with five pegs protruding vertically from it. A soft EVA panel is placed over the pegs, locking the two together like building blocks. The top layer of soft EVA has a slightly cupped shape that literally cradles the heel, helping to stabilize it in the process. It also works with the underlying PU to absorb impact. Lastly, it offers more lateral/medial stability, positioning the foot for a smooth transition into the next stage of the stride cycle.
All the research and product analysis has led to the creation of a line that hardly resembles what TNF has come to market with previously and represents the company's largest footwear collection to date. Including basic upper design tweaks and color modifications, the spring '08 line is approximately 93 percent new. The line features 21 new performance lasts (which include updated men's lasts and all-new women's lasts) and 36 new outsoles, some of which are designed in partnership with Vibram.
What follows is a brief look at shoes which caught the SNEWS® team's eye during our March preview:
The Rucky Chucky, named for the famous American River crossing and aid station at mile 78 of the Western States 100 ultra, is TNF's nod to creating a high-performance long-distance trail shoe, and features two patent-pending technologies -- the SnakePlate and Thrust Chassis.
The low-profile Fire Road Boa is for both smooth trails and roads and relies on a thinner and more flexible SnakePlate than the Rucky Chucky.
The Cooper's Hill is TNF's nod to fell running. Fell running is a sport that got its start as a way for British shepherds and farm workers to win bragging rights for their speed and strength. Think muscular athletes churning up mud and soggy earth under slate gray skies. The Cooper's Hill features a deep tread pattern, side mud guards, a highly flexible forefoot and a durable mesh upper to maximize breathability during intense running.
The Smedge is an approach shoe that features an extended rubber toe box made from Smearacle rubber (TNF's new sticky rubber compound). Hard, chiseled sole edges make edging possible. Breaking and acceleration lugs add traction when the terrain doesn't call for smearing or edging.
In the adventure racing category, TNF intends to make noise with the Crusade, specifically designed for multi-day, one-shoe adventure competition. The Crusade incorporates TNF's Thrust Chassis, technology designed to provide superior cushioning and rebound, and a SnakePlate for strike protection and flexibility.
The Padda amphibious shoe features drainage channels and a HydroTrak outsole for superb traction and purchase on slick terrain.
The Mountain Sneaker is TNF's nod to technical and eco-sustainable lifestyle footwear. It features metal-free suede uppers, as well as bamboo linings and shanks. Cork-blended midsoles provide both comfort and durability. Foams are made from plant-cellulose fiber, while recycled rubber makes up the outsole. Crepe rubber rands protect the toe box.