Will 3D printing change sneaker culture?
The spirit of Heron Preston has been blown several times over the past two years while he was in the process of designing a single shoe. A young engineer named Cornelius Schmitt once sent him a WhatsApp message saying he had just figured out how to 3D print a sock-like material for a shoe.
“I’m going to remember this forever,” said Mr. Preston, a designer who introduced streetwear to high fashion in the 2010s with his collective Been Trill.
This week, Mr. Preston and Mr. Schmitt’s shoe will finally be released. Kind of.
Printed in Germany by Mr Schmitt’s company, Zellerfeld, the sneakers are plush and somewhat reptilian – albeit actually avian, as Mr Preston notes below. They will be available on Tuesday, via a charity raffle on StockX to benefit Global March, a nonprofit focused on ending child labor. A raffle ticket will cost $ 10, and there will only be three winners, who will receive their free sneakers in black, orange, or white.
Then on October 11 there will be a larger 200-pair release on the Zellerfeld website.
Buyers will be part of a beta testing program that allows fully recyclable sneakers to be exchanged and reprinted in a new pair when an update is available. (All buyers will receive a free update. The company has not yet disclosed the price of the shoe.) They can order their standard size or scan their feet using an app to get a custom fit.
He’s a cutting edge model in sneaker country, and Mr Preston, 38, compared the experience, which began before the pandemic, of putting on a headlamp and diving into a cave, “not knowing what that we were really going to discover “.
Here, in the edited interview, he develops his desire to bridge the world of “super-super-high tech and the streets”.
Take us back to two years ago. How did you come to 3D printing?
It wasn’t necessarily 3D printing. In fact, I was exploring sustainable solutions and suppliers in space. My friend has a store on Bowery called the Canvas which focuses on selling only brands that tick at least one of the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals issued by the UN
I went to check out, just visit him, and he took me to the back of his warehouse, which looked more like a messy garage. And I just check all the things he’s experienced, and he shows me this sneaker, a little dusty and in two pieces, like a prototype.
And then he points in the corner, and there’s this very huge box, a little bit dusty and covered with a bunch of books and things. And he said to me: “It was the printer who printed these shoes.”
Immediately I was like, “Whoa, are you printing sneakers now?” Is that where we are now in the world? “
So he starts telling me about the kids who built this printer by hand and found out how to print flexible material – these kids in Germany, these young college kids.
Within a week, I was on the phone talking to these guys about how we could work together. It was so new and innovative, and as someone who grew up collecting sneakers and being so close to culture, I felt like this 18 year old Heron again.
How did you approach the design of the shoe?
The very beginning of Heron Preston, the collections, was the Heron bird. So I was like, “Let’s see how to incorporate some inspiration from the bird’s paws.
This is where the scales come from. And it’s funny, when people comment online they think it’s an alligator or something because it’s as far as our brains can go. But I really wanted this to be as true to HP as possible.
Our discussion therefore began to fill with images of bird feet. This is where we started. I really wanted to push the capabilities of what we might not be able to achieve in conventional sneaker design.
What was it like when you first tried the shoe on?
They were a little spongy, in a way. They were bouncy, super flexible – I was really surprised at how flexible they were – and a bit springy, a bit heavy.
The first impression we made was almost clear. I think I got them in the upstate over the summer – while waiting for this type of UPS to pull over in the woods. I opened the box and felt like I was the only one in the world holding this sneaker. And I was.
Visually, they are unlike any other sneaker on the street. But, you know, I wasn’t necessarily chasing that – like, “Hey, I want this to look like something you’ve never seen.” I was really trying to challenge the technology and print something that I didn’t think was possible.
So yeah, putting it on for the first time was really, really exciting – and more exciting than I had felt putting on anything the past few years.
Are there any limits to the number of sneakers you can make? Can Zellerfeld sell them?
We’re going to limit it for now, to make sure this thing doesn’t go crazy and that they can handle it, because this is the first time they’ve been doing this.
The sneaker culture has gone a bit crazy, with resale drops and mark-ups through the roof. How do you think 3D printing fits in or solves some of the issues that have been presented by the hype culture?
It adds an interesting new component to the hype culture, now that it moves in a “phygital” space – physical and digital coming together – and knowing that it is literally a digital design that you can now buy, and knowing that this design will always be there. The supply will not run out as long as the printer is there. It just unlocks access, and it’s really exciting for kids around the world who want to be a part of something.
Just imagine going to your phone, scrolling through a drawing, and then pressing “print” in your bedroom.
It sounds confusing to all that kind of hype wheel.