3D-Printed Shoes: Novelty or Fashion Accessory?

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Are these 3D-printed shoes made for walking? Short answer: nope. They are certainly wearable, albeit plastic isn’t the most comfortable material, but women have worn worse for fashion’s sake.

Introducing the 3D printed United Nude ‘Float’ Shoes. The shoe brand teamed up with 3D Systems and launched the shoes at its flagship store in New York City in August. Nestled in its NoHo retail space, United Nude now houses a 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer with an interactive touchscreen console that lets consumers tinker with customized color designs and then print shoes in store. It’s like a dreamlike vending machine, here to dispense geometric plastic shapes which can then be puzzle pieced together into the footwear of the future.

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The ‘Float’ shoe is designed in three parts that assemble to form the final product. With the new 3D Systems Cube printer, the biggest part takes roughly 15 hours to print, totaling around 40 hours to print a pair. A hand cut rubber outsole is then added for enhanced comfort – but comfort isn’t what these Jetsons-chic feet gems are about. They are symbolic of pushing the boundaries of fashion tech.

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Even though this shoe is wearable, I don’t think it’s to be compared with any more conventional shoes in regards to comfort, but that’s also not the point of this design, United Nude Founder and Creative Director Rem D Koolhaas says. This design is about creating something beautiful and interesting and it’s about experimenting, moving forward and about learning.

A United Nude salesperson told me that the 3D printer has lured in a lot of foot traffic to the flagship store, though passersby mostly stop in to ogle at the device rather than to actually purchase a pair of the $99 “Float” shoes. Koolhaas tells PSFK:

People really love to see the 3D printing in action. It’s a bit magical how a product suddenly appears right in front of your eyes.

The 3D-printed shoes are, for now, seen as more of a novelty item than a fashion accessory. Koolhaas adds:

At the moment it’s more for the show and to trigger people’s creativity and imagination. New technologies like 3D printing have so much to offer, and now that it has become so much more affordable, it’s such a great moment for more people to get involved. People creating and appreciating creations together is rich.

3D printing technologies are still very much in development, and Koolhaas doesn’t think 3D printing will replace any other production method for consumer goods “in the near future.”

…but perhaps one day most things will be 3D printed. If this would be the case, then the retail landscape would look different beyond someone’s imagination.

I decided to test out the “Float” footwear by taking them out for a stroll. My primary concern was that the shoe wouldn’t be able to withstand the jaggedness of NoHo’s cobblestone streets – I have seen a pair of 3D-printed shoes break to pieces on even the sleekest of runways. Though the rubber outsole quelled my fears of leaving behind a trail of plastic scraps. However, both the lightness of the shoe and lack of support had me wondering how far I could (what could best be described as) hobble along before I took a spill. But where these 3D-printed shoes lack in function they certainly make up for in aesthetic.

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Now, if fashion brands like United Nude incorporate technology allowing for more functional 3D-printed shoes, they can evolve from novelty to modern footwear. The Float shoes could take cues from Recreus’ Sneaker II in terms of wearability. These Back to the Future-inspired shoes use super-thin flexible filament – just 1.75 mm thick – to create the perfect balance between support and coziness. I mean, if I could commute in these Floats without sacrificing an intact anklebone, I’d rock them. Until winter, that is.

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