The Materiality of Luxury…

“Luxury is not consumerism. It is educating the eyes to see that special quality.” -Louboutin

Yesterday I received in the post samples of Hemp fibre sheets.  Fascinating stuff, all natural composites. These fibres sheets come from the German company J. Dittrich & Söhne Vliesstoffwerk GmbH.  I intend to form these sheets into the shoe structure and fit the wool felt sock inside.  I will explore the “soft hard” combo as I did in the felt shoes and add the Acrodur binder (resin substitute) to the structural parts.

On Monday this week I received my wool felt from Daimer. Wednesday further treats arrived with the Durapulp from Sodra (paper pulp), and Flax sheets from Norafin.

But these intriguing “industrial” materials raise a big issue such as boundaries of acceptable “luxury” materials.  We can now have “plastic” jewellery, heals and accessories but throw a natural, industrial composite and are we creating the equivalent to a burlap dress!?!

Left Norafin flax, Right J. Dittrich hemp matte, below Sodra paper pulp and centre Daimer wool felt all non woven

But is everything a bit back to front right now?  Cashmere from The GAP, plastic shoes from Gucci,

The shoes were designed by Frida Giannini and includes a range of ballet flats and sneakers molded from bio-plastic. The biodegradable material is sourced from compost, and is both durable and flexible. 2012

not to forget just about every major fashion brand is manufacturing in China, often at the same factories as mid level high street brands.  I think we have come to a point where there are way more factors than exclusivity by a limited material resources and hand craftsmanship to define Luxury. Kind of similar to the fact that money is no longer a direct representative to gold! Luxury for the big fashion brands is all about perception.

So with the big Brands changing perception of “luxury” especially in regards to materials  is there scope to do my favourite thing by subverting the expected norm? Remember I didn’t change the rules but I am sure going to enjoy playing with them!

I think globalisation, Brand marketing and fast fashion had us fooled for a while when we were so desperate to “own a piece of the brands” to give us an identity, a tribe, a community.  Then media exposure, internet transparency and social media demystified this and now a new emerging factor is pushing into the “definition” of luxury items and materials. Maybe luxury and sophistication is more about how things work in our lives.  There was a time when we used the properties and characteristics of materials to make our wears function better emotionally and in practical terms. Lucy Seigal writes in her book “To Die for” of how we have lost the ability to distinguish one material form another and how this has lead to a degrading of the qualities of the materials in our wardrobes.

But something else has happened since our new century began.  One of the hottest, refined must have personal items is you guessed it the Apple I Phone.  In fact this “product” works so well we take it for granted.  Plus the style is anonymous and goes with everything.  What happened is it’s presence has blended into our perception of what quality design is.  And as mentioned before fashion is all about perception.

So our “products” because fashion items or vice versa?  How do we define the pleasure of the smoothness of the interface on our Apple products? And how does this experiential usage influence our expectation in the qualities of Luxury items? I give people credit and once they have lived with great product design functions it alters their own definition of luxury.  At this same time we are in an age of questioning authority. We no longer trust our polititians, our bankers, we google our health concerns instead of taking verbatim everything our doctors tell us, and this includes the marketing of big fashion brands.

Apple retail structure has been so successful big fashion houses such as Prada are modelling themselves on it.  Apple can do this because they do have a good product and are leaders in innovation.

So how does this relate to our definition of “Luxury” materials?  Good news it means if it feels good and functions well in use and in relation to our wider community it is, Bingo!, luxury.

A review of the book Trading Up by Silverstein and Fiske covering the analysis of the changing luxury market  is interesting….

…merchants never underestimate their customer; they shatter the price-volume demand curve; they create a ladder of genuine benefits (i.e. technical, functional, and emotional benefits); they escalate innovation, elevate quality, and deliver a flawless experience; they extend the price range and positioning of the brand; they customize the customer’s value chain to deliver on the benefit ladder; they use influence marketing to “seed” success through brand apostles (i.e. “evangelism”); and finally, they continually attack the category like an outsider. What Silverstein and Fiske offer in this volume is a rigorous analysis of those companies which continue to be most successful in the New Luxury economy. They also explain in detail precisely HOW they achieve such success.

So back to using “non” luxury materials?  Yes I believe if you can offer the owner of footwear something innovate, forward and unique, based on a functional premise you can like Apple put the technology (materials in this case) out there to the market and consumers will change their behaviour and perception to accept previously deemed industrial materials into a luxury context.

Everything changes we just need to educate the eye on these special qualities….

coconut and latex text

cocolok shoe drawing spec

Originally I wanted to make a combination of banana fibres and tussle and latex.

loose banana fibres one corse and one soft and latex laminated up

loose banana fibres one corse and one soft and latex laminated up

But the laminating process would prove to be problematic and long in this time frame. So I stumbled upon a made sheet material called Cocolok. This is coconut fibres and latex. I found it on a blog called Hello Materials
This material is used for a number of things but main application is for mattresses. The company informed me as footwear company called Po-Zu has been using the material for insoles

Pu-Zo Coconut footbed

Pu-Zo Coconut footbed

The material is coconut layered up and strayed with latex then compressed through rollers. It comes in differing densities. In speaking with the representative of the company we thought there would be a density suitable for wedges. They very kindly sent samples thin to thick of 80-120 density. I believe it goes up to 200 density.

As a student you have to work with what is on hand. Please remember this investigation in natural fibres in application to footwear primarily exploring how a natural material can evolve in arrangement and binding to have the same potential properties of rapid prototyping processes.

So we found that the cocolok wedge “blocks” while pleasurable under the feet were too unstable. So we bio resined the side walls with a brush, spatula and because the resin ran through the open cocolock a “wall” of bio resin which was structural foamed and then the centre stayed soft. We then put on a top layer cocolok insole “mattress”.

below is an image of the crude test mock. A felt sock mule would be attached to the top. The bioresin would be polished.

Cocolok, unpolished bio resin and felt sock mule test

Cocolok, unpolished bio resin and felt sock mule test

Crochet concept and test…

The rational behind using Crochet as one of the materials is that it is not only non-woven but is a structure which adds, or builds in a very direct manner.  So the choice to to keep the crochet stitch was a purposeful one.  The aim was to keep the unit (the stitch) the same  but repeat and then make the knit denser as the material moved from the upper to the heel.  This is very important, this repetition, as this is modernism…



Naomi Paul-GluckEmber

The Construction…proposed

Using natural non wovens generally means sourcing sheet material. Mainly because it is very difficult to compress or tangle the non wovens into a uniform material without the use if industrial machines.  And since we are past the age of injection moulding and on the edge of a digital printable material, sheet material seems well, a bit “flat”. So in the design we need to express this “flatness” to our advantage. And “flat” material is used in conventional footwear so to use these natural materials as leather shoes are made seems inappropriate. So carrying on from the hollow heel/sole of the previous felt shoes in which the flat material becomes the structure seems right.

over lasted felt with hollow sole, the lasting is the structure photo: Panos Damaskinidis

As designers we often work intuitively and then later analyse why we have done something a certain way. I still can not clearly put into words why this hollow structure is intriguing. It has something to do do with the decorative upper becoming the structure of the heel. It is about simplicity maybe not in construction but to the eye and mind. And I guess that is what we do as designers.  We are the bridge between the engineering and people to hopefully make poetic artefacts.

So  evolving on there are some practical concerns about using various non wovens.  Some are rough next to the skin so came the idea of using a felt sock or bootie which is resined on the sole to form the insole structure. Then side walls are over lasted and wrapped around, undercut under the insole area to form a ledge that the bootie rest on.  The bootie is slipped in to this “over lasted shell”.

…explode view felt sock centre with resined sole and moulded sides with ledge that the resin sole sit on.

hemp sides, insert sock resined, sits on feather line ledge

Paper pulp concept and material test…

A few months ago Jess the Materials Librarian at CSM and LCF suggested I contact the people at Sodra to possibly use this mouldable paper pulp material.  She showed me a sample of the finished material.  It was like a plastic styrene with a velvety surface finish.  The material is really strong and was used for furniture.  When I first approached Sodra the company were concerned the water wear would prevent the application in footwear.  After a couple months being urged again by Jess I contact the company again explaining that these shoes were prototypes which could be applied to further research and development in which the water wear issue could be investigated further at a later stage.

They agreed and sent the material. Fantastic!

The pulp is paper so cellulose with a biopolymer.  Water is added and then the material is poured or put into a mould which needs to compress and heated once the water is removed. In manufacturing a metal tool would be used with heat compression for best surface quality.

But we will have to rig up a workshop method to recreate this process as close as we can get.  I am sure the surface quality will suffer a but these things go in stages!

Above is a link to the Sodra Labs website.  In it the material is explained.  We are using Durapulp as the pulp comes in three strengths.

In the workshop at the college I tried playing with the material initially as I do not have the moulds yet.  This play was also to help inform what might be needed in the moulds.

I mixed the pulp with water…

Tested it under flat compression and let air dry.

compressed sodra

The result was very dense and tough but really the material needs to be baked soon after or as it is compressed.

The toe was wrapped with pulp and gauze and let to air dry.  I tried putting the material in the footwear flash oven and some densifying of the material happened but again this needs to happen as compressed or close to this stage.

sodra wrapped around last bound with stretch creep gauze air dry

sodra toe test 1- air dried and flash oven baked

Now in theory this material could work as it has been used on furniture as below…

(all from the Sodra website…)

sodra chair from website

on the left showing surface of early prototype of chair

sodra chair on tool

So the chair is a “bucket shape” with nice draft angles…

I am hoping to create a “up-side-down” bucket with the side ledges that the felt sock with the stiffened sole can sit on – be glued in?

as below…

Flax material test…

flax shoe drawing idea

flax shoe drawing idea

Originally, was going to try to laminate up the flax fibres into the mould similar to the hemp fibres.  But as the hemp proved to not be working I had to  think in other ways.  Like the hemp, flax is used in composites for surfboards and bicycles.

flax fibre

Jess the CSM and LCF materials librarian showed me a bag made of flax.  The company Norafin produces the flax sheets in various thicknesses in either 100% flax or a combination of 65% flax and 35% viscous.

So Norafin kindly send me a selection of weight sheets to test.

from left 4 layers 100% flax moulded in one go after 2 days wrapped in inner tubes , 2 layers 100% flax wet laminate after 6 days wrapped in cloth mesh, 400 gsm flax and viscose combo 1 layer wrapped in cloth mesh

flax test

350 gsm with felt boot

350 gsm flax moulded

flax 350 gsm wetted and moulded then felt sock inserted

Acrodur was tested on the flax and flash heat in the oven several times…Again this was too high heat too fast and the result whilst strong was brittle.  The 100% flax absorbs the binder better and would need to be layered up and dried slowly over a period of time. The reaction again of passersby was that they wanted to touch the the moulded materials.



Hemp shoe material test…

Originally, I thought about using raw hemp stick which is the long, tough, coarse fiber of the cannabis plant, used to make cordage.

I through a bunch into my crude plaster test mould and added point shoe shellac and came up with a promising potential. But the feedback I go was the hemp looked a bit messy all tangled.  The problem was the messy tangles were what gave the hemp it’s strength.

hemp and shellac

I wanted to layer the hemp up in one direction and then cross the direction.  I layered up the hemp wet and let it dry around the one side of the last.  However, this whilst potential beautiful and a bit subversive was propbematic in the sense that the fibres even if place and proper moulds were hard to control.  Gravity pull these fibres down in clumps.  I tried holding it with PU glue but I was worried this would interfere with the resin application.

I also tried with dry hemp resined but found whilst strong it could thin in areas and these areas were weak.

hemp and resin

I revisited the information and realised I missed the matte suppliers of hemp.  These are the mattes Werner Aisslinger used with his hemp chair. The company J. DITTRICH & SÖHNE sent me a selection of hemp mattes, some pre preg with the acrodur.  This meant the mattes only needed to be moistened once delivered, however these mattes usually come with moisture still in and waterproof sealed.

So we created a rig to test the material of clay and ply

clay rig for testing moulding material

Then clapped the material through and pressed around the last

clamped clay rig for testing moulding material

The result was a surprisingly strong form

hemp matte pre preg moulded

hemp and acrodur

The design is to use the hemp shrouded around the felt sock

pre preg hemp matte 1450 and 3mm felt sock

pre preg hemp matte and 3mm felt sock

But this was just the start.  This matte is a combination of hemp and kenaf another natural fibre.  So I tested the 100% hemp and it moulded really nice.

100% hemp matte moulded with water and left to dry

100% hemp matte moulded with water and left to dry front

100% hemp matte moulded with water and left to dry back

See I want to mould in this way so working with the material is a challenge. J. DITTRICH & SÖHNE the material supply have been great, a designers dream.  These people are so helpful.  They contacted BASAF the acrodur suppliers and sought further advice for me. I emailed images of my test and they were not put off by the fact I am trying to recreate compression moulding and resin transfer moulding in a workshop, non industrial environment.  They picked up that my wall thickness should be less on the upper so suggested I use the 600 gsm weigh sheets but realised I will need thicker in the heel area and double checked I could fuse the two sheets together via heat and compression. They suggested with the consultation of BASAF to use a glove iron the heat thus curing the acrodur whilst on the form.

So the mould is for compression and once open and the material still around the last and the heel, insole blank I can run the iron over it.  Brilliant! They are so cleaver!

Then once pat cured I can further cure in the oven at anywhere over 160-200 degrees. The lower the tempature the longer curing time.

But that is not all…They recognised I will need to potentially add binder to stiffen the heel areas of stress and I can either spray or brush on the acrodur BEFORE it cures in stress areas.

In my test using the flash oven I realised two things…if any water is still in the fabric the binder bubbles and becomes brittle.  It really is using the sensitivity of a chef in these workshop conditions.

Thing I realised in this process were that for some reason people respond more to the 100% hemp moulding. The kenaf hemp combo is apparently 90% with a 10% polyester fibre.  I am not sure if it is that 10% which is somewhat of a deterrent, or the 100% of a natural material which seduces us with it’s elegance or if the thinness of the material moulded over the last is so seductive, but something is happening which makes this material notable for a passer by.