In its lab in Vancouver, Lululemon tracks women’s breast movement and centers of gravity as they run, jump and stretch to create custom sports bras. But four years ago, the brand’s designers realized that this amount of data could help them create an entirely new product: Shoes tailored to the way women’s bodies move.
This March, the brand debuted its first shoe, designed for running, and just launched its second, for cross-training. Both are designed specifically for women. This sets Lululemon apart from most sneaker brands, which often design shoes for men’s bodies before scaling them down to women’s sizes.
The brand believes its women-oriented design strategy will allow it to create athletic shoes that are more supportive, comfortable and performant than others on the market. And given that every round of shoes sold out in most colorways within days of launch, the approach seems to be working.
The original sneaker was a shoe for men
In the 1830s, a British entrepreneur named John Boyd Dunlop invented a new shoe that combined canvas with rubber soles, which was more flexible than the leather shoes of the past, creating special shoes for tennis legend Fred Perry. Then in 1917, Boston-based Converse came up with a shoe designed specifically for basketball, partnering with Chuck Taylor to create a shoe that would help him perform better on the court.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a wave of sneaker brands emerged, including Puma, Adidas, Reebok and Nike. They evolved sneakers with the help of new materials, such as synthetic foam for padding; but like their predecessors, they were tailored to the feet and movements of male athletes. When they started creating women’s shoes, most simply made them in smaller sizes and more feminine colors, a strategy that sometimes continues today. “Women’s products are just taken from men’s, scaled down and with a little pink or some glitter,” Libby DeLana, co-founder and creative director of Mechanica, a creative agency that has worked with sneaker brands like Saucony.
Over the years, there have been efforts to adapt shoes to women’s needs. In 2016, for example, Adidas began using motion-tracking technology to study women’s movement, eventually launching Pure Boost sneakers with a higher arch; Puma and Under Armor have just started making running shoes specifically for women. Last year, singing star Allyson Felix launched her own brand, Saysh, which makes trendy sneakers tailored for women’s feet. And a new startup, Hilma, is currently designing a performance sneaker for women that will launch soon.
From bras to shoes
Lululemon believed it was fully prepared to address this market. When it was launched in 1998, it stood out from other sportswear brands because it exclusively produced products for women. (She only started creating menswear in 2014.) The brand debuted with yoga wear, but quickly expanded into high-impact sports. Like its competitors, it built a high-tech lab to collect user data. “We do so much research and development specific to women, especially around bras and how women feel in them,” says Chantelle Murnaghan, vice president of research at Lululemon. “We’re constantly looking at how we can extend those sensory experiences from head to toe. But we were always missing the toe component.”
Four years ago, Lululemon decided to start creating shoes. Under the leadership of chief product officer Sun Choe, the company hired a team of experts, including George Robusti, the former senior director of design for running at Adidas who now leads Lululemon’s footwear design. And instead of simply taking existing sneaker prototypes, the team started with a clean slate. “Typically, the industry has simply accumulated knowledge and innovations from the past to create new shoes,” says Robusti. “They missed the opportunity to design specifically for women. We have chosen to start over.”
From decades of analyzing women’s bodies in motion—then comparing them to men’s bodies for the 2014 menswear launch—it was clear to Lululemon researchers that women’s legs are distinct from men’s. “A lot of our knowledge came from doing so much research about breast movement,” says Murnaghan. “We understand every detail of how women’s breasts move, which has allowed us to better understand their full body in motion. It is clear that shoes can affect the movement of the chest, affecting the full trajectory of the body.”
The team began by studying the shape of women’s feet by performing 3D scans. They also worked with bio-mechanists, neuroscientists and engineers to explore how the morphology of women’s feet relates to the rest of their bodies. Using internal data, along with more than a million images from a Swedish 3D scanning company Volumental, they identified that, on average, women have narrower legs. And compared to men, their heels are proportionally narrower than the forefoot. Women can also have higher arches. “All those millimeters of difference make a big difference,” says Robusti. “It’s the secret sauce to ensuring a lifted fit and feel.”
So how do they feel?
After creating a few early prototypes, the brand began testing the shoes with hundreds of women, from brand ambassadors to marathoners to everyday consumers. A runner wore it in a Los Angeles to Las Vegas foot race called the Speed Project. In several rounds of feedback, they would send unmarked versions of their shoes in order to gain objective knowledge.
The goal was to collect quantitative data, but perhaps more importantly, qualitative knowledge. This is part of Lululemon’s broader design approach, which it calls “the science of feeling” and which focuses on the user’s subjective experience when wearing a product. “Our unique point of view is that we are not just creating a product to perform well in an activity,” explains Robusti. “We’re more interested in how the product translates in terms of empathy and emotion.”
The team continued to adjust the shoes based on feedback, and they knew they were on the right track when runners reported that their sneakers were comfortable enough that they were able to run for longer periods without feeling fatigued. “We got into a rhythm of rapid prototyping of the shoe’s architecture, fine-tuning the foam compounds along the way,” he says. “We joked that what we were testing for was the level of smiling at the end of the run.”
In March, Lululemon launched the Blissfeel running shoe; and in August, she released her Chargefeel training shoes. Both sold out in many colors within days, and the brand needed to be restocked quickly. Now, Lululemon is continuing to do R&D to create shoes for other activities. Eventually, she may also start making men’s shoes. But Lululemon’s successful foray into footwear suggests there’s plenty of demand for performance sports shoes designed specifically for women — paving the way for startups like Saysh and Hilma to enter the market as well.
For Robusti, the key to the brand’s continued success comes from constantly studying the complexities of women’s bodies in motion. “We want shoes to respond to how women’s bodies naturally move, rather than forcing women to modify their movements in their shoes,” he says.