shoes of the future

January 09 2014

Entrepreneurs. These are the people that power the world. When inspiration and technology meet there's a good chance a great business is in the works. Just look at any modern success story (Apple, Facebook, etc) and you'll get the idea. But the stars of this new frontier don't only rise in the West. Right here in Shanghai there's an army of people putting their good ideas and passion to work. All this week we're going to take a look at some of them and how they're shaking things up.


UT Labs and the Shoe of the Future

“It’s a really crazy idea,” says Token Hu. “You can make shoes out of leather, or canvas, but if someone told you they were making shoes of paper, you’d think, ‘This guy’s crazy.’”

After a Kickstarter campaign saw the shoes reach their fundraising target of US$15,000 in just 21 hours—the first run of shoes ships to early backers in 40-plus countries this month—it’s hard not to take Token and his UT Labs team seriously.

An industrial designer by trade, Hu started designing shoes for his wife and quickly became obsessed. In 2011 he started his own company with 20 styles, but it wasn’t until he met serial entrepreneur Joe Constanty and branding expert Shaun Nath late last year that things took off.

“We had a smorgasbord of shoes to work with. But none were identifiable to the brand,” Constanty says. “We spent weeks working with Token to really figure out the core proposition.”

The team skipped past Hu’s more conventional designs to focus on a line created using DuPont’s Tyvek “paper” (technically a spunbonded fabric). Billing the shoes as being “impossibly light,” they’re less than half the weight of Converse All-stars and strong enough that the UT team goes for afternoon jogs in them. The line was eye-catching, customizable and relatively cheap to manufacture.

“It always came down to the materials, like Tyvek. We’re not always going to be a Tyvek shoe company,” Constanty asserts. "We’re always using new materials and doing scientific testing against all these new materials to make sure that we were using these materials in the right way and using it to their greatest efficiency. We’re a technology-driven footwear company.”

The team settled on the Pencil as their lead style—if you’ve seen UT Lab’s Kickstarter page you’ll recognize it immediately.

“You have to have that iconic style, that DNA,” says Nath. “When you see this shoe from 100 yards away, you know exactly what it is.”

The trio then turned to Kickstarter to announce themselves to the world. It was their choice, the unconventional but obvious option. “It has a lot of things above and beyond just raising money,” says Nath. “It’s PR, it’s a test—that was the biggest thing for us. We’re called the Unbelievable Testing Laboratory. That’s not just the design and the shoe, it’s how we do things.”

The startup site netted them coverage in everything from Fast Company to GQ, but the team sees their journey as having just started. Concludes Constanty: “In the end we’re taking an awesome designer and an awesome product global. Very few Chinese products make it. Our goal is to really break out, to say that ‘Designed in Shanghai’ is just like saying ‘Designed in Cupertino.’”


Stay tuned all this week for a new entrepreneur every day.

Reporting and words by Geoff Ng, Susan Sun and Jessica Levine