Performance Shoe Brands Are Emphasizing Being ‘Women-First,’ But Is the Industry Ready for an Overhaul?

Lululemon made headlines in 2022 when, in its first entry into the footwear category, the athleisure brand created shoes from a last molded in the shape of a woman’s foot. The brand relied on new data and footwear scans from over a million female feet to develop a shoe that catered specifically to women. The athletic brand is not alone. In recent years, several other shoe brands have made similar strides in the realm of women’s fit.

Under Armour released its first shoe made from a women’s last in 2022, and Puma did it in 2021. Smaller labels like Saysh, founded by Olympian Allyson Felix in 2021, and Hilma, a women’s running shoe brand that launched in 2022, are laser focused on making shoes for women first, as opposed to scaling down styles made originally for men.

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As research emerges showing the vast differences between men’s and women’s feet, footwear brands are finally seeing the need to implement a different process to make shoes for both categories. And to win over more female consumers (especially in the booming running market), brands are increasingly emphasizing the focus on women’s fit and sizing in their marketing and storytelling.

This process, though still in the early stages, is gaining steam. And as more brands get on board, shoes made for women could very well go from a fringe innovation to the norm, challenging more brands to overhaul their processes for how they make shoes.

Why now?

In a traditional footwear manufacturing process, brands will prototype a shoe based on a men’s size and size it down for women. This process, however, does not account for anatomical differences in men’s and women’s feet, such as foot width, instep height (the top of the foot) and heel width, explained Ales Jurca, VP of footwear research at Volumental, a provider of 3D foot-scanning technologies.

“Women’s feet are narrower than men’s feet in the same length,” said Jurca, who conducted an analysis of 1.2 million foot scans in North America, Europe and Asia in 2019. “That’s why, when [brands] design the first prototype for women, they should start with the women’s sample size and use data about her measurements in that.”

If men and women so obviously require a different sizing model for their shoes, why has it taken this long for brands to catch up?

While making a last for the female foot helps create a better fit for female consumers, it is also burdensome for footwear manufacturers.

“It’s very expensive to make a women’s lasted shoe in addition to a man’s lasted shoe,” explained Matt Powell, an advisor at Spurwink River and senior advisor at BCE Consulting. “I think brands over the years have gotten away with just taking a man’s shoe and resizing it and selling it as a woman’s shoe.”

Starting from scratch

New startups have an advantage when it comes to building women’s product: Starting from scratch gives them a chance to disregard footwear’s historical manufacturing processes.

Before Brooke Torres launched Hilma, a direct-to-consumer women’s running shoe brand, in October 2022, she tried about 100 different pairs of running shoes in search of that perfect fit. “What I started to realize was the way that shoes were fit and sized assumed that all feet were shaped the same, and it obviously wasn’t the case,” Torres said.

“I realized just how many products in the industry were made for men. So there was even more reason why so many women I knew were struggling with this same problem.”

Hilma, which uses exclusively female lasts, offers a unique sizing model: three different shoe shapes that vary depending on heel, midfoot and toe-box size, each offered in a full-size run.

“It has been interesting to see the industry evolve into more of this conversation around the need for women’s fit, which I think is very positive,” Torres said. “Almost no one was talking about it back when we got started.”

As for Saysh, the brand initially launched with lifestyle sneakers, but in September launched its first performance running shoe created with FemiformityFIT technology to fit the unique shape of a woman’s foot. Saysh also worked with biomechanists to create this shoe and designed it from a last made from a
woman’s foot.

Much of the innovation in women’s lasted product has taken off in running, as more women enter the sport and realize the link between fit and performance. “Fit is not nearly as important on a lifestyle shoe,” explained Powell. “It really only applies to performance footwear where this is critical.”

Bigger brands pivot

For the more-established athletic brands, innovations in women’s fit have required big renovations to decades-old processes. For instance, Puma said a complete reinvention of its performance run category in 2018 gave the brand runway to rethink how it makes shoes for female runners.

“We looked at the landscape and didn’t feel that there were many brands focusing on the female runner in a strong way,” said Erin Longin, Puma’s GM of its run/train business. “We had this chance as we restarted the category to make that integral to what we did.”

Puma began prototyping its running shoes for both genders and utilized a female last to build women’s products, which came to market in 2021 in the form of the Nitro line. In 2022, Puma launched a women’s-only Run XX Nitro running shoe, which includes a heelhugging fit and a firm and lightweight Nitro Foam midsole. Since then, the shoe has helped Puma learn more about what female runners need and informed innovations across the entire category.

“Now what we’re doing going forward is taking a lot of those learnings into other footwear models,” Longin said. “Because we want to make sure that our line of running shoes works for the female consumer.”

In 2022, Under Armour launched the UA Flow Synchronicity running sneaker, its first shoe made from a women’s last. And this past July, it launched UA Magnetico, the brand’s first soccer cleat made from a women’s last.

According to Katie Lau, director of sportstyle footwear, Under Armour focuses on the differences between men’s and women’s heel, arch and midfoot heights to create different products for both groups.

“Not only did we study her biomechanics, her foot shape and proportions, the contours and the sensitivities of her foot — we also wanted to understand her needs based on the way she interacts with shoes from the touch and feel, to branding placement and scale,” Lau said.

Other established brands like Nike and Adidas have also begun focusing more on women’s first products.

“We’ve heard that our consumer wants more than just women’s-specific footwear, so we’re offering a breadth of choice, as well as creating shoes led by women’s insights and needs to benefit all athletes,” Nike told FN in a statement. The brand did not confirm which of its products are made with a women’s last.

Adidas first used a female last in 1979 and still uses one — as well as women’s footwear scans — to help it develop products such as its UltraBoost 22, which features various design elements tailored for female runners. The brand also makes gender-specific shoes for tennis, hiking and basketball from a female last.

“For more than 70 years we’ve created products to support all athletes,” Adidas said in a statement. “As technology and data analysis has progressed, we’ve innovated solutions aligned to the demand we see from consumers. During that period, we’ve developed many products designed around the needs of different genders and body types.”

A critical mass

More brands jumping on the women’s-first bandwagon might increase competition in the space in the short-term. But brands and experts broadly agree that more products catered to women’s anatomy is an important step for the footwear industry as a whole.

“Women’s product has to get to a critical mass of brands making women’s lasted product before this really takes off,” Powell said. “At some point in the near term, we’re going to get to the place where she’s going to have a lot of choices for women’s lasted product.”

As a founder of a newer brand, Felix said she wants to see more advancement in the realm of women’s fit. To her, the growing trend of women’s-first shoe production is a net gain for the industry.

“We’re a small company,” Felix said of Saysh. “We’ve been shouting that this needs to happen and that there are differences between men’s and women’s feet, and we need our own shoes. But when you have a large company do that and show you that on a larger scale, it does push the industry, and hopefully, eventually, this isn’t something that’s rare to happen.”

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