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This year saw a flood of announcements around a concept that seems like it should have existed all along: shoes designed and manufactured based on a woman’s foot. Specifically, running shoes. 

“For the most part, it wasn’t happening at all before. I think it’s been a secret for the industry that brands were selling women’s shoes that were made for a man’s foot,” Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports with the NPD Group, said.

Now, however, some brands are adjusting their strategy, at least when it comes to running footwear. In June, Under Armour launched its first running shoe that was based off of a women’s last (a tool used to shape footwear), the UA Flow Synchronicity. Days later, Puma unveiled its Run XX Nitro running shoe, which is only available in women’s sizes. The brand in 2021 released its first shoes that were based off of a women’s last, according to Erin Longin, the general manager of running and training at Puma.

“It’s really forcing everybody out into the open. It’s funny — when a brand says ‘we’re now making a women’s-lasted shoe’ they’re basically admitting that prior to that they weren’t doing that. They were actually making women buy men’s shoes,” Powell said. “I think with each one of these, it’s exposing other brands that need to step up and so we’re really going through a fairly significant revolution in the industry right now.”

Some brands have been at it longer. Adidas created its first running shoe on a women’s last decades ago, in 1978, according to a company spokesperson. A year later, the retailer made its first running shoe specifically for women. Since then, the company has designed other women’s-specific shoes, including the Pureboost X. The Ultraboost 22, released in December, used a women’s last for the first time in the product’s history and will have a dedicated women’s version going forward as well.

As more brands begin catering directly to women, there’s the potential for a shakeup in the running shoe market. Lululemon, for instance — which is now larger by revenue than Under Armour — entered the footwear category in March. Its first offering? A running shoe that was actually designed for a woman’s foot.

The question is whether women even realized brands weren’t designing products based on a woman’s foot — and how they’ll respond when they try a pair that were.

“I’m not sure the consumer fully grasps what’s happened here yet either — and whether she thinks it’s important or not,” Powell said. 

The status quo

For Puma, the journey to creating running shoes with a women’s last began in 2018, when the company had already decided to relaunch its performance running category. Puma’s Longin recalled seeing research that women had finally overtaken men in total number of race finishers, a “drastic change” from 20 years ago.

“We knew from the start that we wanted to do it differently,” Longin said. “We had the chance to really reset everything we were doing in running, so we made it a mission of ours to consider women from the start of our relaunch.”

That included using a women’s last for all of its running products in 2021, and testing all of its shoes with both men and women. Prior to the Run XX Nitro, however, all of Puma’s running shoes were available in both men’s and women’s sizes. This latest shoe was a chance for Puma to develop something uniquely made for women.

A woman in Puma running shoes sits on a bench.

Puma’s Run XX Nitro shoes were designed specifically for women’s feet.

Permission granted by Puma

 

Under Armour had a similar timeline for its Flow Synchronicity. Lisa Collier, the retailer’s chief product officer, said via email that the company began developing performance solutions for women three years ago. When it came to the running shoe, the retailer took longer than its usual product development timeline in order to perfect the fit.

“We know women deserve better than the traditional women’s shoes that use the ‘shrink and pink’ method, taking a men’s-designed shoe and making it smaller to fit the female foot,” Collier said.

So if women deserved better, why wasn’t this done sooner? 

Longin believes it’s in part a resources question, since designing shoes uniquely for men and women takes up more time and requires not just research and development, but also testing and other processes before the shoe is complete. The other part is that this is the way brands have always done things.

“When you talk to brands about it, they’re always very circumspect,” Powell said. 



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