Ironically, barefoot running week wouldn’t be complete without the perspective of a running shoe brand, and who better to ask than one of the most well known in the industry, Saucony. Saucony has made some breakthroughs this year with shoes that mimic the bare foot. The successful launch of the Kinvera opened up the philosophy and ideas of minimalist running to a much broader audience, the runners who are too timid to run “naked”. One aspect of the minimalist movement is that shoe companies are genuinely responding to the needs (wants) of the consumer. Saucony’s product developers are clearly interested in maintaining communication with the runner, and executing on that feedback. This week we are lucky to invite Pat O’Malley, Saucony’s General Manager of Footwear, to the dailymile blog to talk about Saucony’s approach to minimalist shoes, their thoughts on Born to Run and barefoot running, and what they have planned to keep us all running safe, smooth, and light in 2011.
Saucony is one of the first running shoe brands I remember truly falling in love with. It was on a winter run growing up in Alaska, and I had punched sheet metal screws through the bottoms of my shoes so that I had more traction. Despite my blatant mutilation of my Saucony running shoes, they held up throughout the winter! It was a long time before I ventured out to try other brands like Asics and Nike. I have a history of Saucony, and I know a lot of runners that share in my nostalgia, but I’m curious about how you see the “Saucony story.”
Kathy S.: Can you tell me a bit of the history of Saucony and why you make running shoes?
Pat O’Malley: The company was founded in 1898 in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Saucony Creek. In 1910, Russian immigrant Abraham Hyde started a shoe company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Hyde Athletic Industries. Over the years, Hyde became known for high-quality and technologically-innovative footwear including brands such as SpotBilt and PF Flyers; Hyde Athletic Industries bought Saucony in the late 1960s, and moved it to Cambridge. By the late 90′s, when Saucony became Hyde’s dominant brand, the name of the company was officially changed from Hyde Athletic Industries to Saucony. Over the years, Saucony focused on the technical aspects of running shoes and found a market with in performance running. The brand found a great connection with runners and the needs that they have when it comes to footwear and apparel.
KS: You guys make just about every style of running shoe. Do you think that there’s enough of a movement among the barefoot and minimalist runners to warrant getting away from some of your heavier models?
PO: Many runners have had great success with some of our traditional models over the years. While there is some great momentum with minimalism and some great learnings from this, we still have many runners who love our traditional shoes and we still see a strong need for these shoes in the marketplace. I do think that some of the things that we are learning from minimalism can be incorporated into our traditional shoes that will improve the performance. With that said, we know the importance of making sure, when we replace a shoe, that we keep many of the great characteristics that people have loved about the shoes. We will continue to do that.
KS: How long does it take to go from concept to production with running shoes and can you describe how the process works?
PO: It takes 18 months to go from concept to the shoe being in the store. The process starts with talking to runners and retailers to find out what they like about our shoes and what they are looking for in shoes. From there, a design brief is written that describes the consumer and all the features and benefits that will be required. The designer then starts working on designing the shoe and over the next 12 months there are many rounds of design and sampling work. After each round, there are fit wand wear tests that happen to make sure the shoe performs to the Saucony standards. About 6 months before the shoe hits retail, they are presented to retailers and orders are taken. About 3 months before the introduction, the factory starts to make the shoe.
KS: Barefoot running is pretty much the antithesis of what you guys do at Saucony. I’m curious how Saucony has responded to the barefoot running phenomenon. When did Saucony first feel the pressure to respond to the barefoot and minimalist running movement?
PO: I don’t think we ever felt pressure. We see barefoot and minimalist running as two separate things. For years, runners, running brands and retailers were pretty comfortable with traditional shoes and the market demand in running shoes was focused on those types of shoes. We have always had light and minimal models, but they were focused on racing. As we saw some runners becoming open to trying new concepts, we felt we had some strong ideas on minimalism that we wanted to test and explore. The timing of this worked out great for us as more and more was coming out about minimalism and we had a concept that tested great.
KS: What impact did you feel from the book “Born to Run” and its influence on the footwear industry?
PO: I think the book told a great story and opened up the dialog about trying something different. I think it brought some real energy to the industry.
KS: Do you have an opinion on why runners are demanding more minimal shoes for running? (Beyond the book Born to Run)
PO: I think for some runners, they have found some success in using minimal shoes and this has lead to others willing to try it based on word of mouth.
KS: Was your product team excited for the challenge of making lighter, faster shoes?
PO: Yes because it allowed us to try some new ideas that we had been thinking about for a while.
KS: What was the most challenging part of designing and making your minimalist shoes? PO: There were many challenging parts to this. One was to find the right materials and engineering that would allow us to make a minimal shoe but still provide the ride and cushioning that a runner would need. Also, because we were on the front end of it, we had to do a lot more testing to prove that these shoes were everyday running shoes and not just racing shoes.
KS: How do you make a running shoe that’s lightweight yet stable? Is it in the design, the materials, etc.?
PO: All of those things work together to make the shoe light and stable. The design has materials and overlays where the runner needs them, the materials have to be of higher quality and the engineering is extremely important. The geometries of the midsole play a big part of it.
KS: Are minimalist shoes a fad or are they now a permanent segment of the shoe market?
PO: I think there will always be a place in our line for minimalism. For some runners, these shoes are the perfect solution for them.
KS: I can’t lie, the Saucony Kinvera shoes are by far my favorite among minimalist shoes that I’ve tried (I wear them much more often than my regular stability shoes). They’ve been a hit in the dailymile community, and I keep reading fantastic reviews about this shoe. Did you expect the shoe to be such a success?
PO: We knew we had something special based on our testing. The only part we were not 100% sure about would be how open to change runners and retailers would be. Because of the energy around minimalism, it worked out great for us.
KS: Any more colors that we can expect and can we ever design our own Kinveras?
PO: We have a bunch of new colors coming out and the Kinvara 2 is hitting on 5/1. Some exciting new colors will be out with that launch.
KS: Of course, this is the dailymile blog, which is a popular spot for some very passionate gear heads that we have on dailymile. They want want to know about what’s to come from Saucony. With your pending release of the Hattori, you will be the first f the major shoe companies to release a completely flat shoe. What gives you the confidence to go where your competitors have not with their new shoe designs?
PO: Our testing and research has shown us that, for some runners, this is the right direction. The shoe is really minimal and has a distinct ride that many of our testers, who like minimal shoes, loved. We are excited to bring this concept to runners.
KS: Is there a plan for traditional running shoes, minimal running shoes, and barefoot choices in the Saucony line up?
PO: We will have a full line of traditional shoes as well as minimal shoes. The great thing is that some features from traditional shoes will be used in minimal shoes and some features from minimal shoes will be used in traditional shoes. We are constantly testing new ideas and theories and are able to bring some great innovation to runners.