Orthopaedic footwear, but make it fashion
It’s atypical for a fashion footwear brand's foundations to rest upon medical orthopaedics, but Ukraine-based SINOBI operates under a strict philosophy of function first. In a saturated footwear market (especially since the explosion of 'sustainable' plant-based trainers and recycled rubber soles) it's hard to argue that there’s a need for more brands and more products - unless the product usurps what’s out there. That is SINOBI's claim. Their shoes are built on a foundation of medically sound orthopaedic research, cutting-edge scanning technology and precise manufacturing of an optimised insole for comfort and foot health; enveloped in a fashion-forward exterior. But how and why did the brand come about, and how are they combining function, fashion and sustainability?
A video interview with the SINOBI team revealed a unique product design and development process that is rare amongst emerging, cash-strapped footwear brands. Alexander Vernik, SINOBI's co-founder and head of R&D, was introduced to the business of shoemaking by his father, the co-owner a factory making shoe manufacturing equipment. In 2014, Vernik established a brand making espadrilles from denim waste alongside Shushan Pambukhchyan, who is now the co-founder and CEO at SINOBI. Vernik also established a separate mid-market shoe brand for the Ukrainian and European market (which he likens to Eytys), but for the past five years he describes having a nagging feeling to “make a global product (that) integrates a big concept”. That big concept, it turns out, is making useful shoes that “correct the feet”, that are not based solely on “marketing or fashion”. SINOBI was founded upon the Japanese philosophy of balancing inner wellness with external actions that respect the planet: “we are truly inspired by the philosophy of the (Japanese) culture - using new technologies, but not forgetting about traditions and the crucial things,” says Vernik.
The Japanese roots of the product design are evident in the product's form, simplicity and functionality - and the brand name. But the simple, unfussy exterior belies a highly technical interior that acts as the structural foundation for the product. The insole in all SINOBI shoes was created after extensive research conducted by Mikhail Bryatko, SINOBI's Chief Product Officer, and a team of researchers. Bryatko has experience creating insoles in his ongoing role at Arvitum Orthopaedic Diagnostic Centre in Ukraine, which supplies the medical industry with bespoke insoles for patients with pedal problems. When the centre recently expanded its machinery to include a novel 3D scanner it was clear that there was an opportunity for SINOBI to leverage this technology and create a high-performance, health-compliant fashion product.
Bryatko set up an experiment using insoles embedded with pressure sensors placed into shoes to capture data while the wearer walked. This allowed assessment of pressure across the heel and foot to determine the varying support needed throughout the insole. This data, collected from one hundreds subjects and combined with static research data, led to 20 prototypes, each one optimising the insole incrementally until optimal comfort and performance were achieved. “The insole is the heart of the shoe, using 3D modelling and milling machines (and made) from EVA” explained Bryatko. Upon completion of the insole, the final footwear product was developed, then stripped down to the essential details and components. This took a further 7 months of prototyping and wearer testing to complete.
SINOBI state that the final insoles "provide comfort and stability with each step, relieve muscle fatigue and joint stress, improve blood circulation in (the) legs (and) provide solid stance and proper alignment." Since launching the core GETA product, the team have expanded the range, but only to satisfy a limited choice, with the 3D insole at the core of every style, demonstrating dedication to a single, solid foundation - a neat metaphor for a brand that deems simplicity, minimalism and function as paramount.
On the sustainability front, Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), which is often called foam rubber, is used to form the moulded insole. EVA is a plastic polymer that performs well during use, but like all plastics, does not biodegrade effectively. As with other plastics, the exact health and environmental effects are not known. However, in the environment, when EVA degrades it will release plastic particles. Sustainability always compromise - no product can claim to have zero impact. SINOBI is optimising every element of the product and production, starting with the raw materials. In partnership with a local supplier, the brand has developed a blended EVA material combining 95% recycled and 5% raw EVA, which is bonded in the shoe using water-based glue. The exterior is made from metal-free leather waste sourced from Italy, and more recently in Ukraine, further reducing the impact of transportation. The SINOBI team provided me with a list of suppliers and materials while compiling this article - an unusual (and positive) step for an emerging brand, as many keep these details secret. They also create protective shoe bags from off-cut leather instead of using a box - eliminating single-use packaging as much as possible.
The brand operates a healthy wholesale business, selling to boutiques in the US, Ukraine, Russia, Cyprus, Asia (via a distributor), NZ and Japan. They also sell directly to consumers via their website. The challenges they face in marketing and funding an emerging brand are eased by the relatively low cost of developing and producing in Ukraine, say Vernik and Pambukhchyan. However, they are seeking international investment opportunities to grow the business. Their ethos and product seem radically relevant at a time when the sobering reality of climate change and dwindling planetary resources jar against our consumerist desire for shopping-induced dopamine hits. The winning element here is that the product aims to improve health and wellbeing, and has optimised and transparent sustainability credentials across the supply chain. It is a performance product, packaged in a fashion exterior - function combined with aspiration. In the fashion space, the product chimes perfectly with growing consumer awareness, and investment in, personal health and wellbeing. The product price (from around £240) may be somewhat of a barrier, but the cost of creating a product with such R&D, performance and impact-limiting raw materials appears to justify the sum. It might be a matter of saving up, but your feet will thank you for it.