There is something romantic about a sports shoe (sneakers) and childhood. If you like it, you can’t afford it. If you can afford it, you don’t like it.
My childhood in a middle-class family was financially challenging. For us, recycling carried a different connotation: not that of a product that transformed its use from one to another but a product that changed ‘owners’ as one grew older: the elder brother’s shirt or shorts would become mine after a few years.
However, this arrangement would be different when it came to shoes or sneakers: they would need to be ‘imported’: from outside the family, from my friends to be worn to special occasions like a match, or even to family weddings in my case.
Somewhere, irony catches up with you in life. Three decades later, a boy who would need to borrow sneakers in his childhood, found himself in the business of sneakers
Sneakers have been through many incarnations. After running halfmarathons for six years, one has realised that sports shoes have undergone a revolution: from the Bata white canvas shoes we wore to school, to DNA AMP, DNA LOFT, Air, Gel and Boost. Functional convenience has yielded to technological sophistication.
The ‘technology’ bit was interesting. Even now – after years of shoe design evolution – one in two runners gets injured, most of these around the knee. Within my running group, one is hearing of knee injuries all the time. And herein lies the irony: even as running shoes are getting technically advanced, injuries are also rising – precisely what these shoes should have prevented.
The big question, therefore, is: ‘Is there a right sports shoe for you?’
Yes. There is.
Like every other product, the answer lies in who you are and what you wish to get out of the sports shoe. Now, this might appear to be a routine question, but in India, it is not. Here, the sports shoe doubles up: one wears it for day-to-day running and also for a visit to the mall and everywhere else. The result is that a running shoe literally runs your life – in more senses than one.
So which is the ‘right shoe’?
The most important thing that I learnt in 18 months through numerous trips to Portland (the sneaker capital of the world), Seattle (home of Brooks; the best running shoe company) and China (the global sports shoe manufacturing hub) is that every shoe component matters.
Just like location, location and location are the three most important things that matter when buying a property, the three most essential things in shoe selection are fit, fit and fit. Why? Because the average Indian foot is broader in the front (this is a result of us having grown up wearing open footwear). So I have a tried-and-tested approach in shoe selection. How does the shoe feel when worn? Shut your eyes. Move the foot inside the shoe. Up and down, left to right. If it feels comfortable, the first box is ticked.
Then comes the ‘look’. Buy a colour you prefer. Like clothes, the rule is, if you like it, you buy it. When it comes to sports shoes, the technology transcends to uppers. One has a wide choice: (sports meshes, engineered meshes, knits, canvases, and micro-suede, among others). Each offers a different look and feel. My advice: buy a sports shoe that does not have a stitch on the upper; stitches rub and bruise feet. By extrapolation, it is not a surprise that the best sports shoes are absolutely stitchless.
Next, the mid-sole and out-sole — the ‘engine’ of the shoe, where millions are being invested in enhancing the cutting-edginess of modern sports footwear. The relevance of any technology is determined by its usage, whether one is running a half/full/ultra marathon or playing an intense sport. While each technology is different and yet simple, it provides enhanced cushioning (like car suspension) or extra bounce (energy). Again, these preferences may differ from person to person; some like ‘float’ while others like ‘feel’ – no standard metric. A mere canter on a treadmill for a few minutes can help you decide what you like. Alternatively, buy a pair, use it for a few months, and you will know what the body likes.
For the ‘serious’ sportsman who plays with intensity, the selection could be technology-intensive. For those who go for a walk, an occasional run or a casual game of football, the technology could be secondary and investment in a decent pair – as long as it has a stitch-free upper – could be adequate. Try knits for comfort or regular mesh ones for snugness. However, remember to not buy soft, pillow-like cushioned mid-sole shoes. In Indian conditions, if you don’t walk upright and wear soft shoes, your feet will pronate and the kinetic chain could cause your knee to work overtime (causing injury). You may invest in a decent EVA shoe with a medium density (53 to 57). Basically, whether you are an intense or not-so-intense player will determine your choice of footwear. The big message: you don’t need an expensive sports shoe.
Creating a new brand
It is with this perspective that my business partner and friend Rajiv Mehta (former MD of Puma India for nine years) and I built D:FY – a genuinely Indian sports shoe brand. All our shoes are designed in Portland, but made for India. They have Indian fits and uppers that suit our climate. Our shoes use superior mid-sole and out-sole technology for all – from the not-sointense Indian beginner to the 5k/10k runner and the regular gym-goer; no difference. And for the serious sportsmen, we bring Brooks, a 105-year old sports shoe company that only makes running shoes – it is owned by Warren Buffett.
So the next time you buy a pair of sports shoes, wear them, shut your eyes, commune with the presence in the shoe (the foot up, down, left, right drill), romance with the colour and ask yourself: does it feel right? Then walk or run in it, much like test-driving a car. Lastly, don’t overspend. Not all of us are meant to become Roger Federer, in whose case the shoespending returns will pay back thousands of times over. For all you beginners, playing a sport need not be expensive. Buy right. Feel right. Play tight. Defy.
Prashant Desai along with Rajiv Mehta, the former MD of Puma India are cofounders of D:FY, a new Indian company that makes and sells sports shoes and athleisure clothing designed especially for the Indian market