Never heard of Urshuz? You will soon enough.
Perhaps you’ve read about Art Center Product Design alumnus and faculty member Grant Delgatty’s entry, the Soleman Redemption, into last month’s Red Bull Soapbox Race in downtown L.A. The vehicle Delgatty drove—which could shed its layers to transform from a shoe, to a sandal, to a sole—was essentially a moving advertisement for his new line of footwear, Urshuz, whose main hook is that consumers can mix and match shoe uppers and soles into a variety of material and color combinations.
Urshuz (pronounced “yer shoes”) are currently available for purchase at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, DNA Footwear in Brooklyn, ShoeLab in Quebec and a number of other retail locations. And next month, Delgatty’s line hits the big time when the customizable shoes will be available at Urban Outfitters stores nationwide.
We sat down with Delgatty—whose history in the footwear industry includes stints designing for K-Swiss, heading up design at DVS Shoes and holding the position of Vans’ director of design for seven years—to get to the very sole of Urshuz.
Dotted Line: How did Urshuz come about?
Grant Delgatty: I’ve been in the footwear industry for a long time, and one of the growing trends I’ve observed is that consumers want to express themselves and they want to feel connected to their products. I set out to develop a method in which a consumer could become more involved in the design process of their footwear.
With footwear, there are two ways you can go in terms of colors and materials: conservative or more extreme.
Companies typically want to hedge their bets in order to make the most money, so conservative options tend to sell better in the mainstream. That restricts the potential fun and exciting possibilities.
The idea for Urshuz first came to me as a question of whether a consumer could put a shoe together on their own—to connect an upper and a sole together mechanically, using neither adhesives nor stitching techniques. If that was possible, then the options would be endless. So I created a totally new and unique system based on this approach.
Dotted Line: How do the soles and uppers of your shoes connect?
Delgatty: The system is patent pending. The uppers are constructed loosely by hand. When you see the upper, you’ll see that there’s nothing on the bottom. On the bottom perimeter edge of the upper, there is a series of elastic U-rings. These U-rings line up with a series of channels that are molded into the sole unit. Using a simple tool that stashes away inside the sole, the U-rings are inserted into the side channels of the outsole, and then threaded through the bottom tread pattern, which has an undercut design sculpted into the mold. The U-rings lock into position, so they can’t come undone, and they are recessed significantly, so they’re protected against elements like rocks and water.
Dotted Line: What colors and combinations are available?
Delgatty: The very first line out right now is a men’s line. We’ll launch a women’s line next. In the men’s line, we have one sole design that is going to be offered in seven different colors. Then we have seven styles of uppers: Dez, a mid-cut in four different colors; Brax, a low-cut in three different colors; Race, an Oxford-style in three different colors; Fran, a slide open-toe sandal in two different colors; Derek, a flip-flop in two different colors; Beltzy, a high-cut boot in three different colors; and Vern, a boat shoe in two different colors.
Dotted Line: What’s the ecological component to this product?
Delgatty: The sole unit is injection-molded thermoplastic rubber (TPR), which is 100 percent recyclable. So once the shoe has been worn for its lifespan, our company has an infrastructure in place where we can take back the sole units, send them back to the factory, and the factory will regrind the material. That material will then go through a very simple process whereby all of it will be ready to be reinjected into a brand-new sole unit. So it becomes a cradle-to-cradle project, where post-consumer use it will actually be turned back into the same product.
Dotted Line: Do consumers go to a physical store to buy these uppers and soles?
Delgatty: Yes, we’ve already launched with a couple of strategic partners, who will be selling both in store and online. It’s is a completely new experience that has been never done before. We had a lot of back-and-forth about how we should sell this product. One option was to sell it as a complete shoe that the consumer could customize later on, but that went against our entire purpose of allowing the consumer to be master and commander of creating the product from the start. So, yes, it’s a new way of selling footwear, and so far, we’ve had a tremendous response. We will also be selling direct to consumer at urshuz.com this coming July.
Dotted Line: Can the shoes also be disassembled?
Delgatty: That’s actually a very important part of the strategy of the product, because it’s not just the initial purchase where you can choose the look of your shoes; it’s ongoing. Let’s say you want a pair of shoes, and you’re kind of conservative, so you buy a black upper with a black bottom. Well, our bright lime green color also looks really great with a black upper. And maybe you really like that combination, but you’d only wear it for special occasions. With our product system, you can purchase one upper and two different sole units. Or you could buy a sandal and a closed-toe shoe, but only buy one sole. Either way, the cost for two different pairs of shoes is going to be under $100.
Dotted Line: So you could buy one sole, go for a job interview wearing a black leather upper, and then when the weekend rolls around switch out?
Delgatty: Yes, and there’s another direct benefit in that it also becomes the ultimate traveling shoe. It’s becoming more and more popular to try to be as compact as possible with your luggage, because airlines are charging for checked bags. Some airlines are even charging for carry-on items now. So if you went on a vacation for a week, you could essentially wear a pair of shoes, and have another two or three pairs of shoes all folded up completely flat in your briefcase.
Dotted Line: Giving the consumer choice sounds great, but what if somebody creates a horrible-looking combination?
Delgatty: We’ve done the idiot-proof test of trying every combination that we have. And the great thing is that there isn’t one combination that looks horrible. I’d be proud to see any single one of them walking down the street.