On the Puma Slancio, and the eternal return of the modular shoe

An idea in footwear that just never seems to go away, despite the fact that it’s never executed particularly usefully. Take a look at the Puma Slancio, part of the 96 Hours collection I’ve famously been smitten with since its introduction in ’02 (but which has been radically repurposed as a Neil Barrett boutique line since that introduction).

If you buy the Slancio’s marketing copy, it’s an “essential travel item perfect for the modern man on the go.” (!) This quaintly retrograde proposition rests on the weight- and space-economizing idea that you only have to pack (or wear) one pair of shoes, yet get to enjoy it in three different configurations: street shoe, hotel/inflight slipper, and pool sandal.

In the abstract, this seems to make a good deal of sense. It’s certainly true to the original 96 Hours conception of a line of clothing designed with a whirlwind international trip in mind – a trip on which you had to look professional a certain amount of the time, but also expected to be able to have some fun. (As it happens, this use case describes most of the travel I’ve had to do over the last few years, to a surprising degree of accuracy.) Space in my bags is always at a premium, and I genuinely would love the flexibility the Slancio would appear to offer. So why haven’t I ordered me up a pair yet?

Well, consider the original proposition: in whatever configuration, this shoe system (I’m tempted to call it a “platform”) has to see me from breakfast meeting to client presentation to speaking engagement to drinks with friends afterwards. To lapse into business jargon, that has to be its core competency, and if by simply detaching its exoskeleton I’m also afforded a comfy lounge slipper and a spare pair of flip-flops, so much the better. The trouble is that in its maximal configuration, the Slancio is simply too clunky and inelegant to choose as one’s sole footwear for a business trip – you could never wear it with a suit, for example. Whatever morphological concessions that are made to ensure it works as a system doom it as a shoe.

Yet the idea of a modular shoe springs eternal. I remember prototypes dating at least as far back as an SFMOMA show of 1999, and the concept seems to make so much sense that manufacturers and designers keep coming back to it, despite the fact that it’s never worked out quite right. It’s all but undead.

I have a pair of “three-way convertible” Final Home shoes that suffer from some of the same limitations as the Slancio: they’re neither particularly comfortable as sandals nor as shoes, and a disaster as clogs. (I wonder what, if any, influence East Asian lifestyles, with their many-times-daily requirement to step in and out of shoes readily, have had on these designs. Certainly both the Slancio and my Final Homes have a step-in configuration – what I call the ajushi mode – which makes them unusual in the Western context.) The Yves Béhar-designed Puma minis are similarly limited, with the sole of the sockliner insufficiently articulated to allow them to function in the intended role of travel slipper, and the liner’s material nastily unbreathable into the bargain. I do try not to buy shoes that make my feet smell more than would ordinarily be the case.

Even the deeply unfunky Timberland had apparently experimented with a highly modular concept, allowing the wearer to recombine from a fairly extensive menu of outsoles, sockliners and footbeds. I could never track down a retailer which seemed to have any available for testing, though, and they’re no longer even referred to on the brand’s Web site – probably too complicated to keep all the permutations in stock.

Beyond this very real logistical issue, which an all-in-one design like the Slancio would seem to address, modular designs all seem to flirt with the Swiss Army Knife syndrome. You can certainly use the Philips-head or the saw blade on your Swiss Army Knife, at least for a short while, but you wouldn’t want it to be the only such you had available. The same goes for shoe-component-as-sandal. Margins for comfort and utility, it turns out, are surprisingly tight on something like a flip-flop – they’re already optimized on something like the nominal form factor, and any change introduced for the sake of making it easier to plug into a modular infrastructure is likely simply to make the thing less comfortable.

Acceptable for the length of a three- or four-day trip? Maybe. Acceptable at the still greater price of requiring a complementary distortion in the shoe’s other configurations? Maybe not. As far as I’m concerned, the challenge of the modular travel shoe remains unconquered.

3 responses to “On the Puma Slancio, and the eternal return of the modular shoe”

  1. Josh Ellis says :

    I just carry two pairs of shoes — flip-flops (which take up no space in my bag, since they sit flat) and my black leather combat boots, which can be polished to a mirror shine and worn in place of loafers.

    Then again, my business attire is a black t-shirt and suit, so I’m in a different position than most.

    (You had some weird kind of sandal-like shoes on when we hung out in SF a few years back — I can’t remember precisely what they were, but they made an impression on me. They looked comfy.)

  2. speedbird says :

    Yeah, that wouldn’t work for me. For one thing, even my combat boots are specialized: I’ve got a pair each of jungle boots (with the Yongsan waffle-style sole), Gore-Tex 10th Mountain Division boots, and the newer SF-issue sneaker-style boots. They’re each of them great, in the proper application, but not a one of ’em would work under a suit trouser.

    Now you’ve got me wondering what it was I was wearing in San Francisco. I was wearing the hell out of a pair of Camper slides that summer, but those wouldn’t have caught your eye.

  3. Abe Burmeister says :

    You know, I spent way too much of a year or so in the late nineties arguing against the concept of “convergence”, only to wake up a year or two later as an early adaptor to the very convergent space of smartphones. The lesson I took from that was that convergence very rarely works, almost without fail the act combining two tools into one will produce something that reduces the functionality of at least one tool to a critical degree. And it’s virtually impossible to reach the higher range of quality for a tool function in a convergence device, that knife-screwdiver combo will never be one of the best knives or best screwdrivers.

    But convergence does work occasionally. It may not be perfect, but my Treo is remarkably better suited for my needs than any other phone (although I continue to eye one or two options) and any other Palm-like device. The reason it works so well is because it’s a convergence with synergistic qualities. Yeah I know, I hate that word too, but it’s really what makes it work. For me the synergy lay in email. By combining wireless with an organizer, a problem neither could handle well was solved and that’s true synergy. And that is exactly what it takes to make a true convergent device.

    The swiss army knife of course always comes up in discussions like this, but what’s interesting is that no one ever offers up a substitute for the Swiss army knife. Is there anything else that can be offered as a substitute multi-tool? You could say the Leatherman, or one of those multi-tools for bikes that people carry, but really those aren’t much different than Swiss army knives under other brands and with slightly more specific focal points. What else is there? Something for the kitchen? the bathroom? the car? I’m sure someone makes some convergent thing for any given situation, but most are either failures or extremely niche in their use.

    The Swiss army knife succeeds because what emerges from making a multi tool via folding is a mobility not present in the pure forms of the tools. Carrying a Swiss army knife is actually easier than just carrying a philips head screwdriver, and it packs extra tools to boot. I’m quite sure if the quest for the multi-tool drove the folding mechanisms on the Swiss army knife, or if the multi-tool nature emerged from the development of the folding mechanism, but either way the result of the convergence is synergistic and that’s what makes it work.

    The problem with the modular shoe designs are that have nothing to offer beyond their convergent nature. That Puma thing is clearly not as good as regular shoe of any quality, and I doubt it stands up well against a good sandal either. It may promise mobility, and yeah it’s probably easier to lug than two different shoes, but the Swiss army only works because it’s easier to lug that say one screwdriver. The mobility difference in adding convergence to the shoe is linear, in the knife it’s synergistic and unpredictable, and that’s what makes it a winner.

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