Shoe startups are using technology and engineering to create shoes that offer comfort at wallet-friendly prices
There’s something interesting happening in the offices of India’s sneaker brands. They are quietly but surely breaking new ground as founders, shoe and product designers, marketing teams et al come together to create the ideal pair of sneakers that will offer their customer the enviable combination of immensely comfortable shoes at pocket-friendly prices.
As the second largest manufacturer of shoes—after China—India had enough brands offering affordable and decent-looking footwear, from Bata to Liberty and Lakhani, among others. Lately though, a handful of brands, mostly startup ventures, have been focusing their imagination, efforts and funds on shoe engineering to create footwear propelled by innovative materials, foam technology and ergonomic designs. This means the shoes are not merely good-looking but offer optimal comfort—and this is key—at half the cost an international brand would charge. Interestingly, this “engineering and innovation” is not limited to shoes for adults. There are brands dedicated to making intuitive shoes for children as well.
In August 2022, the Pune, Maharashtra-based startup Aretto launched the Aretto Leaps shoes for children aged 1-12: decidedly the first shoe model in the country designed to grow with the child’s feet for up to three sizes. The company holds a utility patent for the SuperGrooves technology, a design element in the sole that enables three-dimensional expansion of the shoe up to 18mm.
“The problem statement that guided us to design Aretto Leaps was ‘Kids’ feet grow, shoes don’t’,” says Krutika Lal, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Aretto. Additionally, the insight that parents rarely bought expensive shoes for children as the purchase would be obsolete in months, inspired Lal, co-founder Satyajit Mittal and Parth Dhomkar of the product design team to come up with a solution.
A similar question, “Can we create world-class shoes for the Indian child?”, drove Ravi Kallayil and Pavan Kareti to leave their leadership roles at Nike’s Global Innovation team in Portland, US, and shift to Bengaluru to start Plaeto, a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand, in 2021.
Following a study of 500 schoolchildren that year, they developed “multiplay sports shoes for kids”. These come with features like Tilt Lacing (enabling greater flexibility and supporting the foot’s natural movement) and Plaeto 365 (the long-lasting cushioning system). “Given that children spend an astounding eight hours a day, 270 days a year, in their school shoes—covering roughly 2,000km each year—it’s crucial that their shoes are engineered for both foot health and playful activity,” says Kallayil, CEO, Plaeto Shoes.
Within months, growing demand saw the brand entering the sports shoes and slip-ons segment for adults. “Customers who were intrigued by our children’s line reached out asking if we could offer the same level of comfort and durability in adult sizes,” Kallayil says. They have sold close to 600,000 shoes since they began, so it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration when he describes the response as “overwhelmingly positive”. Plaeto’s shoes for children are priced at Rs.999-Rs.1,599, while the range for adults costs Rs.1,299-Rs.1,999. “What sets our footwear apart is a unique design tailor-made for the Indian foot, honed through 4,000 hours of rigorous R&D,” Kallayil says.
Made for Indian feet
The Indian footwear market was valued at Rs.126 crore in 2022. Global data and business intelligence platform Statista forecasts the sneaker segment will generate Rs.218 crore in revenue this year. The industry is expected to grow by a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.18% between 2023-28, with volumes poised to touch 65.97 million pairs by 2028.
Designing shoes for Indian feet—they tend to be wider and have broader toes—is also why Indian footwear and accessories speciality retailer Metro Brands Ltd started its own in-house brand, BioFoot. It attempts to address issues that afflict Indian feet in particular, like plantar fasciitis, bunions, heel and arch pain. “In our seven decades’ long experience, we have seen customers often struggling to find the right fit or comfortable footwear to alleviate pain. We have also seen a growing demand for high-performance footwear and insoles to support alignment,” says Alisha Rafique Malik, president, sports division, e-commerce and customer relationship management, Metro Brands, on Biofoot’s special focus.
When Taran Chhabra and Amar Preet Singh launched Neeman’s in Hyderabad in 2017, few Indian shoe brands were talking about responsible footwear. While their first offering, merino wool shoes, made people sit up and take notice, Chhabra says it was in 2021 that “the brand’s trajectory changed with the launch of our ReLive Knit Sneakers made from recycled plastic bottles”. It takes eight PET bottles to create a pair of these limited-edition sneakers. “To date, we have transformed more than 2.1 million discarded plastic bottles into sneakers and we are committed to recycling at least 10 million of them by 2025, “ he says. In the past six years, they have sold over a million pairs across all models, he adds. Neeman’s shoes and slippers range in price from Rs. 399-Rs. 3,499.
It took former bankers and D2C brand Elevar Sports founders Kunal Joshi and Aayush Tapuriah one-and-a-half years of research to zero in on their trademarked sole, Rydefoam, for sneakers. The company launched in Mumbai in 2020. Their website notes the sole is “made from tiny thermoplastic foam pellets called eTPU (expanded thermoplastic polyurethane)”, offering flexibility, durability and optimal cushioning.
“We put our money on the engineering and comfort aspect of the shoes more than on their looks,” says Zara Mathews, marketing manager at Elevar Sports. While parts like the lace and the engineered mesh for the upper sole are sourced within India, the Rydefoam sole, the EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam and honeycomb EVA insole are made in China, Mathews says, given the quality of materials required. Elevar’s shoes and slides cost Rs.1,490-Rs.3,990.
Aretto Leaps’ Supergrooves technology enables the shoes to grow with a kid’s feet and expand up to three sizes
At Aretto, coming up with an entirely new shoe design for children entailed considerable R&D, including learning how a child’s foot is shaped and scanning the feet of 200-300 children aged one-five. For Aretto Leaps, the company got special lasts (a last is the 3D mechanical form shaped like a foot that is used to mould a shoe), shaped like a child’s feet, made. As for designing the sole, Lal says, “We first made a low-fidelity sole using a foam board. We then made eight cuts—we call them SuperGrooves—in strategic points around the sole. The idea being that every groove has the space to move out or expand to 2mm. Viewed in entirety, this meant the sole would expand from all sides to accommodate a foot that was growing.”Aretto Leaps shoes are priced between Rs. 2,249-Rs. 2,949.
Experimentation brings with it its own challenges, from the absence of raw materials and manufacturers to competition from bigger brands. Chhabra notes, “When we started, challenges were immense, right from controlling manufacturing costs to choosing the right materials to make our products with, to making consumers aware of how we make our shoes and why they must replace the one in their shoe rack with ours.” Not just that, collaborators, manufacturers and factories didn’t see a market in what the brand was attempting to build, he says. “Yeh India mein nahin hoga (this can’t be done in India),” says Lal, remembering the naysayers, and adds, “We took all of this as a challenge to prove ourselves.”
Today, the startups hope to make it internationally in another five years. Looking ahead, Kallayil is optimistic. He says, “India stands on the cusp of a revolution in the footwear space. The demand for world-class footwear—engineered for Indian foot anatomy—is palpable.”
Brand ambassadors & endorsers
The brands Lounge spoke to enjoy endorsements from popular faces and a couple of them even have brand ambassadors. Actor Manoj Bajpayee endorses Elevar Sports’ shoes, Plaeto has Rahul Dravid as their brand ambassador and Neeman’s has had actors Mandira Bedi, Bhumi Pednekar, Samantha Ruth Prabhu and cricketer Jasprit Bumrah as the faces of its recent campaigns.