Footwear
Mar 22, 2024
by Karl Smith
Camper’s Roku Sneaker Is Bringing Modular Design to the Mainstream
by Karl Smith
Mar 22, 2024

Having previously released the materially-innovative Tormenta and the zero-waste Tossu on its CAMPERLAB sub-brand, Spanish footwear label Camper is making a more definitive statement with its latest release. Not confined to the Earth-friendlier fringes, the Roku is modular, crafted from recycled materials, and – it’s important to note – very much a mainline sneaker. Front and center, for all to see.

Three years in the making, the Roku represents a new stage in Camper’s evolution – the point at which its more experimental departments have started to affect the products at large; something we hope to see, sooner rather than later, happening with Nike ISPA or with adidas’ more progressive dabblings. It also represents three years of research, development and production – proof, if it were needed, that the shoe isn’t some rush job, pushed out to placate vague notions of “sustainability.”

“Looking back at where we started, there was more of a to-do list than a visual moodboard,” reflects Eliška Horčíková, Leading Senior Footwear Designer for the Innovation Team at Camper and CAMPERLAB. “We wrote down some key points around circularity and then I started making small prototypes on my own to test different ways of how to construct and disassemble shoes without any glue.”

From that to-do list sprang a concept – one not birthed for its own sake, to satiate the need for product and profit, but as a solution to real-world problems.

“It’s no secret that the footwear industry is one the most polluting in the world,” Horčíková says, acknowledging the seriousness of the issue and the odd juxtaposition of being, in some ways, a part of that. “This is mainly because of the number of pairs which are being produced – a number still growing and which will continue to grow a lot in the future – but also because the materials in footwear are very rarely compostable. They won’t simply disappear, so whatever we can do to reduce the waste (from all stages of the life-cycle) is good.”

This, of course, all makes sense from an insider’s perspective – albeit an Earth-friendlier one – but none of it works, none of the concepts and the progressive ideas make any kind of difference, if the finished product doesn’t connect with consumers.

“You have to design shoes which the client will keep wearing for a very long time and, as a result, hopefully they won’t desire to buy a new pair again any time soon. In practice, this means a pleasant design, great quality and durability – the shoes don’t just need to look good, they need to be easily repaired and easily cleaned.” Still, though, you can’t escape one of the core tenets of sneaker design – that, above more or less anything else, for better and for worse, the visual element is king. “The key is the emotional and aesthetic value of the product which is sometimes forgotten when we consider circularity,” Horčíková agrees, “This is what makes people avoid throwing away their shoes, it makes them want to care for them and repair them to prolong their life.”

But, how do you square that circle? Surely there’s a reason that other footwear brands aren’t pursuing this way of thinking and working as a priority?

“Unfortunately, the way the shoes are made nowadays (for cost, efficiency-logistic reasons, mainly) is way too complex and complicated for disassembly or repair,” Horčíková says, “So we need new systems to construct the shoes in order to reduce the waste at the end of the day. How? I would say: ‘Do simple things concisely and well.’ Make sure every piece of the product is functional, worth being produced and comes with the minimal environmental impact. The outsole and footbed are molded, uppers and laces are knitted, so there is almost zero-waste for each component. However the construction was meant to be very humble and simple; it took us almost three years to develop it and to make sure everything “clicks” well together.”

And speaking of that “click,” how does modular footwear specifically bring all of these concepts together?

“I believe it is a call to the client to be more proactive here,” Horčíková suggests, taking the all-too-rare step of alluding to the shared burden without shirking responsibility. “From our end, there’s being conscious of not using glue so that the shoe can be repaired or recycled after usage. And then, from the end-user perspective, there’s having the option of making your own shoe. I think creates some emotional or nostalgic connection with the product, something that makes people more likely to take better care of the product and wear the shoes both more and for longer.”

With specific regard to that last part, Horčíková says, “This is another valid note on sustainability.” And she’s right, of course, but it’s also one that’s far too often ignored; too regularly, brands focus almost exclusively on materials – a choice that makes consumers feel comfortable, like they’re doing their part, without putting any of the power or any of the culpability in their hands. (Or on their feet, as it were.) And, realistically, this can only work for so long. Not just because a burden shared is a burden halved, or some other truism like that, but also because it’s just not feasible to expect big-time corporations in the footwear industry – the kind who are responsible, in the most literal sense, for such huge amounts of its environmental impact – to absorb all the progress at the expense of profit. Something has to shift.

In that sense, though, you’d think mega-brands like Nike or adidas or whoever would be keen to push modular footwear and keen to share the weight. (Or, at least, keen to deflect a little of the scrutiny that comes with it.) Yet, thus far, this hasn’t really been the case. The Nike ISPA Link and ISPA Link Axis have been knocking around since early 2022, the MindBody since early 2023, but – despite their popularity and the kudos these shoes have rightly received – no modular effort has yet made it to the mainline. Why?

“That’s a very interesting question and I would love to know the answer, actually,” Horčíková responds, “I bet one of the reasons could be the target price, which is not competing with the other shoes on the market. Also I don’t believe the design has to look ‘sustainable’ or in any way avant-garde, if you know what I mean. That way you reach only a very specific audience and won’t really make any impact.”

It’s an idea that goes somewhat against prevailing design wisdom – or, at least, against prevailing design trends. There is, as Horčíková alludes to, a presumption that a shoe which is progressive in materials or structure or in some other way ought to wear this on its sleeve – ought to look like something from the better future it’s trying to help create. It’s a nice idea and, again – as Horčíková says – it does have a tendency to bring in a particular audience. But it’s also likely a turn-off for people who want their sneakers to look like the Platonic Ideal of sneakers.

“A while ago, I worked on some other projects at Camper and CAMPERLAB with a sustainability-focused approach – products where you wouldn’t think ‘environmental shoe’ when you look at it. I think this could be one direction to pursue. To design and to make shoes consciously, but thinking about the aesthetics and design as if that isn’t the case. With Camper’s Junction, for example, the upper of the shoe and the outsole are just stitched and can be easily disassembled and recycled. CAMPERLAB’s Tossu, too: a shoe made from an innovative technology called direct bonding; a mono-material piece of footwear you can recycle directly, made with super simple, automated technology that provides a high reduction in emissions.”

But these are all ideas for the future. Not the distant future, hopefully, but the future nonetheless. For now, the Roku’s three years of development have paid off in a shoe that’s simultaneously not for everyone and created for the world at large. That Camper is putting this shoe forward with the same enthusiasm as any other – if not more, even – sets a precedent that other brands ought should not and cannot ignore.

The Camper Roku is available now, directly from the brand’s web store, priced at $210 USD.