Lunch Break - Chapter 1
FT. Vanni Scapin
Crankbrothers Footwear Design & Development
Welcome to Lunch Break. A monthly-ish feature where we chat with industry people about anything and everything bike-related. Just like a podcast, but the old-school way. Sit back, relax, and enjoy your lunch break.
To kick this series off, I, Jake, the Crankbrothers social media admin, wanted to learn more about the design and development of shoes. I thought, who better to talk to than Vanni Scapin, the man behind the design of the Crankbrothers line of footwear.
Recently, you may have seen some of Vanni's drawings featured across our social media, but I was fascinated to hear more about his background and the process involved in not only designing a shoe, but bringing an entire line to market.
Jake Paddon: So, let's kick things off with an easy one. Who is Vanni? Where are you from? What do you? Tell us about you.
Vanni Scapin: Alright, I'm Vanni. I was born and raised in Vicenza, in the north of Italy, northeast to be precise, near Venice. It's a place where you can find art and architecture, so it's very nice. I'm 41 years old, unfortunately, haha, and I'm passionate about sports and all forms of art. I mostly used to ride mountain bikes and gravel bikes, but now I’m also passionate about hiking because, in the region where I live, there are lots of hills and mountains. Within an hour, you can go deep into the mountains or out to the sea. There are very good options for any spare time. Currently, I’m working as a designer for Crankbrothers.
JP: How long have you been with Crankbrothers?
VS: It's almost five years now.
JP: I had no idea it was that long.
VS: Yeah, five years in March. It started as a really challenging experience because, when I joined the Selle Royal Group, I didn't know what project I would be working on at the beginning. Then I discovered that it was going to be for Crankbrothers and the design of the first shoe collection for mountain biking. It was a pretty secret project in the beginning, but it ended up being one of the best experiences I've ever had in my professional experience.
“It was a pretty secret project in the beginning, but it ended up being one of the best experiences I've ever had in my professional experience.”
JP: Before we get too deep into the shoes, where did your design journey start?
VS: Well, before I joined Crankbrothers, I started my design pathway studying at SID Scuola Italiana Design, which is based in the north of Italy. I attended a three-year course that was pretty intense, and I really put a lot of energy into that at that time.
JP: Was it specifically related to shoe design?
VS: Not exactly. It was industrial design, product communication, graphic design - it was a combination of many things together, but mainly industrial design. It gave you a big overview of the design world, and then you could decide where you want to specialize.
After I finished this course, I was very lucky because I started to work as a freelance designer with a couple of small but important design firms here in Italy. One of them was JoeVelluto (JVLT), which is a creative brand direction and product design studio. This one was a short but very important experience for me. Then the other one, even more important, was Giulio Simeone Design Consultant. Both the owners of JoeVelluto and Giulio Simeone were two of the professors at the design school. With Giulio, I had the chance to work on pure industrial design products. His studio is focused on design strategy, product design and user interface, so during that time, I expanded my vision by seeing a lot of things. It was a very challenging but proficient period for me, and I can only say thanks to them.
At the same time, thanks to Giulio and the Scuola Italiana Design, I worked as an assistant professor for a master's course in industrial design and then also as a tutor for workshops in Italy and in Europe, leading a group of students doing projects with several companies.
JP: That’s crazy. I had no idea about any of this.
VS: Yeah. It was very cool, very cool.
JP: When you started schooling, was your goal to design shoes specifically?
VS: Not really. But when I was at school, a skateboarding brand based in California launched a European competition. It was a graphic design contest on an existing model for a pro athlete, and I decided to try to submit my ideas. I remember there were more than 400 participants. It was kind of crazy when I saw that I won through a video on YouTube haha. At that time, I realized that maybe the footwear industry would be something interesting.
JP: So you've finished school, then were working as a freelancer and consultant. What were some of the products you were working on?
VS: I worked on different products, like a professional coffee machine designed by Giulio Simeone. For that project, I supported him in designing some aesthetic components, 3D development and the user interface, which was kind of a crazy thing because we had a huge map on the wall with hundreds of notes to define a user-friendly interaction with the product.
Then, there are some others, like a pouf chair, garden machinery, bathroom elements (with JVLT), packaging, and so on.
I actually did a pet bowl for Stefanplast, which was a very interesting project because, as a designer, you have to think about ergonomic interaction for both the pet and human side. You also have to think about the fact that sometimes those who chose pet products are kids, not adults… so there’s the psychology of people involved.
JP: Those sorts of details would just never cross my mind.
VS: I'm proud of this last one. One night, I just happened to be on the couch watching the Netflix series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), and I saw a close-up of the product. That was an exciting moment; it’s the one when you think, “I did the right thing!”.
JP: They need to put you in the credits, haha.
VS: Haha, I wish.
JP: That’s crazy. I had no idea you had worked on such a wide variety of projects. For some reason, I think I just thought that you'd specialized in shoes from the start.
VS: Not really. I’ve been in the shoe industry for the past eight years. After my experience as a consultant, I joined Michelin Technical Soles (licensee for the Michelin brand), designing outsoles and solutions for the sports, fashion, and work & safety industry. I cooperated with a lot of international brands like Etnies, Nordica, Salewa, Camper, Vivobarefoot, and DMT cycling, just to name a few.
That experience allowed me to deal with shoe experts and engineers at Michelin, and it was really important because I think the outsole is the most complex part of the shoe, a combination of concept design, 3D design, technology and performance.
JP: On that note, tell me a little more about your job here at Crankbrothers. What does it consist of day-to-day?
VS: During the week, I work as a designer at the intersection of research and development, brand, and marketing. We can say that it’s kind of a pivotal role that needs to merge information between different departments. I’m based in Italy, while the Crankbrothers brand and marketing team are in the U.S, and the supplier is in Asia. I'm based in Italy because the Selle Royal Group footwear R&D department is here, and I work every day with my mates at Fizik, the other footwear brand of the group.
It's a truly international group, someone in every major time zone. That's what I love because I have the chance to meet people from the U.S., Taiwan, Canada, the U.K., Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. It's cool to know different cultures and work with these people.
JP: Was the Crankbrothers footwear line the first line you designed?
VS: Yes, I had never designed a complete shoe before. In my previous job, I designed just the outsole or graphics, so the first collection was with Crankbrothers. I'm pretty proud of that.
JP: Obviously, the Mallet and Stamp shoes were completely brand new. What did the process of building a complete line-up from scratch look like?
VS: The Stamp and Mallet collection took a long time for sure because, as you’ve just said, it was the first collection ever for Crankbrothers. When creating a new line, the best thing to do is to collect interesting shoes and study how they are made. Another important thing is to talk with experts, athletes, and people connected to mountain biking. Then, you start to connect the dots and envision the future.
JP: From there, do you just start with a sketch and see where you end up?
VS: For me, sketches represent the last part of the creative process. You need to find the combination of many factors like style, connection to the brand DNA and technical aspects linked to the manufacturing process.
JP: That visualization is important.
VS: It’s important to show your vision to the team and then define together what could work or not.
In this phase, there is back and forth with product managers, marketing, sales, the R&D team, and the pattern maker in order to take the right direction from both design and brand perspectives. Otherwise, we’re just talking about lines on a bit of paper, haha.
That’s why, to me, design represents a holistic discipline.
JP: So, you have a design, and it looks good. How about the sizing? Personally, the biggest thing about shoes that probably everybody is conscious of is size and fit. How do you go about making a size? Is there a standard universal measurement that everyone uses for sizing?
VS: There are standard measurements for sizing, but there are also details that we can change with the help of the last makers. The modifications are based on fitting trend evolutions but also on what we think could work based on the information we get from the internal tests and past experiences. Let’s say that it’s a very sensitive and precise science.
JP: Sorry, what is the "last"?
VS: The last is a plastic or wood component around which you build the upper. It's a physical volume that simulates a standard foot shape, so it's the very first starting point to build the shoe.
Working on the last evolution, you can improve fit, performance and style. One millimetre can change the feeling of the consumer with the product. Last makers, as well as pattern makers, are experienced artisans of the shoe, and their experience can guide the design towards the goals.
JP: I've personally never really stopped to think about how the size of a shoe is determined. To me, that's fascinating.
VS: I was the same haha. I discovered a few things about shoes when I was 14 or 15 because I used to play soccer with the young professional team in Vicenza. That was the first time I realized the importance of a performance shoe. I was very young, but I remember it was the first time I started to think about the fitting difference between each brand and how a shoe can help you perform better.
JP: In terms of a mountain bike shoe, is the outsole the most time-consuming and difficult part to design and manufacture?
VS: The outsole takes more time and investment than the upper development, but once it's designed, the process still has a long way to go. After going through 2D drawings, 3D modelling, and 3D printed mockup iterations, then when all is in line with the expectation, we will finally open the molds. It’s still not done, though, as we do lab and field tests. These are the final judges of whether or not a design is correct.
"After going through 2D drawings, 3D modelling, and 3D printed mockup iterations, then when all is in line with the expectation, we will finally open the molds."
JP: How long does an outsole roughly take if you need to design a new one?
VS: If all the steps go smoothly, so very rarely, haha, and without considering the testing phase, in three or four months, you can see the real outsole.
JP: That's a lot longer than I thought.
VS: Let’s say that a complete shoe development process can take a year and a half or more, depending on the complexity.
JP: That's a long time. I guess you’re always working a long way into the future?
VS: Yeah, you're right, but you don't have to predict the future, haha. There’s a lot of research at the base. I think it's the most important thing. Personally, I look to new trends in fashion, in the sports industry, as well as new technologies that can project you into future scenarios.
I collect as much information as possible, filter the information, clean out the unnecessary, and then try to direct them into a bottleneck towards the end goal. There is a lot of teamwork involved.
JP: When it comes to the outsole and developing the rubber, what does this process involve?
VS: Basically, you can work with rubber specialists, trying to improve what is already in the market. The experience at Michelin Technical Soles was really important because it allowed me to learn many things connected to the behaviour of rubber.
JP: I think for mountain bike shoes, people are always talking about how tacky the sole is.
VS: You’re right. When sharing the specifications with the rubber experts, You can also talk about those parameters. Stickiness and softness. Rebound is also very important. It’s basically the speed of coming back to its original shape after a deformation. The ability to tweak these parameters combined with proper tests can really change the shoe.
JP: Do you think, as far as mountain bike gear goes, and soft goods specifically, shoes are one of the toughest to design?
VS: To be honest, I've never worked on soft goods like apparel, but I imagine that can’t be an easy task if you want to innovate. I surely know that performance footwear is pretty complex to design. It’s an extension of the human body, a combination of soft and rigid parts like the outsole, and the majority of the process is made by hand, so all the parts cannot be 100% precise due to the human component.
I’ve experienced many trips to the Asian factories where you see hundreds of people cutting, stitching, and making things. We don’t just buy a shoe; every piece contains many years of experience.
''Performance footwear is pretty complex to design. It's an extension of the human body, a combination of soft and rigid parts, and the majority of the process is made by hand."
JP: Let's get the crystal ball out to end things. What do you think will be some of the next steps in the evolution of shoes?
VS: I think technology in the future can help us on the sustainability side with new materials and processes. Nowadays, it is one of the biggest topics, and many companies are working to create less impactful products. Green fashion is a good example of circular evolution, and I’m sure new generations will be even more keen on that.
From a pure design perspective, artificial intelligence can help to be faster than before and, I guess, more effective, but this needs to be controlled and driven by our experience with the product.
JP: It'll be cool to see where things go over the next five years, see what shoes we're riding in.
VS: The world's population is about 8 billion, and some of these people will pay more attention to the planet, so I hope there's going to be more and more people on the bike, meaning more space for business and product evolution.
We’re probably going to see an evolution of materials and manufacturing processes, but I think five years is a relative short period to see a dramatic change.
JP: This has blown my mind Vanni. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I really appreciate it.
VS: No problem, thanks for having me.