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Will 3D printing change sneaker culture?
Heron Preston for Zellerfeld 3-D printed sneakers. Preston’s mind has been blown a few times in the last two years while in the process of designing a single shoe. Zellerfeld via The New York Times.

by Jessica Testa

NEW YORK, NY.- Heron Preston’s mind has been blown a few times in the past two years while in the process of designing a single shoe. Once was when a young engineer named Cornelius Schmitt sent him a WhatsApp message saying he had just figured out how to 3D print socklike material for a shoe.

“I’m going to remember that forever,” said Preston, a designer who brought streetwear to high fashion in the 2010s with his collective Been Trill.

This week, Preston and Schmitt’s shoe was finally released. Sort of.

Printed in Germany by Schmitt’s company Zellerfeld, the sneakers are cushiony and sort of reptilian — although actually avian, as Preston notes below. They became available Tuesday, via a charity raffle on StockX to benefit Global March, a nonprofit focused on ending child labor. A raffle ticket costs $10, and there will be only three winners, who will receive their free sneakers in black, orange or white.

Then, on Monday, there will be a wider release of 200 pairs on the Zellerfeld website.

Buyers will be part of a beta-testing program that allows the fully recyclable sneakers to be traded in and reprinted into a new pair when an update becomes available. (All buyers will receive one free update. The company has not yet disclosed the price of the shoe.) They can order their standard shoe size or scan their feet using an app to get a custom fit.

It is a cutting-edge model in sneaker land, and Preston, 38, has compared the experience, which began before the pandemic, to putting on a headlamp and diving into a cave, “not knowing what we would really discover.”

Here, in an edited interview, he elaborates on his desire to bridge the world of “super, super high-tech and the streets.”

Q: Take us back two years ago. How did you get into 3D printing?

A: It wasn’t necessarily about 3D printing. I was actually exploring sustainable solutions and providers within the space. My friend has a store on Bowery called the Canvas that focuses on selling only brands that check off on at least one of the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals issued by the U.N.

I went to check it out, just visiting him, and he takes me in the back of his stockroom, which looked more like a messy garage. And I’m just checking out all the things he’s been experimenting with, and he shows me this sneaker, kind of dusty and in two pieces, like a prototype.

And then he points in the corner, and there’s this really huge box, kind of dusty and covered by a bunch of books and things. And he’s like, “That’s the printer that printed these shoes.”

Immediately, I was like: “Whoa, you guys are printing sneakers now? This is where we’re at now in the world?”

So he starts to tell me about the kids who hand-built that printer and figured out how to print flexible material — these kids in Germany, these young college kids.

Within a week I was on the phone talking to those guys to figure out how we could work together. It felt so new and innovative, and as someone who grew up collecting sneakers and being so close to the culture, I felt like that 18-year-old Heron again.

Q: How did you approach designing the shoe?

A: The very beginning of Heron Preston, the collections, was the Heron bird. So I was like, “Let’s look at incorporating some inspiration from the bird’s feet.”

That’s where the scales come from. And it’s funny, when people comment online, they think it’s an alligator or something because that’s as far as our brains might go. But I really wanted to make this as true to HP as possible.

So our chat started to fill up with images of bird feet. That’s where we started. I really wanted to push the capabilities of what we may not be able to achieve in conventional sneaker design.

Q: What was it like when you tried on the shoe for the first time?

A: They were kind of squishy, in a way. They were bouncy, super flexible — I was really surprised by their flexibility — and kind of elastic-y, kind of heavy a little bit.

The first print we did was almost clear. I think I received them upstate over the summer — just waiting for that UPS dude to pull up in the woods. I cut the box open, and I felt like I was the only one in the world holding this sneaker. And I was.

Visually, they don’t look like any other sneaker on the street. But, you know, I wasn’t necessarily pursuing that — like, “Hey, I want this to look like something you’ve never seen.” It was really just trying to challenge the technology and print something that I didn’t think was possible.

So yeah, putting it on for the first time was just really, really exciting — and more exciting than I had felt putting anything on in recent years.

Q: Are there limitations on how many sneakers you can make? Can Zellerfeld sell out of them?

A: We’re going to limit it for now, to ensure this thing doesn’t go crazy and they can handle it, because this is the first time they’re doing it.

Q: Sneaker culture has gotten a little crazy, with drops and resale markups through the roof. How do you think about 3D printing as fitting into, or solving some of the problems that have been presented by, hype culture?

A: It adds an interesting new component to the hype culture, now that it’s moving into a “phygital” space — physical and digital coming together — and knowing that it’s literally a digital design that you can now shop for, and knowing that that design will always be there. The supply basically won’t run out as long as the printer is there. It just unlocks access, and that’s really exciting for kids around the world who want to be part of something.

Just imagine going on your phone, scrolling through a design and then hitting “print” in your room.

It feels disruptive for this whole kind of hype wheel.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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