Getting to see how running shoes are made is something normally reserved for industry insiders. We had a visit from Urs Weber, editor of Runner's World. He reveals his impressions of development and production at Joe Nimble in Germany’s leading running magazine. A digital version of his article is available on our website.
Take a peek behind the scenes to find out how rapid prototyping unites traditional German shoemaking and digital workflow in perfect harmony.
WALKING BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
The venerable Swabian tradition of shoemaking still lies at the very soul of the Bär workshop in Bietigheim-Bissingen. The Joe Nimble brand, currently being developed by one of the founder’s sons, Sebastian Bär, is the perfect embodiment of how age-old craftsmanship can be taken to a new level with the possibilities of cutting-edge technology.
As I step into the Joe Nimble offices for the first time, I almost feel like I’m in some trendy fitness studio. There’s a set of wall bars next to the door, a slackline stretching about five metres diagonally across the room and a professional treadmill behind it. On the floor, there is a barbell, a foot measuring plate and an interesting array of fitness tools. A table football set sits further back in the room. ‘We moved in two years ago,’ explains Sebastian Bär, the company’s 47-year-old founder and, of course, boss – although that's not a word that is often heard around here, since team spirit is the name of the game. ‘Sebastian is definitely the one who knows everything and, of course, the product better than anyone,’ says Amelie, who has been part of the team for a year. ‘But without us, he’d be left high and dry in many aspects.’ Amelie has just organised a photo shoot for the new children's shoe collection, arranged the temporary tattoos that accompany the shoes in their boxes and discussed the optimisation of the online order system with a supplier.
The new Joe Nimble offices in a former factory offer ample space for working, meetings – and training.
There’s a lot going on at Joe Nimble; it’s plain to see that this is a brand on the move. Ideas are initiated, concepts created, production sites scouted. Joe Nimble is the youngest subsidiary of Bär, which was founded by Sebastian’s father Christian in 1982. ‘He was a complete newcomer to the industry. Today, his enterprise would be described as a start-up,’ comments Sebastian. ‘My dad travelled a lot and was always frustrated that he couldn’t find shoes that didn't squash his toes.’ To solve the problem, he had his own lasts made out of wood. These served as the basis for the first prototypes of today’s extremely successful Bär models: everyday shoes, often with a leather shaft, that enable complete toefreedom for an admittedly more conservative clientèle. ‘I knew that with our expertise, we could also develop running shoes,’ states Sebastian. ‘And I had ideas – I wanted to do something, but I realised that it just wouldn’t work within the existing company structure.’ So in 2011, he founded Joe Nimble. In modern business language, one might describe it as a disruptive model.
Left: Sebastian Bär carries out a running style analysis in the Joe Nimble offices in Ludwigsburg. Right: Sebastian discusses colour combinations for the next collection. The design plays an essential role in the brand's self-concept.
But it’s important to know the history:
Sebastian’s eyes sparkle as he describes how he accompanied his father to trade fairs as a teenager and worked his way up in the industry. The Bär company is a true success story. Back in the 1980s, many of Germany's classic leather shoe manufacturers found themselves facing bankruptcy as competition from Italy and the Far East grew. The Bär models, however, conquered a niche in the market. The wider lasts, natural toefreedom and zero heel (back then, no one talked about drop) were concepts that, in this combination, signalled a new dawn on the shoe market. Success came quickly. Bär was booming, both at home and abroad. The first brand stores opened in 1995, spreading appreciation for the shoes made in Germany as far as countries like Japan. Christian Bär brought a production plant in the Swabian Alps back from the brink of bankruptcy, thus also saving jobs and preserving the expertise and experience of employees. Sebastian Bär joined the company in the mid-1990s. ‘My dad never put pressure on me. Back then, they needed support in sales, and later also in marketing.’ Sebastian had studied international marketing and spent two years at a high school in Orlando, Florida, where he became an extremely successful cross-country runner. ‘At first, everyone laughed at me because
I competed in white leather Bär shoes my father had made for me. But when I won practically every race, everyone was suddenly desperate to know what my weird shoes were all about.’ Sebastian’s eyes light up when he talks about his time in Florida, even if Bär couldn’t quite crack the US market – ‘All they wanted to run in was Nikes!’ Back in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Sebastian starts by expanding Bär sales, putting the knowledge gained during his degree to good use.
‘WORKING ON THE PRODUCT IN OUR OWN WORKSHOP SAVES US TIME AND GUARANTEES QUALITY.’
He gathers experience and travels frequently, including to Japan. ‘Originally, I was supposed to go out for two months to help our subsidiaries set up their sales.’ But things took a different turn. A new business partner had to be found at short notice. ‘So two months turned into three years, which I spent establishing sales there.’ Sebastian also learned the language – and even met his Chinese wife, whom he married in Hawaii. They now live in Ludwigsburg with their two children. ‘The experience I gained through dealing with Japanese business partners was invaluable,’ says Sebastian. Negotiations are currently underway with a Japanese distributor who is interested in selling Joe Nimble shoes in Japan. ‘The Japanese understand our philosophy of functional footwear,’ affirms Sebastian Bär. Today, he is CEO of BÄR together with his brother Christof, who looks after the business side of things. Sebastian can now devote himself completely to his goal of ‘making our focus on functional footwear accessible to runners, too.’ Joe Nimble is his attempt to unite the expertise of BÄR with the latest innovations in running shoe technology. But as is so often the case with successful companies, his new ideas initially raised a few eyebrows. ‘I went about things the wrong way,’ says Sebastian self-critically. He was too impatient – and steering a heavy freighter on a new course demands a good helping of patience. The fact that Sebastian did succeed in implementing his vision was also due to his ability to view the project from many perspectives. As an ambitious runner, he was familiar with what a good running shoe had to do, yet he was also able to consider things from the point of view of a company employee. He is familiar with the entire manufacturing process, masters material selection and craftsmanship requirements and is a marketing specialist who observes the overall market and analyses future markets. And this is precisely where he saw opportunities to strive for bigger goals.
A lot of work is still done by hand in the Bär workshop. Rafael Mora Garcia (right) has been a shoemaker for 45 years
One of his most defining experiences was as crew captain of a supporting team at one of the world’s toughest ultrarunning events, the Badwater Ultramarathon. Participants have to cover 217 kilometres and tackle 4000 metres in altitude – not for the faint-hearted. And not forgetting the climate: Badwater is located in California’s Death Valley, one of the driest places on the planet. The air temperature there can reach 50 degrees; the tarmac a blistering 80 degrees or more. Every runner must come to the starting line with a crew. In 2004, the German ultramarathon specialist Robert Wimmer participated in the race wearing BÄR running shoes. As the first ever German finisher, he was ninth over the finish line and was ‘the first ever runner in the history of the event to use just one shoe model,’ states Race Organiser Chris Kostman. As crew captain, Sebastian Bär supported his athlete and even changed a dud tyre on the crew vehicle. One thing he didn’t have to worry about, however, was the BÄR shoes, which kept pace right to the finish line.
Armed with this experience and more gained in other marathons and ultramarathons, Sebastian returned to contemplative Bietigheim-Bissingen full of inspiration. In 2011, he founded Joe Nimble, although it would take another couple of years for his true breakthrough. He felt that the scope for action in the company was too narrow: ‘I knew that if I was to make something really big happen, I had to leave the old structure and try something new.’ Then, in 2018, a new dawn broke. In coordination with the management at Bär, Sebastian began his search for a new site where he could dedicate himself completely to the development of the Joe Nimble running shoe:
‘In April, I moved into a co-working space in Ludwigsburg.’ The first running shoe, the Nimble Toes Jog, hit the market that autumn and sold well from the very outset. ‘Everyone was asking me how I did it,’ recalls Sebastian.
A cobbler sticks to his last: Shoemaker Rafael Mora Garcia has been working for Bär for more than twenty years.
Things continued at turbo speed. Nimble Toes Jog 2.0 joined the range in summer 2019 and in spring 2020, a crowdfunding campaign was launched for the new Nimble Toes Addict model. It, too, proved successful and production of the shoe was soon started in the Far East. But what sounds like an entrepreneurial victory was, in fact, the result of a long history of development. Throughout its course, Sebastian Bär not only invested intense efforts in shoemaking, but also scrutinized the biomechanics of running. Out of professional interest – and from his own, painful experience. In 2015, an injury made him fear that his running career was over. ‘I didn’t know what to do. Several doctors advised me to look for a different sport.’ As it turned out, his injury was a sesamoid stress fracture – a typical reaction to wearing barefoot running shoes. Despairing, Sebastian hunted for advice – and after some research, he came across the successful and equally notorious English running coach Lee Saxby, one of the key protagonists of the barefoot revolution. (Editor's note: the first time I met Lee, he didn’t offer me a seat. Rather, he told me to make myself comfortable in a squat – with the whole sole of my foot on the ground, of course). In light of his expertise, Saxby had already collaborated with numerous running shoe manufacturers and had worked together with the likes of Christopher McDougall (author of Born to Run) and Harvard’s ‘Barefoot Professor’ Daniel Lieberman. Sebastian called Saxby and travelled to one of his running workshops in Prague shortly thereafter. Saxby’s diagnosis was sobering. ‘Sebastian had succumbed to the temptation of natural running, which was a big trend back then. Like 80 percent of the runners who come to me, he overdid it and injured himself.’ At this point, Saxby always likes to refer to the bushmen in Namibia with whom he went hunting. ‘They run barefoot, but most of them only weigh between 50 and 60 kilos.’ This, of course, presents completely different biomechanics.
DISCUSSIONS CONTINUE ABOUT THE DESIGN AND STRUCTURE OF THE SHOE. BUT ONE THING IS CERTAIN: ‘THE WIDE TOE BOX IS NON-NEGOTIABLE’
Traditional tool meets brand new product: this sewing machine, which was specially developed for sewing shoe uppers, is over one hundred years old. It is one of the last of its kind still in use. Spare parts are no longer available
Saxby, who played a key role in the global boom of natural running himself, is self-critical. ‘We need to rethink the original ideas,’ he says, ‘but the wide toe box is non-negotiable.’
Saxby considers one of the most common causes of running injuries to be pointed shoe shapes. His focus is always on a holistic approach to health – when thinking about the foot, he looks at the whole body. Saxby has an eye for physical imbalances – and the wrong shoes. This also explains why there are so many running analysis tools in the Joe Nimble offices today. Sebastian Bär and Lee Saxby quickly found themselves on the same wavelength. After six months, Sebastian was finally able to run in his beloved shoes again. And he knew exactly what he had done wrong. Or, to be more precise, he knew was wrong with his shoes. The result of Saxby’s input was the Nimble Toes Addict, which neatly takes us back to the co-working space in Ludwigsburg and the crowdfunding campaign. Through Lee Saxby, Sebastian learned ‘that two elements of the previously developed shoes were spot on: the wide toe box and the zero drop.
But another two things were missing,’ explains the designer. The Addict obtained the missing pieces of the puzzle in the form of a cushioning midsole and a comfortable insole. After a couple
of months, Sebastian left the co-working space in Ludwigsburg for an old industrial building near the baroque palace gardens in Ludwigsburg. Here, there is plenty of space for ideas, designs – and more staff. ‘I learned from my dad that new projects should always be approached with a sense of proportion,’ says Sebastian, explaining his strategy. ‘But my running experience also taught me that sometimes you have to go out on a limb.’ Which is one of the things he realised during the Badwater Ultramarathon. ‘In an ultramarathon, you never know how things will turn out. The unexpected always happens. And you have to make quick decisions. That was a really defining experience for me.’
Making decisions under extreme conditions
Sebastian could never have imagined that he would have to face this challenge again under very different circumstances when the successful crowdfunding campaign for Addict was abruptly superseded by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. Sebastian says bluntly, ‘At first, we fell flat on our faces.’ In the language of long-distance runners, one might speak of hitting the wall – and then the route takes a steep climb and it starts to rain. ‘The closure of the factories in the Far East was a major setback.’ And on top of that, the shoes that had already been made were sitting in workshops in the Far East, ‘but suddenly shipping costs increased tenfold.’ Without his experience as a long-distance runner, the story of Sebastian Bär and Joe Nimble may well have taken a different turn. Bär and its small team looked for alternatives. The products were finally brought by train, and a second crowdfunding campaign for the Addict trail version was launched with a heavy focus on social media feedback. The strategy was a success, yielding an investment three times higher than the first campaign. ‘And even despite all the difficulties! That motivated me to keep going and not think about giving up,’ says Sebastian. Demand grew beyond his wildest expectations. The first Trail Addict prototypes arrived at the company’s new headquarters in summer 2020. At the same time, the development dynamics gained traction in the company – at an almost dizzying speed. Several projects were also underway: an app was developed to determine foot length and toe position, which then calculated the required shoe size. The service came at exactly the right time, when practically all sales were being made online. And then the father of twins created a new range of children’s shoes – made in Germany. This is the second project that Sebastian has developed with the Footwear Innovation Lab in Pirmasens, a high-quality design and development studio in the Palatinate (see box ‘How a shoe is made’). With his team of 17 employees, managing director Jens Schmidt might not quite be on a par with the manpower of international shoe manufacturers – but as Schmidt highlights, the aim was never to produce their own shoes. Instead, he specialised in transforming the ideas of others into reality in the shortest possible time. In just three months, Schmidt and Sebastian Bär – a veritable duo of doers – got the Recover Toes sandals to their feet, all the way from the first design to production. The Recover Toes model is the first leisure sandal for runners that provides biomechanical relief for the feet. ‘I have seldom met an entrepreneur that follows his concept so consistently,’ says Jens Schmidt about Sebastian Bär.
The asymmetrical last shape, the hallmark of Joe Nimble, ensures that the big toe can act as a stabilising anchor, just as nature intended. Sebastian Bär also came across this finding in a specialist book dating back to 1791 (right): ‘It's a theoretical description of what we put into practice today.’
How does he do it?
Where does he get the ideas for all of his projects and the energy to turn computer-developed running shoe designs into reality? There is no doubt that this is a dynamic all of its own, which originates from a Swabian shoe workshop and culminates in cutting-edge running shoe production. And the brand is only just getting started, as can be seen with all of the products currently in the pipeline. Incidentally, the latest product by Sebastian Bär is a running shoe that he developed especially for the Badwater Ultramarathon. It is, of course, produced in the Footwear Innovation Lab in Pirmasens and is made individually for each participant on request. This is not a huge market; only around one hundred shoes are made. But for Sebastian Bär, it’s about more than big business. Behind his Joe Nimble vision lies a bigger, healthier, holistic approach. It originated in a Swabian workshop in the 1980s and has what it takes to make a decisive mark on running in the 21st century.
Innovation made in Germany: production in Pirmasens
HOW A SHOE IS MADE
Shoemaking 2.0: the Footwear Innovation Lab in Pirmasens offers an insight into how shoes are designed, developed and produced with the latest digital technologies.
The town of Pirmasens was regarded as the capital of German shoemaking until well into the 20th century. At the end of the 1960s, it was still home to more than 300 shoemakers, who exported their goods all over the world. As with the entire clothing industry, however, shoe production was increasingly moved abroad, initially to Italy and later to the Far East. Nevertheless, shoemaking still runs through the veins of the town with a number of smaller producers who have remained faithful to national development and/or production – such as the Footwear Innovation Lab, which was established in 2018. The aim of company founder Jens Schmidt was to elevate shoe development to a new technical level. To achieve this, he developed an entirely digital workflow, from the very first design draft through in-house last production and upper processing, all the way to direct soling. ‘This saves any nasty surprises,’ explains the managing director when referring to his ‘one-stop shop’ concept.
Left: Jens Schmidt takes care of every last detail in planning, development and production. Right: The upper is sewn by hand for prototype production. The sewing store hosts more than 600 materials for a wide array of requests – shoes for Hollywood films have been produced here as well as special desert combat boots for the US army.
‘What we show in the virtual collection presentation – or design together – can be implemented in exactly the same way. We are not only able to anticipate the designs, but also production.’ The benefits? Firstly, the entire value chain remains in one place and secondly, it saves a lot of time. Designs are normally developed in design studios and sent to the manufacturer, who then forwards them on to Asia, where the first prototypes are produced and subsequently sent back to Europe. In the Footwear Innovation Lab in Pirmasens, everything is done in one single place. Schmidt says, ‘We are faster by weeks.’ And he has his sights set high. ‘In two years, we will be able to use up to 90 percent bio-based plastics – without compromising on function.
Left: The upper is joined to the sole. The direct soling machine uses a two-component polyurethane for the sole unit. The light-coloured substance is injected into the mould through a small hole in the heel area and then expands. Working time per shoe: four and a half minutes. Centre: Digital workflow: the shoe is designed on the computer, as can be seen here with the Recover Toes sandal. Right: This machine, a five-axis simultaneous milling machine, shapes a last from a block for shoe production. This takes between 20 and 120 minutes and is part of the so-called rapid prototyping process. This enables every shoe to be computer-designed and subsequently produced in an extremely short time.
Copy URS WEBER • Photos JÜRGEN ALTMANN