But the biggest giant in all of sneakers and sportswear hasn’t operated alone in innovating for people with disabilities — instead, it’s found a key partner with the same mission in the shape of a sneakers startup based in Utah.
Launched in 2017 by bag industry veteran Michael Pratt, the brand Kizik sought to solve a problem familiar to anyone who wears shoes, slipping them on without using your hands. Six years of development went into developing a heel that would expand and pop back into place as you step into the shoe, eliminating the need to untie or tie laces or peel back the heel in order to jam your heel in.
Nike became an investor in Kizik in 2019 and, as part of the deal, gained exclusive rights to use over 50 patents to make sneakers easier to wear. The strategic move has helped Nike become the most visible brand catering to the disabled community, although that attention has also caused led to some frustration: The Go FlyEase sneaker was designed to be accessible, but it’s been anything but — as Nike made extremely limited quantities, and resellers were quick to pounce at a chance to profit from those pairs. Kizik, for its part, has emerged as a more reliable source of hands-free footwear outside the world of hype and its inevitable sell-outs.
The crucial design element for Kizik’s hands-free shoes — which, over the years have included smart shoes, tasteful leather low-tops, and a sportier knit sneaker in line with modern trends — is a flexible F1 Titanium Arc in the heel that bends outwardly for entry before coming back into place for a normal, snug fit. Rigorous testing has seen the lightweight metal piece compressed more than 100,000 times by a hydraulic press to ensure it stands up to repeated wear and doesn’t wear down like a normal shoe would by repeatedly forcing your foot in.
Each of Kizik’s six silhouettes currently on the market do feature laces, although they aren’t necessary for use besides whenever they may come untied. Having worn the Vegas, a plain leather silhouette similar to Common Projects’ Achilles and many other “safe” sneaker choices, I can report that the technology does indeed work. The shoe is remarkably easy to put on and has become a go-to when I need to pop out of my apartment for a brief errand and can’t be bothered to fuss with a more involved sneaker.
“Whether you’re able-bodied or disabled, younger or older, pregnant, obese — whatever it is, these are a kind of go-to shoe.”
“It’s just convenient,” Blake Brown, Kizik’s vice president of brand and creative, told Input. “Some people can put on their shoes, but it’s one of those things that [people without disabilities] take for granted. Whether you’re able-bodied or disabled, younger or older, pregnant, obese — whatever it is, these are a kind of go-to shoe.”
What Nike’s done that Kizik has not is created a bigger “wow” factor with its Go FlyEase, a sneaker that unfolds and snaps back into place with the use of a hinge and tension band. Even for those without disabilities, it’s an exciting development in technology with the appeal of one of the world’s most coveted brands. Nike has drawn criticism, however, after the Go FlyEase promptly sold out and commanded exorbitantly higher prices on the resale market. The shoe has only been re-released once since it debuted in February, leaving out the very people who could use it most.
Kizik won’t ever create the same level of hype as its partner Nike, but anyone can go to its website right now and buy any of its shoes. It should go without saying that in order for a product to be accessible you need to be able to gain access to it, and by prioritizing function above all else Kizik is more able to put its shoes on the feet of people who may have trouble putting on other footwear. Every single one of Kizik’s shoes is also available in two sizes for width, a gap in inclusivity that hasn’t yet been addressed by the Go FlyEase.
It’s hard to categorize Kizik’s offerings as stylish. Instead they have the sort of broad, unobtrusive appeal more akin to Allbirds than the sneakers people are entering raffles for. Brown tells Input that the brand’s audience skews older, although Kizik's Lima, Athens, and Cairo silhouettes do make a play at more youthful design, with the latter two making the core technology visible through external cages. 2021 has seen sales grow 10-fold compared to the year prior, and the brand is preparing to launch its first kids' shoes in the coming months.
“We have a lofty goal of in the next 10 years, we want a billion people to be hands-free.”
Prices for all of Kizik’s lineup of shoes for men and women are between $100 and $130, and Brown says the company is looking into a more cost-effective material as an alternative to titanium in order to bring down its prices further. Making affordable sneakers is crucial in order to cater to the disabled community, where the poverty rate doubles that of people without disabilities, according to a 2017 report from the National Council on Disability.
“We have a lofty goal of in the next 10 years, we want a billion people to be hands-free,” Brown says. “I don’t think it’s unattainable because if you look across the world, there’s billions of people that put their shoes on and off.”
Even though Kizik’s sneakers are relatively affordable and may become even more so, they aren’t cheap from a quality perspective. The Vegas, for example, uses a premium full-grain leather for its upper, and the brand’s entire footwear assortment uses an ultra-cushioned “Rabbit Foam” sole for a level of comfort expected in today’s landscape.
What Kizik is doing isn’t going to make waves across the obsessives of sneaker culture, but it’s already on its way to achieving something more important by making shoes that are accessible by every definition. Making a shoe that sells out is cool, but making a shoe that can make someone’s life easier is an act arguably even more worthy of being lauded.