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V&A / LCF Research awardee Liz Ciokajlo discusses evolving footwear


Written by
Josh De Souza Crook
Published date
31 March 2016

Sustainability has been discussed everywhere from catwalks to dinner tables over the past few years as a new era of designers and researchers begin to ask questions like, are we a step away from being able to grow shoes? London College of Fashion PhD research student Liz Ciokajlo discusses evolving footwear and sustainability for our Cordwainers’ Choose Shoes series.

Before starting her PhD, Liz studied MA Footwear at Golden Lane and graduated in 2013 with the Jimmy Choo Dato Cordwainers Award. Her final collection was recognised by Dezeen for fibrous materials with bio-resin to set each shoe in a continuous piece. Liz wanted to continue exploring new areas of footwear design and sustainability so started a PhD to pursue her research. She was awarded UAL’s SEED Fund and the V&A / LCF Partnership PhD Scholarship, for her research area, ‘The Future Form of Design, evolving design form in future manufacturing’.

Will shoes be grown from plants in the future? What role does sustainability play in student life? And what direction is footwear and design moving towards, Liz expressed her opinion in the interview below.

Did you always want to be a footwear designer, what made you follow this path?

I studied industrial design on an undergraduate level and worked as a product and furniture designer for a number of years. I taught degree product design and later fell into designing fashion accessories.

I tried footwear design because it seemed to allow me to apply the design skills I used in product, furniture and accessories. I fell in love with it. Designing footwear can be very challenging. Shoes are functional, intimate with the human form and highly emotive. Footwear is a product stepped in history and context. No matter what radical materials future or tech advancements may bring, ultimately something protects and connects our feet to the earth.

Why is it important for people to study footwear design, and what role will sustainability play in those wanting to study footwear and fashion design?

I not sure how to answer the first part of the question… There are no right or wrong ways to go about things. I can understand with university fees being so high people might question the need to study anything.

If people are intending to design footwear I assume they would want to learn as much as possible about the product and subject. A degree provides a concentrated place to learn systematically, be with like-minded people and test your ideas.

I think people can develop more creative ideas if they understand more about their craft. I designed handbags but never experienced making them and I think my engagement with the field and designs suffered because of this. What people do when they study a subject is gain knowledge. Footwear is one of those fields where knowledge is gained from being hands on.

Coconut shoes made of coconut, latex and bioresin. Image credit: Liz Ciokajlo on Showtime

Coconut shoes made of coconut, latex and bioresin. Image credit: Liz Ciokajlo on Showtime

Sustainability is and will be fundamental in studying any design including footwear, which currently is not the greenest of products! I see sustainability as a creative challenge especially with footwear because it is a mature product type. When an industry is mature, historically, technology and materials facilitate change and designers love change. Sustainability issues are complex, but LCF has good staff guidance, a research centre for sustainable design, a good resource library and an impressive materials library and advisory librarian to gain information on more sustainable real world materials, process and products.

Learning to make shoes has helped me to mentally deconstruct and rearrange components and process. Understanding the history and context of making and production has helped me to understand why design elements have evolved in certain ways. The fun bit is the play with constructions, materials and making systems so they could be more sustainable.

After completing your MA at LCF, what made you want to study a PhD?

I get ideas in my head of projects I need to do in order to develop a line of thinking or test an idea. I am curious and always making connections, asking what if… The MA and the PhD has given me the time to develop and test thinking. The PhD is teaching me tools to structure and systematically research a line of inquiry, efficiently and hopefully effectively.

Felt shoes over lasted hollow heel.

Felt shoes over lasted hollow heel. Image credit: Liz Ciokajlo on Showtime

What’s the central focus for your PhD?

There is some fantastic work being done in the research community on novel grown materials. I am interested in how we can use manufactured design form in footwear to capture these advances. Ultimately in shoes design, form is the thing through which we communicate where we are, as a society, in a given time. So simply, if we are going to use grown materials, it seems absurd to grow the materials in sheet form and then ‘construct’ shoes. Alternatively can we can build features into the materials thus reducing parts. Can we shift the labour cost to cover longer growing time? Can we enhance function in a poetic way. I am interested in how we functionally and emotively capture a biomaterials age in design form.

The title of the research is ‘The Future Form of Design, evolving design form in future manufacturing’. The research is underpinned by understanding historic design continuums using V&A archives and conservation to inform an approach. Using V&A conservations is helping me understand what happens to materials and products at end of life, useful in understanding sustainable issues.

You were awarded SEED funding from UAL, V&A / LCF Research Funding, and given the DATO Jimmy Choo Cordwainers Award, among other awards and nominations. How crucial is funding for research?

Funding is very important. What we are doing in research is to systematically investigate sources and derive facts from the research to enable new conclusions. The topics and projects I work on are often outside companies innovation funding or companies increasingly want to see some sort of proof of feasibility before investing. In the footwear industry, the preferred feasibility evidence is prototypes which can be time consuming and costly.

Working outside a company structure allows the freedom to collaborate with specialist outside the footwear field. Currently I am working on a project with an artist and a chemical engineer who specialises in designing 3D printed medical implants. Without funding I do not know how we could get the project off the ground to explore feasibility.

Image credit: Liz Ciokajlo on Showtime

Image credit: Liz Ciokajlo on Showtime

Your work aims to bring a fresh look at how materials and technologies can underpin and reshape fashion footwear at the most emotive levels. In what direction do you see the future of footwear moving towards?

Footwear relates intimately with our bodies. A good pair of shoes affects you physically, mentally and emotionally. We will reduce components, use biomaterials to enhance well-being, remove material toxins. Footwear will be responsive to your foot in real time and could even morph to tailor or change depending on the context. In the near future I believe we need to get on top of the materials we use and process making circular models. Reuse is one approach but not my focus as I feel fashion business can really drive this approach best. Recycling is another, but I am finding in my research this can bring further health issues. I think the area of most promise, which is how design form and construction can best apply sustainable bio renewable and biomaterials.

We read your interview in Wired about your Natural Selection collection and how one day we might be able to grow shoes. How far away are we from this being a reality; do you think we’ll be able to grow clothes in the future too?

In some ways we already have as in the BioCouture Grown Shoe (2013) that Suzanne Lee and I worked on and in the mycelium shoe (2016) by footwear designer Kristel Peters (ex. Dries Van Noten and Bottega Veneta). But these examples are unrefined and not up scaled. I am always nervous about making claims when we could see grown shoes in production. There are so many factors that could affect timescales, for example economic and testing.

Experts in the field, such as architect David Benjamin, think we are only a ‘half step away’. He thinks when we start to use living systems in our buildings and products the spread will be rapid. Think how rapid mobile communication spread. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US) predicts radical advancements in production materials within 30 years and are investing in this future. The UK business and industry sector in a report on future manufactoring in 2013 predicted ‘manufacturing in 2050 will be unrecognizable from that of 30 years ago’.

Once you’ve completed your PhD at LCF, what sort of position or role would you like to work in?

I would like to collaborate on specialist funded research projects in the area of bio fabricated shoes and products. Currently I am collaborating with artist Rhian Solomon and Manolis Papastravou, a chemical engineer designing 3D printed medical implants on a funded project by Makerversity as part of the MV Works program. What I am hoping to get out of the PhD is the knowledge to efficiently, effectively and systematically research better so the funding amounts are larger and longer or to gain a researcher position. Currently life is frantic working across smaller funded projects.

What can this generation of designers and researchers contribute to footwear and fashion?

When I first started teaching degree product design, a group of us teaching had an inside joke. Students specified this mystery material that did everything they wanted so they did not have to change their designs. Well DARPA are predicting we will be able to specify materials in this way in the future. Meaning we can put our human needs first before manufacturing and economic so we can keep our environment and ourselves healthy. This generation of designers and researcher can contribute to defining and visualise what we want our materials and products to be and do. Because footwear and fashion are so connected to our bodies, it is a powerful place to start.