The Perfect Shoe Says A Lot About Humanity's Imperfect Evolution

Hitoshi Mimura is regarded as one of the best shoe designers on Earth. Formerly of Asics, "the god of shoes" went solo some years back, and began crafting custom footwear for world-class athletes on a consultation basis. Mimura, and his shoes, are legendary. So what's his secret?

Photo via Hi.

In a word: metrics. In three words: painstakingly meticulous metrics. Via a profile on Mimura published in 2009:

"I take 13 measurements of the foot, each foot has to be measured separately," explains the sensei of shoemaking. "I only trust hand-measuring. Currently, each shoe takes about three weeks to make, mainly due to determining which materials to use." Preparation is also key. "For a world championships or Olympics I check the course once or twice. I went to Beijing three times."

Mimura's measurements include the length and circumference of each toe, heel width, the length of the Achilles' tendon and the width of the foot at six or seven spots. These dimensions are assessed multiple times every year. If and when an athlete's foot changes, so do her shoes.

At his office in Japan, Mimura relies on three dimensional computer models and a staff of just eight employees to transform these measurements into wonderfully functional works of art. His anatomically minded shoes fit like a glove and are feather-light, an extension of (and, many of his clients would argue, an improvement upon) the runner's body. "Samurai cannot fight without their swords," Mimura said in a NYT profile written in the leadup to the 2008 summer games in Beijing. "It is the same for runners and their shoes."

Is Mimura's metrical obsession really necessary? That's debatable. The earliest marathon runners certainly got on fine without highly technical footwear, and many of the sport's most legendary competitors have done so without shoes whatsoever.

The Perfect Shoe Says A Lot About Humanity's Imperfect Evolution

Above: Three runners compete in the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

Still, there's something unmistakably compelling about Mimura's process. To me, it's the scientific nature of it all. In surveying a runner's feet, Mimura acknowledges the anatomical nuance of the human form. That he assumes this form can be improved upon suggests that he recognizes the limitations of humans' evolutionary design. (Mimura at one point put his career on the line by designing a shoe with uneven soles for an Olympic runner Naoko Takahashi, whose left leg is eight millimeters longer than her right, and giving them to her without telling her. She wore the shoes at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where she took gold in the women's marathon.)

Human feet, which comprise 26 moving pieces, are notoriously complex body parts. (In light of the burgeoning barefoot running movement, they are increasingly controversial ones, as well.) Biological anthropologists like Boston University's Jeremy DeSilva obsess over lower limb anatomy. How do the hips, legs, knees and feet of anatomically modern humans differ from those of our hominin forbears? How do these respective anatomies work – or, more interesting still, how don't they work? Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our lower limbs, as determined by detailed measurements, can tell us a lot about our evolution – about the compromises that were made over millions of years to facilitate various combinations of tree-climbing, walking upright, and running, with remarkable efficiency, over incredibly long distances.

There exists a common calculus between a craftsman like Mimura and scientists like DeSilva, one that acknowledges the intricacies of the human form while seeking to make better, functional sense of it.

[H/t kottke]