The workshops at Salomon’s Annecy Design Centre sit on the ground floor, and the design offices are one floor above. From the design area, if you follow the corridor to the right, go down a staircase, then take another short corridor, you’ll arrive in an enormous room that buzzes with sewing machines, large tables covered with pieces of cloth and other mysterious objects. This is the realm of product prototyping.
Prototypes are tested on the roads and return muddy and damaged, to be examined by the keen eye of Jonathan Thery, the project manager. Over the years, he’s filled the shelves around his desk with a colorful cemetery of dozens of shoes that were not validated.
“The goal is the sport, not the product,” says Benjamin Grenet, Lead Advanced Senior Designer for Salomon Footwear. “With S/Lab, we have the freedom to develop this type of product because it doesn’t have a real commercial purpose. It’s a pioneer."The S/Lab product is a solution to overcome the borders that come up, and gives designers a platform to help athletes realize a dream and advance their practice. “We challenge our habits with these models, but we don’t have the weight of compromises,” Grenet says. “The S/Lab is a tool that allow us to explore…and show the way."
When racers Michel Lanne and Kilian Jornet started drifting off course with a new practice called Alpine Running, the ears perked up within a certain area of Salomon's Annecy Design Centre (ADC). To be clear, when we speak of “alpine running”, we’re talking about way off-trail and out of competition, where runners draw their own route to the top encountering any and every condition imaginable along the way. From scrambling over rocks or up snowy ridgelines to cutting a path up and down grassy slopes, “This is improvised trail," says Assistant Product Line Manager Pierre Minary, with his runner’s mentality.
"Let’s be clear: Just because we don’t have bibs on our backs does not mean the run is not about performance."
For trailblazers like Lanne or Jornet, the S/Lab XA Alpine shoe combines the armored front half to go uphill with the cushioned back half for the descent. It is the result of cross-breeding the pure racing Sense model with a solid shell to ward off the natural elements. “On the inside, trail runners are racers," explains designer Benjamin Grenet. “The Sense was designed for an individual, Kilian, but the XA Alpine was made for a community. Trail runners, bored with the competition, are reinventing a way to have fun up there.”
Grenet points to examples on his graphic tablet, quickly zooming in on details. “There is a first level of connection for consumers when they are 10 meters from the product. That’s where you perceive the attitude and the brand," he explains. “And with the shoe in hand, you feel the technical specifications more than see them. So the materials allow people to read the shoe with their fingers.”
Julie Cornu makes that roundtrip several times each day to control the production of prototypes. The proximity of the workshop speeds up the evolution of the product, gaining time when an idea turns into an object capable of running. "It's valuable to be able to create a shoe overnight…well, almost overnight,” says Cornu, a Product Manager Engineer in Salomon’s R&D Footwear department.
“Julie takes what you think and turns it into a prototype,” says Minary. “For example, the first prototype had a straight central zip which caused a hard point on the foot. Within one week, the workshop had installed a zip on the side that we could field test right away.”
"The goal is the sport, not the product. With S/Lab, we have the freedom to develop this type of product because it doesn’t have a real commercial purpose. It’s a pioneer."