It all started with a photo. Brandon Jennings tweeted a picture of a super-low, super-bright Under Armour running shoe we had never seen before, and we were hooked. What the heck was that? Well, turns out it was the Under Armour Charge RC, due out in limited numbers on October 1st ($120) with the big push in December. Freshly built from the ground up, the Charge RC is Under Armour's premier speed runner, built to provide ultimate fit and launch a new era of Under Armour footwear. We talked with Dave Dombrow, Under Armour's creative director of footwear, about their new direction and the shoe that's leading the way. (You can also check out some of his original sketches and inspirations above.)
Interview by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
I guess the easiest thing to do is, well — start at the beginning of how the Charge RC was conceived.
Dombrow: "Where this shoe begins, it all begins with our apparel DNA. Where other companies, you could go back to one of their heritage styles from back in the '70s or '80s, our heritage basically is our apparel.
"So we wanted to bring that in, being that that’s what we’re known for and that’s our technology background, we wanted to see whether we could bring that in and pretty much for the first time build a shoe in the same way that we build our apparel. When I say that, it’s not actually the same in the sense that — if you really look at that shoe, it’s totally deconstructed, it doesn’t have a lot of glue where other shoes would, it doesn’t have a bunch of backing in the toe where other shoes would. The forefoot of the that shoe really is a piece of apparel, it just happens to be formed around a shoe. So we basically were able to get the forms by 3D forming the toe and the tongue to kind of hold the shape almost."
And then it has that segmented upper.
Dombrow: “That came from — kind of a design direction for this whole season, and of this shoe in particular, we call it EVOnatomy. It’s an evolving of your anatomy for ultimate performance. The way that came about, we were looking at a bunch of different things, from the base layer of our apparel to the articulating skin of a grasshopper, and we were looking at other things like carbon legs, which is why you see the carbon on the bottom. Basically it was kind of a hybridization of a lot of things. So we put the apparel DNA in our blender, we put the articulating skeleton of a grasshopper in the blender, and we put the carbon legs in a blender as well, so we put that carbon springplate underneath. We combined all those things to try to give you an optimum shoe — I guess our position was everyone was mimicking the human anatomy, and we thought an evolvement of sorts would be a better solution."
So, supporting minimalism but realizing tech could be helpful?
Dombrow: "Exactly. It’s a combination of minimalism meets what we thought would be optimum performance to go faster. I would say if you want kind of a cushy, slower ride, that’s not what this shoe’s about. This shoe is about high rebound, fast speed, get you to the finish line faster."
Will advances made in this shoe find their way to b-ball and cleated?
Dombrow: “Yes. Across the board, some of the things you’re seeing here with the compression fit — and it also incorporates the MPZ technology which you’ll see in our baseball and football gear, which stands for Modular Protection Zone, you’ll see those kind of protection zones and that kind of compression fit story pop up in our basketball line, in our football line. So you’re going to see this idea of us incorporating our apparel DNA across the board. And in the future you’ll see a specific basketball shoe that’s leveraged off the Charge RC."
Has running taken the lead for you guys, then?
Dombrow: “I would say in this case it has. In any given season any category can take the lead, but in this sense I would say that it has as far as how the approach was taken.
Give us more of a sense of your background — where were you before Under Armour?
Dombrow: "I did basketball at Nike for a while back in the early 2000s, then I made my way to GBMI in Santa Barbara where they held a bunch of brands, Diesel being the most famous. But they also owned Pony at that time, and they were trying to bring that back. So I was there a couple of years, that was kind of more of a fashion influence I would say, less on the performance side. Then I made my way to Puma, where I was the creative director, which was more of a blend between the two. I worked on quite a bit of running product at Puma. Quite a few shoes through the years there — I was there for about six years at Puma up in Boston."
Since you haven’t been doing running shoes your whole career, do you feel like that gives you a slightly different perspective?
Dombrow: “I definitely think so. The mix of my background of fashion and sport kind of added something to it. I’m a performance footwear designer through and through, but definitely I’m always going to look at the fashion side from aesthetics or just from being aware of what’s out there. And I think being that I’ve kind of done both, grounded in performance — that’s where I started with Nike — and especially recently the last six years prior to last year being up at Puma, that was definitely more on the fashion side. I probably approach things maybe a little differently than maybe the typical running designer."
Obviously Under Armour – if Puma is 50-50 fashion to function…
Dombrow: "…Under Armour is more like 80-20?"
Um, I was gonna say 90-10, but that makes it seem like you’re not doing fashion at all.
Dombrow: [Laughter] "Well, we’re kind of not right now, but I would like to think the line that I’m looking at now and where we’re going is more like 80-20. But definitely, especially in the past they were more like 90-10 if you looked at the company as a whole, footwear and apparel. But I think in footwear, there’s always a fashion game to be played, whether people want to admit it or not. Even with the hardcore athlete, there’s still a mental fashion thing going there."
Are you already into the Charge RC 2, or — maybe this is better — will there be an RC 2?
Dombrow: "There will be a product that will be similar in Spring ’13, but it won’t be the RC 2, it’ll be probably a different name and it’ll probably be slightly different. That’s not to say that there won’t be an RC 2 at some point. We want to let this — this shoe is quite different for us, as you know, and we want to let it breathe a little bit before we come and just— This industry right now is all about 'what’s the next, what’s the next,' and it’s like, it didn’t used to be like that. It used to be they put something out, they stuck with it, and they started to create classics. So I think, in my opinion, I’d like to do that — maybe this will be a future classic for us. So we don’t want to try and redo something, so we kind of let it digest first."
Was this shoe more about creating more of an Under Armour aesthetic, so someone can see it without the logo and know what it is?
Dombrow: “That’s exactly it, you hit it right on the head. We want to be able to pull the logo off of our products in the future and be known for a certain look and feel. If you look at other industries, and cars are always easy, but BMW if you look at the kidney grills they have on their cars, they’ve never changed that. They’ve evolved it through the years, but since the ‘30s that kidney grill has always been the same thing through and through. I would say there are a lot of creative designers in places like that, and somehow they have enough restraint not to go to a circle grill or do something else. That’s what we’re trying to set up here — some styles or look and feels that you just look at and know it’s Under Armour, whether you like it, hate it, whatever, you know it’s Under Armour."
It seems like Under Armour’s previous running line was a little muddled — will this be the top line running shoe with others styled off of it?
Dombrow: "This will be one of the top-level shoes for the upcoming season — this launches on 10/1 — this will be the top-level shoe for this season, and this project like I said is all about going fast? But what you’ll see is we’ll start to push out to other silos in the future, so you’ll see a 'go far' silo and a natural, 'get healthy' silo. Eventually we’re gonna build the silos out, and we’re gonna have a pinnacle product for each silo. But we’re gonna be focused, we’re not gonna be throwin’ hundreds of products out there, we’re gonna be real focused and targeted and try to get behind our winners, both look and feel.
"This language will carry down. I don’t think we’re honestly quite there yet — in the sense that we don’t have our line like perfectly: 'there’s the pinnacle, there’s the next one down, and there’s the final takedown of it.' I’d say in a perfect world we’re headed that way, I’d just say we’re not there yet.
What has been the response you’ve gotten from runners and other athletes you’ve gotten the product to?
Dombrow: "It’s been great. I think what’s really nice, from runners they get it, and we’ve gotten a really good response to the technical side of it. And that’s where the initial launch of the thing is kind of targeted, towards the progressive, technical runner. But that’s not to say we don’t want it to cross over, and that goes to my second point that from all the athletes that come through here, or that we’ve had it out on the road, from Brandon Jennings to Cam Newton to Julio Jones to — and I can go on and on — unaided they’ve basically seen the shoe when we’ve been meeting about something else and asked for the shoe in their size. That’s always a good sign for me, when guys like Brandon and Cam Newton are asking for the shoe when you’re not even talking about that shoe."
Through the design process and bringing it from idea to shoe, is there any one specific overriding thing that came out that runners look for?
Dombrow: “I don’t know if there’s one specific thing — we knew with this shoe we wanted to go back to this lightweight, minimalism shoe, which Under Armour hadn’t really played in that segment before. We knew that’s really where we wanted to play since that’s where running’s going and where the market’s going and the whole barefoot craze and everything, but we wanted Under Armour’s performance take on it. So I don’t know if there was one specific thing that runners were looking for, but runners really liked our — not just runners, but athletes in general liked our apparel, and we wanted to somehow bring that into footwear in a relevant way. And what that did is, it just generated a different type of shoe and a different type of construction. That’s how that two-piece construction came about. The way that forefoot’s built, you couldn’t build it that way 360. So you almost had to subdivide it into two pieces to drive that apparel construction.
So it's form following function.
Dombrow: “I guess it totally is in that sense. You know running shoes always have that midfoot supporter — if you look at sprint spikes, they have this midfoot band which comes down. So it’s almost like a reinterpretation of a classic idea. And so we almost brought that internal reinforcement to the outside. And looking at animals and skin, we’ll bring that kind of midfoot support to the outside and let that apparel DNA be against your foot in the forefoot. It kind of just evolved out of function, I guess.
"One tagline that we’ve always been saying here lately that 'the fit that changed everything now goes over your feet.' Under Armour changed fit forever with their compression apparel and we’re saying 'this fits differently, but it fits differently for a reason.'