World Footwear


Dr Alexandra Sherlock: Footwear Research Network is a bridge between the footwear industry and academia

Nov 21, 2023 Australia
Dr Alexandra Sherlock: Footwear Research Network is a bridge between the footwear industry and academia
We spoke to Dr Alexandra Sherlock, fashion lecturer at RMIT University and founder of the Footwear Research Network, to find out more about this platform and how it aims to bring the academic world and the industry closer together
The origins of the Footwear Research Network date back to the beginning of Alexandra’s career in academia, after a period of disenchantment within the fashion industry. At the encouragement of friends, she applied to do her PhD as part of the research project, «If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition», led by Emeritus Professor Jenny Hockey at the University of Sheffield and funded by the UK’s Economic Social Research Council. So, between 2010 and 2013, in order to publicise the results of the research, the blog that started it all was created.

“At the time, the research attracted a lot of judgement from ‘serious’ sociologists because shoes are often perceived to be a trivial subject; I think they thought the money would be better spent elsewhere!”, recalled Dr Alexandra Sherlock. “Far from it, we have such a special relationship with shoes, particularly in relation to the way we use them to construct and express a sense of ourselves”, she added. The research produced findings that lent important insights into how the process of identity and identification work.  But “as can often be the case when research projects finish, the blog was at risk of deletion. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing all that hard work, so I took it over and it lay dormant until it was reestablished in 2021” as the Footwear Research Network

Footwear Research Network  

It could be said that the network is coming to life from a recent growing interest in the academic study of footwear. “As a category within the broader field of fashion studies, footwear academics often feel a little siloed, so it’s been great to be able to get together and support one another to build a better understanding of the significance of shoes, as well as their environmental impacts”.

But its real goal goes beyond the boundaries of the academic world, as there is today “much more of a push to ensure research can be used in real-world scenarios to effect positive change”.

Therefore, the Footwear Research Network aims to work as a bridge between Industry and academia. “Academic research and researchers can provide new perspectives to assist with solving many of the problems facing the industry today. Industry can also collaborate with researchers to achieve their goal of developing and sharing new knowledge”.

Bridging The Gap

We all face many of the same challenges, but the major one in fashion is “to understand and explore how we might achieve environmental sustainability in an economically sustainable way, particularly in the face of increasing legislation to restrict environmental impact, greenwashing and so on”, she sums up.

And theoretical perspectives can indeed contribute to the evolution of practice, with the good news being that communication between brands and researchers is becoming easier over time. She recalled her own PhD research in 2012, during which she gained rare and valuable access to conduct an organizational ethnography at Clarks headquarters.

The fact is that she successfully used the Clarks Originals styles (specifically, the Desert Boot, Desert Trek and Wallabee) as a focus for understanding the whole biography of the shoe, which enabled her to see that “wherever we are placed along this biography, be it as designers, manufacturers, marketers or wearers, we construct a sense of our own identities through the shoe”. 

In addition, it gave her an “insight into how all these identities influence one another, which was extremely useful for understanding the social lives of the shoes, and of the brand and brand identity as a whole”.  Findings that may actually be key to addressing some of today’s challenges.

Towards Joint Solutions  

The growing Network of members and contributors come from a range of disciplines, each with their own areas of expertise and approaches that can assist industry. Using her own research as an example, she explained “I explore the reasons wearers develop a particularly strong attachment to some shoes and not others - to the extent they are often heartbroken when they are no longer able to wear them. An in-depth understanding of the factors that contribute to this emotional connection opens up possibilities for new, more circular, business models”.

And the truth is brands are starting to realise this. “Doc Martens and Veja for example are now experimenting with repair workshops and services that prolong the lives of their shoes rather than contributing to landfill. Designing for repair also increases brand loyalty and makes disassembly for recycling easier, which helps to close the loop for material reuse”.

“So yes, I firmly believe that theoretical perspectives can help to develop a depth of understanding around a particular phenomenon that can lead to all sorts of opportunities”.

Future Generations

In addition, in her privileged role as a lecturer, teaching fashion students in the UK and Australia since 2007, she observed, “I have never seen them more critical, concerned and eager to make change than they are now. They are realizing that it is their own lives and the lives of their children that will be directly affected by the impacts of unsustainable production and consumption practices”.

She identifies an emerging workforce that is increasingly motivated to address today’s challenges and “grateful to brands that are already doing so in authentic and meaningful ways”.

Image Credits: Art by Sofia Pádua