Trailblazing shoe designer
by Tina Haver Currin
photographs by Travis Long
Last year at SPARKcon, downtown Raleigh’s annual festival of innovation and creativity, Aly and Beth Khalifa, local designers and entrepreneurs, had to apply to participate. The couple had that in common with 30 other hopeful applicants, but none of those folks also had “SPARKcon co-founders” on their resumes.
“We weren’t sure we would get in,” Khalifa says, with a hearty laugh. “SPARKcon is all open-source and run by the people who organize it, so I had no say whatsoever.”
Which is how the couple designed it in 2006, when they began the festival to celebrate Raleigh’s fashion week. After the first five hectic, successful years of running it – inventing and designing all the while – the pair relinquished management to the Visual Art Exchange, but not before expanding SPARKcon far beyond fashion to encompass film and technology, food and music, art and commerce. These days, the once-modest event transforms downtown Raleigh into a weekend-long hive of creative expression, with a pop-up bazaar, runway show with a sprawling City Plaza catwalk, improv comedians, and chalk art that stretches for as far as the eye can see.
Meanwhile, the Khalifas are fully focused on launching Lyf, their own 3-D printed, custom-made, eco-shoe company in the heart of downtown Raleigh. Their status as festival founders gave them no free ride into the event’s Wear What You Are fashion show. But the couple needn’t have worried. Lyf was selected to become the first footwear company to debut in the Triangle’s largest annual fashion exhibition, which has emerged as a showcase for the area’s best up-and-coming jewelry, clothing, and accessories. Alumni include Raleigh Denim Workshop, Holly Aiken, and Lumina Clothing, putting Lyf in good company.
Finding himself on the other side of the planning equation for the first time, Khalifa had to ask himself new quesions: What would Lyf’s models look like? How should they represent themselves as a company? “It was the first time we got to present the real package,” he says, “and it was great for us. It made us confront the brand.”
That was nearly a year ago. This year, as the 11th annual festival gears up for its run from September 15 through 18, Lyf is poised for larger-scale production.
It all began at Designbox, the Khalifas’ creative incubator that, until this year, was located in the Warehouse District. Since 2003, Designbox has supported local startups with a collaborative workspace and small retail store. These days, Designbox rests atop Cafe Helios, and it’s where the Khalifas refine their newest endeavor: a line of custom 3-D-printed shoes.
“For more than a decade we’ve had a 3-D printer working for clients. It’s amazing what we paid for the first one, and what a pain it was compared to new technology, which has become a lot simpler,” Khalifa says. “For the shoes, we’re using a lot of 3-D printing to do sustainable footwear.”
That original ZPrinter allowed the team to go from design to prototype in three days. The team at Lyf now has five printers, and hopes to add seven more in the coming year. They’ve taken to naming the printers to quickly diagnose their quirks and variations (“Beethoven” is a particularly loud printer; “Mad Jack” is “rock solid.”)
For now, the printers stack on top of each other, and if all goes to plan, the entire operation will eventually be mobile, like a food truck for shoes. Customers will get fitted in a standard pair of kicks, and then add their own customized art or design to the cotton canvas or leather. The shoes will then be assembled and ready for pickup in an hour. It’s a unique approach – but nothing new for the innovative couple.
“In many ways, we talk about Lyf like we talk about SPARKcon,” says Khalifa. “If we put SPARKcon into a pair of shoes, what would that look like? Sensitivity to the environment, trying to stimulate the local economy, celebrating creativity, being a good product with good craft, all those principles are now in Lyf shoes.”
One of the most intriguing prospects of Lyf is that sizes can be created and assembled without mass production, which means that someone with unusally sized feet, or feet of different sizes – one a size bigger than the other, for instance – could order a pair of Lyfs to fit them exactly. Khalifa estimates he has over 4,000 different size files available, and the number is growing.
Finding a new way
The impetus to design footwear evolved naturally for Khalifa, who worked at Performance Bicycle after earning dual engineering and product design degrees from N.C. State University. When he began designing footwear for cycling, Khalifa became “the guy who always had to be on the factory floor.” He didn’t expect an unintended side effect from his visits: an immediate, splitting headache from the toxic chemicals used in shoe manufacturing.
The traditional system is inherently broken, he says: “We’re moving our footwear production with a level of ignorance, from the U.S. to Mexico to Taiwan to China to Vietnam to Burma. Each time, after one generation, people have a hard time recruiting because the toxic chemicals in shoe production can cause birth defects,” Khalifa says. “But that’s just one part of it. There are also 50 materials in an average pair of shoes.” That makes disassembling and recycling shoes nearly impossible, he says, because the cost of processing such a complex product is so high.
Khalifa began to think about ways to do things differently.
At Lyf, each of the shoe’s components are made of a single-source material, and the shoes are intentionally designed to come apart. Lyf also offers a 15 percent discount to customers who return their shoes after they’ve been worn. That results in a 15 percent return from its own supply chain, too, due to their materials’ infinitely recyclable nature. Khalifa points out the system is called a circular economy, where products are intentionally designed from the beginning with their entire lifecycle in mind.
“By taking the material back, (manufacturers) don’t have to return all the way to petroleum or to the cottonseed, so it’s a really good deal for everyone,” Khalifa explains. “The trick is, the designer has to attach value after that first use. But, I think if you wouldn’t take it back, you shouldn’t put it out there. We’re designing so that when you buy a pair of Lyf shoes, the world gets better.”