Scope#08 | IFME

As of May 2024, Marubeni Footwear Inc. has changed its company name to Marubeni Consumer Brands Inc.

Winning the battle against threats to the health of children’s feet

IFME’s pursuit of affordability, high functionality, and good taste in children’s shoes

If your toes do not touch the ground, you are prone to having health problems: bad posture, deformed feet, and chronic foot pain. This foot condition is not just an adults’ concern; an increasing number of small children in Japan have these “floating” toes.

Citing a study by an elementary school in Tokyo, Yomiuri Shimbun reported in December 2015 that the health of Japanese children’s feet is at risk. According to the school, which has continued to research the foot shapes of its pupils for 25 years, 80% of the children surveyed in 2015 had toes that did not touch the ground. This number has doubled in the past decade.

A health expert quoted in the article said the condition could be attributed to a lack of outdoor play; today’s children spend less time playing outside, therefore they have weaker feet. Those children whose toes do not touch the ground are more likely to trip or fall. If they fail to strengthen their feet, these children will remain prone to all kinds of foot problems. Wearing shoes that do not fit right is another big cause, which one manufacturer is determined to address.

IFME, a children’s shoe brand produced by Marubeni Footwear, has continued to put the health of children’s feet first, since its debut in 2000. The company’s product-design team was initially led by Dr. Yoshiki Koyama, a chief sports-medicine doctor to a number of Japanese Olympians. After Dr. Koyama died, his baton was passed on to Dr. Suguru Torii of the Waseda University Faculty of Sport Sciences. His laboratory and Marubeni Footwear are continuing their joint research and development into the design of healthy footwear. Through their collaborative efforts, they are committing themselves to creating children’s shoes that provide “support the healthy growth of children's feet.”

IFME boasts a 10% market share in the Japanese children’s casual footwear industry. A competitive pricing structure, incommensurate with its high quality both in terms of function and design, is its greatest strength. During its early seasons, the range of shoe sizes available was between 15 and 21 cm, but it was soon expanded; within a short time, the brand brought in additional models for toddlers.

The making of Windlass Saucer, the value-added insole

Takanori Shimogakiuchi, a shoe designer, has been working hand-in-hand with Marubeni Footwear since the launch of the IFME project. His endeavor to put the health of children’ feet first began with observation of small children in the playground of a kindergarten. As he watched them closely, Shimogakiuchi noticed one thing: Kids adore the spots that adults tend to avoid, such as puddles and sandy surfaces. He also noticed another thing: Children often sit on the ground with their bottom resting between their feet (their legs in the shape of the letter “W”), allowing sand and dirt to get inside their shoes through the topline collar.

Based on the results of his observations, Shimogakiuchi insisted on making the shoe’s insole replaceable because he was convinced that keeping the insole clean is the key to the health of children’s feet. Dr. Koyama, however, wanted to go beyond that. He wanted to help reinforce the arch of the foot, so he advised Shimogakiuchi and Marubeni Footwear’s product-design team to create a value-added insole that would help enhance the flexibility and mobility of the children’s toes.

Dr. Koyama suggested indenting the part of the insole where the base of the big toe and the tip of the toe rest. This value-added insole was named “Windlass Saucer” and became the iconic feature of IFME shoes. “This insole continues to be IFME’s lifeline,” Shimogakiuchi said.

Too stylish for kids?

High functionality has to come first, but good design matters, too. Shimogakiuchi and his team of designers try to incorporate the latest adults’ fashion trends while embracing their original brand concept of being “subtly sassy” and “gender neutral.” When the IFME’s first models were released into the market, the children’s section of retail stores was mostly made up of shoes that were classically cute: stars, hearts, and other “kids’ things” that were considered most suitable for the little ones.

The subtly sassy and gender-neutral IFME shoe collection took a distinctively different path, bringing in a taste of Italy: earth-toned colors and chic styles. The IFME shoes became an instant hit, sweeping away concerns by those who said they were “too stylish for kids.”

Recent collections include more classically cute shoes, but the core of the brand concept remains unchanged. “I never put ‘subtly sassy’ or ‘gender neutral’ out of my mind,” Shimogakiuchi has said.

Challenging the unchallenged

Another signature product of IFME is uwabaki—high-quality room shoes that children wear in school. In Japan, people take off their street shoes before they enter homes. Accordingly, virtually all kindergartens, primary schools, and high schools prohibit the use of street shoes inside the buildings, so children must change to their uwabaki (room shoes) at the entrance hall. Traditional uwabaki, which resemble the shape of ballet-slippers and must be white, are made of canvas fabric and are designed to be slipped on and off easily.

Courtesy of a kindergarten in Nagoya City, Marubeni Footwear’s product-design team was able to conduct what was the equivalent to a test market survey and focus group. They listened to what the children had to say about IFME’s uwabaki after they had used them for two months. Parents’ feedback was also incorporated into the final version of the shoe design. 

Shoe-makers and retailers had long believed that uwabaki must be low priced because parents considered these shoes to be expendable school items such as notebooks and pencils. But they turned out to be wrong, which they discovered when IFME’s high-quality, value-added uwabaki were released in 2005 for JPY 1,500 (about USD 13). It was more than double the average price of uwabaki at that time. Challenging the unchallenged, IFME uwabaki have sold well since their launch.

There is no end to the team’s quest for innovation. The product-design team has continued to improve the comfort of the uwabaki according to the needs of their customers. In an effort to enhance ventilation inside the shoes, they replaced the material for the surface of the insole with mesh. They also created many air holes to both the insole and the outsole to help reduce moisture from the inside. 

However, this high breathability alone does not thoroughly eliminate the “smelly-shoe problem” because children wear the same uwabaki every day for long hours, whenever they stay indoors. The product-design team realized that if the shoes and the insoles could be washed frequently, parents would find it very convenient, and they had a solution in place: the Windlass Saucer—the highly functional, replaceable insole that they had already developed for their street shoes. They decided to use it for the uwabaki as well. This replaceable insole, which comes along with an extra pair, has been one of the strong selling points of IFME uwabaki, and another reason why the IFME uwabaki have gained popularity despite their higher price.

“Mommy, I can do it myself!”

In accordance with an increased awareness towards the health of children’s feet, more daycare centers and kindergartens are advising parents to choose IFME uwabaki. Among them is Hijiri Kodomo-en, a kindergarten in Chiba prefecture. Ms. Satsuki Higurashi, its headmistress, has said that more than half of its two-year-old pupils wear IFME uwabaki.

Like at any other facility, the children of Hijiri Kodomo-en have to change their shoes at the entrance hall. As soon as they arrive in their classrooms, however, they take off their uwabaki and begin to play (they like to be barefoot when playing in a room). They repeat this pattern of “putting on and taking off the uwabaki” throughout the day, and if the uwabaki are made of stiff fabric, the children cannot do it easily.

“Very often, children start crying because they cannot put on their uwabaki by themselves. It can be very frustrating for both sides—the children and the teachers,” said a female teacher of Hijiri Kodomo-en, who is in charge of a 2-year-old class. Since the IFME uwabaki—soft and easy to wear— have become more prevalent at the kindergarten, the time and stress revolving around the changing of shoes have been significantly reduced, she said.

Nanami, 2, a pupil of Hijiri Kodomo-en, wears a pair of IFME uwabaki with Velcro straps. It’s the same design as her street shoes, so she was able to put them on by herself from the beginning. “There are inexpensive uwabaki out there, but I choose IFME for my daughter, which I think helps develop her sense of autonomy,” said Nanami’s mother.

Building a global fan base

IFME casual shoes are also being sold outside of Japan—primarily in Asia. In China, they are mostly sold at online stores. In general, companies are more likely to change the colors of their products to suit local tastes when they bring them to different markets. For example, people in Taiwan and Singapore like yellowish red while the Japanese like their red redder. Unlike other brands, IFME didn’t change its color selection; the same red is used in all regions.

The company’s decisions have turned out to be right. In 2015, IFME won the “Excellent Product Award” from mombaby, a Taiwanese parenting magazine. This award is given in an annual contest in which the magazine’s readers vote for the products of the best quality. The prize was awarded to IFME only three years after its Taiwanese debut, proving that IFME’s solid brand personality transcends cultural differences. The brand’s shoes are now available in North America; it was introduced to the market in the Spring/Summer 2016 season.  There are no cultural boundaries in parents’ love for their children: They will put the health of their children’ feet first. IFME shoes—affordable, highly functional, and in good taste—continue to increase their fan base in many parts of the world.

All information is based on interviews conducted in late March 2017.