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Aug 08 2018
Fergus Haywood and Zayyar Win Thein

The Ultimate Guide to Nike's Technology

The Ultimate Guide To Nike Technology — Good as Gold

Nike is undoubtedly one of the most iconic brands in history, based on the concept of winning the sportswear apparel company has been an innovator since its inception in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports. A major chunk of Nike’s business is footwear, whether it’s the latest sneaker trend or a game changer for the sports arena through the years Nike have adapted and refined ideas into reality to give their customers an edge above everyone else. For a company such as Nike it’s hard to determine what their best product or line is, all serve a purpose in the market and they haven’t just fitted into the industry, they’ve changed it. We take an in depth look at a few of Nike’s technologies that have revolutionised footwear as we know it today and how they came to life.

Air Max: Breath of Fresh Air

Probably the most well known technology by Nike is Air Max, first released by Nike back in 1987, Air Max uses a large air cushioning unit at the heel or midsole which is normally visible from the side on most models. The origin of Air stems from M. Frank Rudy who helped develop this new innovative technology for Nike, Rudy previously worked for NASA and figured out a way to pump gas into a bubble that could insert into the sole of a sneaker.

Nike tested Rudy’s technology with the Nike Air Tailwind, a running shoe in the late 1970’s that was unique in ride and bounce causing the sneaker to sell out instantly. The Tailwind proved that Air was a sure hit and Nike wanted to take this further by making the sole lighter, more responsive and have multi-purpose functionalities. Tinker Hatfield who was at the beginning of his career at Nike was approached to help design this new line called “Air Max”

Hatfield who was hired as an architect for Nike would reshape the footwear industry with his inventive and forward thinking designs. Shortly after he was given the brief for Air Max, Hatfield travelled to Paris and came across the Centre Georges Pompidou, or more simply known as The Pompidou Centre. Initially thought as an ugly building by the French since its opening in 1977, Hatfield saw how revolutionary and unique the design was as the plumbing, electrics and staircases were on the outside of the building which are all elements typically hidden away within the interior.

This idea and theme of exposing the internal workings gave Hatfield the conclusion that it wasn’t enough to just have the Air unit inside the sneaker, people needed to see it. On his return to Oregon he began working on what we know today as the Air Max 1, his designs and drafts evolved over a short period and it eventually hit the market in 1987. The Air Max 1 featured an increase in Air volume, it gave runners a more cushioned landing and of course the allure of a see through sole led to large sales numbers.

Notable sneakers followed with Air Max technology in high demand, first came the Air Max 90 in 1990 boasting the “bigger is better” Air unit for runners but also the street. Air Max 180 released the year after with more visible Air than ever before as it introduced 180 degrees of visible cushioning, then came the Air Max 93, the Air Max 95 and the Air Max 97 which wrapped up a powerful 1990’s for Nike. All these models featured something different not just in design but in Air technology as well proving the versatility of the sneaker as it began to leave the feet of runners and opted for the feet of the streets.

The first collaboration on an Air Max wasn’t until 2002 where Japanese retailer Atmos, released their “Air Max 1 Safari", at the time it was a sneakerhead’s dream and today it still demands a high resell price. Another notable collaborator on the Air Max 1 includes Dutch artist,Piet Parra who released his first design with Nike in 2005 which was inspired by his hometown of Amsterdam. Today the Air Max series has seen some of the world’s greatest artists and visionaries collaborate on the prestigious line such as British Grime artist Skepta and his Air Max 97, Off-White’s creative director Virgil Abloh designing a Vapormax, Air Max 97 and Air Max 90, Round Two’s Sean Wotherspoon with his Air Max 1/97 and Hiroshi Fujiwara working on the Air Max LD-Zero H.

With a mixture of other Nike technology such as Flyknit it has bred new life into the wider Nike umbrella, the ability to mix and mash what they love birthed Vapormax in 2017. Previous Air Max models filled the sole with as much Air as possible for comfort of the user but what the Vapormax focuses on is using less Air, more efficiently. The sneaker was a massive success in 2017 and has even stemmed to new versions that include a Mid-Top and Laceless stating the power of Air and its ability to be introduced in a modern context.

The Air Max family is now bigger than ever with all the classics and iconic shapes from the 90’s in various iterations with the addition of new-age shapes such as the Air Max Zero and Vapormax. It is safe to say that Air Max is an iconic technology which shaped sportswear and sneaker design, it led to massive growth for Nike further establishing it as one of the biggest brands in apparel.

Air Force One: A Living Icon

Think of Nike and what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? I’m guessing it’s a fresh white pair of Air Force One’s? It truly is an iconic shoe with an ingrained history in footwear, over 35 years since the release they are still as popular as ever.

Nike’s “Air” technology was anything but a myth in basketball until 1982 when it saw the birth of the Nike ‘Air Force One', the first ever basketball shoe sporting an air pocket in the sole meant for cushioning, weight reduction and durability. Named after the Presidential Plane of the United States of America - The AF-1 takes on similarities, it’s bold, chunky and looks tough.

Since the initial release, over 1,700 variations in colour and shape have come out. Some of the first coming from three Baltimore retailers, Charley Rudo Sports, Locker Room Center and Cinderella Shoes. These stores would combine their orders of 1200 pairs and get special colourways that would release each month. This is now dubbed the“Colour of the Month” pack and although unconfirmed, this is one of the first instances where stores would collaborate with Nike for exclusive colourways. The pack was recently re-released in 2016.

Taking the world by storm with a advertising campaign featuring 6 of the best basketball players of the time - Michael Cooper, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Jamaal Wilkes, Bobby Jones and Mychal Thompson. The advertising direction looks like something from a sci-fi movie. The players look like astronauts wearing the first ever colourway; a full white high-top sneaker with a grey tick and sole.

The Air Force One is the highest selling athletic shoe of all time, it brings an estimated $800 million USD a year in revenue. In 2017, that would be a rough turnover of $28 billion USD since its inception! But things didn’t always look so good for the now-iconic shoe. Just 2 years after they were released the Air Force One was taken off the shelves for a two year sabbatical but thankfully saw a re-release in 1986 - a year before it’s younger brother the ‘Air Force Two’ was released in 1987. From then until 1990 three more variations in the “Air Force” line were released - the Air Force 3, the Air Force STS and the Air Force 5 but none seeing as much success as the original.

Neighborhoods in Harlem and uptown neighborhoods in New York adopted the Air Force One as a staple part of their everyday uniform and gave the shoe the nickname ‘Uptowns’. This is heard on a collaborative song released in 2007 called Classics (Better Than I’ve Ever Been) by Nas, KRS-One, Rakim and Kanye West produced by DJ Premier. In Rakim’s verse he says “Since I came in the door, and became one of y'all leaders In a fresh pair Air Force sneakers Uptowns, we call 'em uppies, when they're on divas” But this isn’t the only song dedicated to the shoes, 5 years earlier Nelly famously released a song called “Air Force Ones”.

Most recently in 2017 Nike celebrated it’s 35 year anniversary of the ‘Uptowns’ with a collaboration pack with streetwear designer and ex-G.O.O.D music executive Don C, Roc-A-Fella records co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Errolson Hugh of Acronym, “Virgil Abloh,” from Off-White and rapper Travis Scott.

Stretching Out With Huarache

Legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield formulated the Nike Huarache way back in 1991 by taking inspiration from booties worn for water-skiing. An issue with sneakers back then is that they didn’t accommodate for everyone’s different feet shapes and sizes, the answer was to implement neoprene and lycra - this was to make the shoe incredibly lightweight weighing in at just 9.5 ounces (270 grams). The neoprene upper is also supported with a one piece ‘exoskeleton’ featuring the iconic plastic heel cage at the back and the lacing system at the front. Because of the easily stretchable neoprene fabric it adopted the tagline of "Have you hugged your foot today?” for the Huarache’s marketing material.

Hatfield wanted to the technology to speak for itself, he opted for a minimalistic approach when it came to branding - the only swoosh you’ll find on the original model is on the outer sole. Much like the story of many Nike sneakers the Huarache nearly never happened, Nike didn’t receive enough orders to meet factory minimums to be able to mass produce the Huarache. To combat this they worked on a guerilla marketing plan to take 5,000 pairs to the New York Marathon in 1991 and the excitement grew from there with retailers now demanding the Huarache

The Air Tech Challenge Huarache was one for the first ever shoes combining a visible Air bubble unit and Huarache technology. Over the years many other Nike shoes implemented Huarache technology, this included the ‘Internationalist’ which rebooted it’s popularity in the running scene and also the ‘Air Huarache City’, a high-top version that opted for a strap fastening system instead of laces.

Since the original was released there have been countless variations and colours - some stand out models include the ‘Air Flight Huarache’ which saw Huarache technology being introduced into basketball, most notably worn by the legendary Scottie Pippen. This signified the departure from the classic bulky basketball shoe that was trending at the time for a new model that was techy and different. Basketball wasn’t the only sport to see the Huarache treatment as Nike followed with the ‘Air Tech Challenge Huarache’ in 1992 that was suited for tennis, Andre Agassi was an ambassador for the sneaker fitting perfectly into his ‘loud’ style.

In terms of collaborations the Nike Huarache and the other variations has seen its fair share of collaborations over the 27 years but none more important than the original Stussy x Nike Huarache in 2000. Not only was this the first time the Huarache was the star of a collaboration but it was the first time a global footwear company had collaborated with a streetwear brand. Stussy once again did a collaboration on the Nike ‘Huarache Light’ in 2003 with the colourways of slime green and orange.

More recently Undefeated collaborated on the Huarache which took inspiration from the Los Angeles lowrider culture. This collaboration was titled ‘LA Undefeated’ and released exclusively at a pop-up location in LA and the Undefeated website in 2016, today they are still heavily sought after.

Nike Presto: The ‘T-Shirt of Shoes’

Cherished by Elite Runners and Sneakerheads alike, The Nike Presto - A lightweight, sleek, low-profile shoe has a rich history and has stayed relevant since its inception 18 years ago. From ground-breaking technology to an impressive list of collaborations this shoe has stayed at the forefront since Y2K.

The year was 1996, Tobie Hatfield (brother of legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield) is working as Senior Director of Athlete Innovation at Nike. He’s in South Korea testing and developing some upcoming technology but found a common flaw with all of the shoes getting tested - nothing was fitting correctly. He then set out with his team to develop what is now called the 'V-Notch’. A dip in the shoe’s upper where the ankle sits, exposing it. This is to improve the fit of the shoe and encourage a natural movement.

Tobie Hatfield had set out to create a shoe with an unprecedented fit but also the comfort of slippers - it needed to replicate the feeling of running barefoot, it needed to feel like how a t-shirt felt - hence the tagline that Nike adopted - ‘The T-Shirt of Shoes’. Now to find the perfect upper material. Neoprene was popular in the earlier Huarache but lacked the breathability needed for high performance runners so the team turned to a popular material used in the Medical Industry called ‘Space Mesh’. This material boasted extreme breathability and could stretch in any direction; it was perfect. The sizing of the Nike Presto was also revolutionary, it was labelled the ‘T-Shirt of the Shoes’ so Tobie Hatfield gave it t-shirt sizing. Ranging from XXS to XXL, Nike opted to ditch the classic numeric sizing for this shoe.

Nowadays the Nike Presto has had somewhat of a revival, gaining popularity with a younger generation through multiple collaborations with streetwear giants Acronym and Off-White. Breathing fresh air into the shoe by adding a Mid-Top ‘Utility’ version added with a zip with Acronym or a deconstructed version through Virgil Abloh’s ‘The Ten’ collaboration

The Presto was almost ready to go, it just needed a name. The submissions were open. Crowd-sourcing a name for a shoe could go either way but luckily one name stood out from the rest. “Presto Magic” - named because of the comfort you felt when you put it on would make a magician say Presto! It was magic. Originally released in 13 colourways with names like “Unholy Cumulus” “Brutal Honey” and “Trouble at Home”. it was launched just in time to make its first major debut at the 2001 Sydney Olympics and hasn’t looked back since.

The next step for the beloved shoe was revealed this past June at Paris Fashion Week where Comme des Garçons’ SS19 show previewed a collaboration between them and Nike on the runway. This shoe is a slightly later iteration of the Presto - the Nike Presto Foot Tent originally released in 2002. Although this shoe doesn’t have an official release date you can expect it to make a debut next year.

Nike Shoe designer Leon Witherow is the authority when it comes to everything Nike Presto, he features honest opinions on the designs and showcases upcoming sneakers and some hidden gems.

Modern Innovation: Flyknit

Introduced back in 2012, Nike’s innovative material titled ‘Flyknit’ was born. The aim was to create a material never used before in footwear that was high performance and reduced waste. After 10 years of research, testing and development Nike discovered the next evolution of footwear. Made from a high strength ultra-light yarn the upper is knitted by this fibre; the material while strong and stretchy is also lightweight and weighs next to nothing, allowing freedom of movement. Every stitch is micro engineered that allows the material to adapt and change to the needs of the wearer.

The first sneaker to use this new technology was the Flyknit Racer, a featherweight form fitting sneaker that is slim in profile, perfect for any type of exercise especially marathon running. The Flyknit Racer upper comprised of just 34 grams that included the tongue, if you add the sole and midsole it only went up to a whopping 160 grams. In comparison to other running shoes at the time, the Flyknit Racer was 19% lighter than any other brand or Nike sneaker. Shortly after the reveal of the Racer came the Flyknit Trainer, pitched as more of a rounded performance sneaker for training Nike completely changed the fabrication process. Technology came further into play as the knitting sequence of Flyknit could be entirely digitized allowing them to completely take over the production process, this sparked the ability for Nike to truly push forward the technology into the mainstream market.

Flyknit was more than just a cool, fancy material it also had a huge positive environmental impact which was at utmost importance for Nike. Since 2012 Flyknit reduced about 60% of waste compared to regular cut and sew footwear, Nike had reduced nearly 3.5 million pounds of waste which is a massive achievement for a global brand who’s imprint on the world isn’t always positive. The conscious production didn’t stop there for the sportswear brand, in 2016 Nike transitioned the core of the Flyknit yarn to recycled polyester which diverted around 182 million bottles from landfills into various sneakers

Revealing both the sneakers in 2012 was specifically planned for the world’s biggest sporting stage, the Olympic Games taking place in London. Naturally there were some doubts by athletes and sportswear enthusiasts regarding the lightweight construction and reduced structure of both sneakers but all evaporated once the majority of Nike sponsored athletes were on the podium wearing their brand new Flyknit sneakers, this included Michael Phelps who sported the infamous “Volt” colorway while receiving his 22nd Olympic Medal. From the Olympic Games, Nike knew their new technology was a hit and sneakers began hitting the pavement not just in a sporting context but in a fashion sense. With the popularity of Flyknit growing at a rapid pace Nike developed breakthroughs on footwear in soccer, basketball and even tennis further solidifying the multi purpose use of the material.

Today the Nike Flyknit range can be seen on some of the brands most iconic shapes such as the Air Force One, Air Jordan One and Air Max One as well as being implemented into new shapes like the Vapormax and Epic React. Collaborations with Flyknit technology have further expanded the streetwear popularity of the technology in particular the Supreme x Nike Flyknit Lunar1+ and Comme des Garçons Air Vapormax have stood out.

The ability to create a technology and have it transcend all styles and trends as well as breaking into the fashion market shows the revolutionary power the material not just had on the sporting industry but footwear as a whole. The material still remains at the forefront of innovation and performance while considering sustainability and the environmental impacts.

Nike Reacting To The Market

One of the more recent technologies from Nike was introduced in 2017 in the form of ‘React’. The new all-foam outer sole set out to create a new benchmark for comfort, durability and responsiveness all while remaining lightweight and the React did just that. First launched in 2017, the Nike Epic React boasted a “13% greater energy return compared to the Lunar sole”. A sole technology that was already highly regarded in the running community just got overtaken.

The React was designed to enhance performance as much as possible while combining it with Nike’s Flyknit technology to create a lightweight runner with an emphasis on flexibility and breathability. Test runners came back with good results and Nike claimed it also had 20% longer durability - perfect for elite long distance running. We also see React technology being used in the React Hyperdunk and Jordan Super.Fly - showing the versatility of the technology and its ability to be used outside of running.

The designers of the React Element ‘87 looked at making everyday movements such as standing, sitting and walking as comfortable as possible. The way to do this was to look at the shape and design of the sole, a drill was the tool of choice and the designers found that using different depths and densities accomplished their comfort goals. While using revolutionary futuristic design Nike also looked to the past for some design elements such as the Heel Clip which is based on the 1981 Nike Internationalist.

The latest iteration of React technology moved focus from elite long distance running to lifestyle; something more suited for a wider audience. This introduced the React Element 87 - a trail-running inspired shoe that has a translucent upper plastic shell, exterior taping, and an exposed lace collar with trail running style laces. This shoe made its debut during early 2018 at Jun Takahashi's Undercover show during Paris Fashion Week. This also meant fans could expect a Nike x Undercover collaboration to come.

Since the birth of the first Nike sneaker in 1964 the company has stayed true to their values of innovation and pushing the barriers of design and technology. Nike has developed their fair share of technologies that have transcended their intended purpose and are now regarded as cultural icons, whether it was through a sporting code such as basketball or athletics they have blurred the lines between sport and leisure allowing for everyday wear. Through Nike’s passion and determination we are blessed to have such amazing choices in the market today.

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