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Sneakers August, 8 2012

A Conversation with James Carnes – adidas Creative Director of Sport Performance

At the launch of the adidas adiZero Primeknit at a dedicated pop-up store off the famous Carnaby Street in London, we had the chance to have a insightful chat with James Carnes, Head of Design for Sport Performance at adidas (who headed the shoe’s project) and spoke about matters about the comparisons in designing for lifestyle and performance, and footwear and apparel. Joining us was Alexander Talyor (pictured in the blue polo) — one of the UK’s leading designers and was heavily involved in the adiZero Primeknit project — spoke about the significance of knitting technology in production and the future of it. The adidas adiZero Primeknit is available exclusively at 10 Newburgh Street in London until August 12.

What’s the difference, if any, in designing footwear and apparel?

JC: Well there’s lots! In general, the starting point for both and adidas at least, is about creating a product that works for a sport. There are inherit differences in terms of the set of materials that you start with and the processes that you go through to create them, and how that effects the design process. Footwear in itself is a holistic product, where it has usually different components that need to work in a system. Whereas typically in an apparel project, it’s more about how the fabrics work with the body – drape. Similar, but the differences are more subtle in the end.

It’s a very timely release for the adiZero Primeknit to launch as the Olympics are to kick off. How long has the shoe been in development?

JC: We started this project in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics and we saw two things happening. One was we were creating product with adiZero which was about reducing weight and simplifying the process of the creation of the shoe, and we wanted different views on how to create the product differently. We brought in a couple of different industrial designers to give us different points of view and to start the project with us. And in 2008, we worked with Alex on this and he started working with us on the idea of knitting. We thought if we do this, we want to be able to uphold all the standards we have for performance and do something that is going to change the way we make shoes – not just bringing in or importing a process into the way we make shoes now. So it’s been a 4 year journey.

AT: I was invited by these other guys and to work with James with the intention to set out target as London 2012, it being a good launch pad for this and also a launch for a way of setting an example of a way of thinking – an intention. The point of view of the brand is important. Beyond just a single product, this is going to spill out. This is going to evolve and come into other products and process as well which is what we’re working on now. We’re working on different things to knitting, but knitting makes total sense from a production point of view because we can be so specific with the yarns and the construction – we’re only using the material that we need to use [via] a single process.

Now we can talk about engineering the actual material that builds the yarn and be even more specific with what’s in front of us right now. From that we have a real platform to start – this is where it’s all going to come from. It’s no coincidence that people are thinking of this way, but I think the way we have approached it now is that this is it, it’s a start and this is our intention for the future and we’re going to build on this now. We’re designing in a different way, we’re no longer putting essentially shapes on a page. We’re being intelligent and speaking to scientists (including chemists) to brief in what we need, what we require from a point of view of material. Then we’re going to let the material do the talking and let it dictate the aesthetic, and therefore, what you see. It’s a knitted product, therefore, it looks like a knitted product – that’s what it is. But the key difference is that it’s integral, it’s all there – one piece.

It’s one that you can’t just see on screen. You actually have to explore it, feel it. That’s when you understand how much time has been put into these details. There’s a foam included in the knit [holds shoe and points at heel] which adds the comfort that is required. There’s an aesthetic based on pure function to get the stability. It’s essentially a 360 breathable shoe because it’s knitted.

From that point of view, it’s something that you need to engage with as with every product that we have to engage with, that we live with, these days to understand what’s around us. To actually question it and to understand how things are made, and we can beyond that – that’s just another aspect of sustainability, that’s beyond than just the material. Another big part of it is the fact that these have been produced in Germany essentially, which for me, is a big plus for the project.

Could you briefly outline the research efforts that went into producing the Primeknit eg. athlete testing?

JC: The athlete testing was based on our standard testing with athletes for running. We have a base of athletes in Germany and around the world we use for testing running shoes and basically this is state-of-the-art, so we’re even currently in the process of developing it further with the same athletes. It fits into the same top standards that we apply to all of our products.

Any athletes in particular?

JC: Like I said, it’s brand new! Typically, the products that you see on our athletes at the Olympics, they’ve been testing for a year and we get them out to them because there’s a lot of fine tuning that needs to be done and we want them to be able to go through world championships and Olympic trails, and when they show up at the Olympics, we want it so dialled that they’re ready to win a gold medal.

So this thing, like Alex said, we worked toward getting it done by the Olympics and we’re here. We chose the Olympics for our chance to celebrate and have fun with this.

AT: Naturally you’d have developers within the country and are wearing, using and developing the product, so they’re as skilled as anyone at a certain stage to do a job and that’s where they’re fully involved, and it’s handed over to the athletes at the right time.

JC: One of the cool things about adidas is not just developed, designed and created for athletes, it’s developed, designed and created by athletes. The people that we have in our company are so passionate about sport they use the products themselves, so it’s the extra insight you have by having a developer used on this who understands the intricacies of every detail.

Fundamentally adidas is a sports brand…

AT: Exactly. It’s performance based product, that’s the natural part of the process anyway — you have a direct dialogue with an athlete, the top athletes who are in the games. You take their response from there and you react to that response — that’s just the way that you work. For this project, it’s just the way that the brand works. Like you say, it’s crucial – its a lightweight high performance product which is key. In fact the way that it looks is due to process and the rest is there in front of you.

You unveiled lifestyle products at Portland Fashion Week for Spring/Summer 2012 and have helped develop adidas collections for Stella McCartney and Yohji Yamamoto in the past. Do you ever consider the transition of sportswear to lifestyle in your designs?

JC: Of course. I think one of the amazing and beautiful things about adidas is that over our history we’ve developed things at the top level of performance and we really recognise and embrace the idea that those things can mean more than just what they mean to top athletes. They can mean something in terms of comfort or just the beauty of innovation. Or the aesthetic that it brings to people like are interested In high fashion – that was one of the foundations of our Y3 project, merging the two together – high fashion and high function. It’s a part of who we are.

As you may be aware the Primeknit technology is similar to a competitor’s recent release, what’s your response to this?

JC: In simplest terms, we’re excited to hear and see that other companies are investing in the same things that we are pioneering and we’re looking toward the future. The more people that take responsibility for where we’re going, the better.

AT: It’s no coincidence that people are working on similar ideas. It’s always been the case and will always been the case. It just shows that you’re at the top of the game. The technology that’s being used anyway is varied – it’s not all the same technology. You have to go deeper to understand what machines are being used and what results you can get from them. It’s something that’s around at the moment and it’s responsible to be looking to construct in that way. You can look at the two products and If you understand the two products, they’re very different products and that’s key.

JC: The thing we’re proud of most is that we achieved the ultimate goal that we set out to achieve. It’s not 14 out 16 parts, it’s 16 out of 16 parts all into one with pretty high standards and getting there, knowing that we’re the leader in that sense, it feels great.

Previously working in design and now in performance, what are you more comfortable with?

JC: I started my career as a designer – my background is in industrial design and it’s been a really long journey for me to embrace and learn about every aspect of the products we create. To be in the position that I am in as the Creative Director of Performance gives me a chance to affect athletes and consumers lives from head to toe, holistically. I get a chance to create new experiences that go beyond fantastic incremental updates that we do as well, so it’s been great.

My background serves me well in terms of expertise and I learn new stuff all the time from the amazing talent that we have within the company, and also working with people from around the globe like Alex.

This year is a big one for athletics – were the Olympics your call to produce a groundbreaking product such as the Primeknit?

JC: We worked towards something innovative process by the Olympics. We also had all of our energy focussed on continuing to create world class product for every single sport. We also launched the adiZero Prime – believe is the world’s lightest track bike at 3.5 ounces which is 62% lighter than what we had for the Demolisher in Beijing. It has a thinner plate – a totally new stepped plate that increases acceleration and allows for better landing. All those things continue. Our goal is to have something innovative in terms of process and that’s what we’ve achieved with this.

Credits:

Interview: Denis Yong

Photography: Magdi Fernandes

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