In addition to speaking with Brazilian fashion designer Pedro Lourenço, the man in charge of overhauling the Nike Air Rift at Nike’s sneaker culture event in São Paulo, we also had the opportunity to chat with Nike Footwear Design Director Jonathan Johnson Griffin about the upcoming Air Force 1 Ultra Flyknit.
For as long as Nike’s most iconic silhouette has been around, very little has changed as far as appearances go. Lauded for its status in street culture, the sneaker exudes a sense of familiarity that has helped it become Nike’s best-selling shoe of all time.
While change can sometimes be a tough pill to swallow, Nike took some very necessary steps to ensure that the Air Force 1 continues to secure demand. By marrying the original silhouette with Nike’s breathable, lightweight Flyknit material, never before has the shoe seen such a drastic change.
Can you talk us through the background and processes behind the Air Force 1 Flyknit?
We’ve done a lot of amazing things with the Air Force 1 in the last 30-some-odd years, so we wanted to know and decide what the future of the AF1 could be and what it could look like. It was not until we took a trip to Paris and to fashion week, where we really started to come up with solutions. One of the challenges we did with the team was to wear the AF1 the entire time of the trip, over the course of four or five days. And when you wear the AF1 24/7 for that whole period of time, you really get to feel it.
I naturally love the AF1 anyway but as a sneaker collector myself, I’ll probably never wear a shoe back to back like that. So it was a challenge for me to actually wear a triple white AF1 Low for five days straight and that challenge actually gave us some deep insights on how we wanted to move the shoe forward.
I took a lot of notes on the shoe and that became the first sketch of the the AF1 Flyknit. You’ll see lines that go around where the shoe creases so one challenge would be trying to eliminate those creases.
We actually took an older Flyknit upper and took the sole out of it and created the AF1 sole unit in 3D and glued them together to feel what it would look like. I then drew the lines of the AF1 on the Flyknit itself so it was truly a “3D” sketch from scratch. Overall, we wanted to develop something that you could wear 24/7; a shoe you can wear at the boardroom, school, club and it transitions with you – aesthetically or functionally.
Would you say this was a rather different process to your past designs?
It was actually a combination of all the processes I’ve used on other shoes. Most of my sketches for this one were mainly in 3D (on the shoe itself), as well as a lot of mock-ups digitally. We also did a lot of work on the tooling because we wanted to maintain the authenticity of the concentric circles on the sole. You have this primary, concave tooling and a thinner cut so it helps the shoe flex. And by the shoe flexing a little bit better, it’s one way of preventing the creasing at the top of the vamp that we were talking about earlier. It’s still grounded in the original function: pivoting and flexibility.
The change also helps you wear the shoe longer as there is less energy needed in the heel-to-toe motion. The sole has injected phylon tooling, similar to the Roshe and to other products that we did in the modern era, where you’re literally sitting on that foam. We even replicated the texture. Ultimately, it’s way more comfortable as there’s nothing between you and the foam.
Were there any other design elements that you had to keep for the authenticity perspective?
Yes indeed. For example, I believe there are 52 stars on the outsole of the tip and heel, and we wanted to maintain the same formula. We also took the “Air” on the side wall and we inverted it. So we wanted to present this as a modern AF1, but at the same time, it’s lighter. The one thing I was really passionate about was the aim to have this have strong DNA links to the original AF1: how do we make it modern? how do we push it forward, but still keep it true to what it is?
So another thing we did was construct the Swoosh, backtab and strap out of leather. We never used leather and Flyknit together, so it was a big thing for us to combine the best of footwear materials together. It was a long process to figure out how to make them go together in the right areas. Even if you look at the lines on the original AF1, the Flyknit version actually echoes the design line for line.
Also we were able to finish it off like how it was created in 1982 by Bruce Kilgore. The backtab for example, instead of embroidery, we did it in deboss. So it feels a little bit more modern but still has the same exact design architecture we started with.
One of the most iconic things about the AF1 is the curve and linear lines of the eyestay. And this is the very first time we did something like that with Flyknit because the eyestay literally curved around, and the curve is one of the most unique features of the AF1 along with the perforations and the vamp – how it subtly raises around the toe box.
It took a lot of engineering in the Flyknit program to raise the tip of the shoe, so there’s actual dimensions to it. It’s almost like you’re telling a story to a young kid who didn’t know about the original AF1, and you don’t really want to miss out the details, you want them to have the same details you fell in love with.
How about the deconstructed aspect of the shoe, compared to the original?
That’s the key element of the Flyknit program, so it’ll wrap your foot a little bit more; a little less volume so your foot is more stabilized. The Flyknit also makes it more breathable.
So this stems from the original Flyknit philosophy, the zonal design following the heat map for example?
Exactly. The shoe that I was wearing in Paris, I basically mapped everything. Being a footwear designer, you automatically have it at the back of our mind where the wearing patterns are, where the heat patterns are. But by actually wearing the shoe physically, you start to highlight and notice the priorities such as the vamp, or other things that are just nice to have.
I like how the strap is still detachable because when I wear the Mids, I always take them off as I just like a cleaner silhouette.
Same here! That was a big conversation as that’s how I wear my AF1 Highs, I like to wear them a little bit more free, but then with the lows, I like to wear them pretty snug. So we definitely went back and forth and really decided on if we should do it or not, but we ended up doing it detachable because of that reason.
How do you balance the old & new tech?
To be honest, we didn’t even know we were going to do Flyknit. The brief was just “How can we design the future of AF1?” And by wearing the AF1, as well as speaking to consumers in New York and Paris, the insight was that we needed to make it lighter and make it relevant. So based upon materials, the Flyknit yarn gives us the best option for the weight and form that were needed to meet the requirements set out.
What are the differences between designing the LeBrons, for example, to revisiting an icon such as the AF1?
In this case it pushed me to think differently because it was about how the shoe felt, as much as how it looked. With LeBron extensions, it was how to extend the aesthetic of LeBrons to a higher fashion audience. And here we have to do that too as the AF1 is one of our most beautiful icons. We had to think how to move it into the future and make it functionally better. When you start to look at the architecture of an icon, it’s automatically a different design process compared to a signature athlete shoe.
The athlete normally gives you a range of great insights to develop and design the shoes, but with working on an icon, the only insights you’ll get are from the lovers and haters of the icon, the people who originally worked on the icon, as well as the people who don’t wear the icon. Once you open the narrative, you really start to think about every stitch on the shoe because there must be reasons behind it.
So as a designer, you have to look back and ask yourself, “What is still relevant today?” That’s really how we came up with using Flyknit and created the lightest AF1 ever.
Having worked on the AF1 already, if you could pick another icon from Nike’s archive to re-work, which would it be?
That’s a good question…I would probably say the Command Force because it was such an iconic shoe for a period of time. You automatically think of the Command Force showing up in White Men Can’t Jump and also what it meant for the ’90s. I was in the team that brought it back around two years ago and we literally spent so much time replicating the speckle/volt paint feature so that it looked exactly like the original.
Flyknit Command Force?
[Laughs] It could be something else by then! It might be some other innovation we haven’t even dreamed up yet! I think that challenge to me just feels like a really interesting one.
I’ve read that you draw inspiration from anything and everything. What has been the most ridiculous source of ideas to this day?
Probably the one that most people know is the LeBron “Cork.” It was just like, “what do you do when you win a championship?” You pop a bottle. So we literally took that idea and applied it to a shoe. When we shared it with LeBron, he was like, “that’s amazing!”
That was actually the first extension (into lifestyle) we ever did. The whole point of doing it was that we wanted to tell LeBron that we’re right behind you for the championship and this is the shoe that is going to be symbolic for your first championship – and the rest was history.
What are your thoughts on people bringing technical shoes to the streets? Do designers somehow have that perspective in mind when designing?
Most of the time, the aim is to think about how a shoe can be worn 24/7. We’re in a point in time now of sneaker culture where it’s a competitive advantage to think how the shoe can be worn from the boardroom to the street. For me, personally as a designer, also as a purveyor of sneaker culture, the biggest passion is how to push the culture to a number of different places.
“We can’t look at the culture as one big canvas anymore, as people are re-imagining what sneaker culture is in their country, their home, their neighborhood.”
Can you tell us your latest appointment as the Creative Director of NIKEiD?
My team helps build out all the palettes the consumers get to create their own shoe. One of the things that we were looking to do with Bespoke and NIKEiD is to curate the highest level of premium palettes that people can pick. An invitation to come and do the best of our icons, so we develop the options and also influence the actual personalizations they could do.
I’ve been a designer at Nike for 10 years but when you start to talk about a digital ecosystem where people can design their own shoe, you really dive into the psychology of why people do certain things; why people wear a lot of black or bright colors.
So for me, my biggest thing is to create less design anxiety. The aim for consumers is to come to iD and have fun. They can get exactly what they want or they can discover what they want. My job is to curate those options and put them out there for people to see or to reference from.
What are your thoughts on the emerging market in China?
When you look at the Chinese market, there are a lot of collectors who have been around for a while. And then there are a younger generation of consumers who are trying to figure out what their place is in sneaker culture. We’re still yet to figure out what their taste is for sneakers and it would eventually evolve into a really great system of its own, but I think they’re still learning the culture from around the world.
Overall, I think the best of sneaker culture is the future of sneaker culture in my opinion. What it can be. It might be different for China than to Western Europe, or to Central Europe or America. We can’t look at the culture as one big canvas anymore, as people are re-imagining what sneaker culture is in their country, their home, their neighborhood.
And being a part of that as a brand is probably one of the most special things I hold near and dear to my heart as I can be part of these sneaker culture re-imaginations. And through NIKEiD, they can wear their own designs, their own shoes and wear their own expressions, while sharing those to their communities where they start to take it on.
While living in a different digital age, you can actually have an influence on those global communities a lot more – an exchange of communication through sneakers and cultures. I think the next generation will definitely push the culture further and that’s probably the best part for me as I get to be a part of it and I actually want to be a person that learns about it and teaches about it at the same time. I want to be the student and the teacher as sneaker culture continues to evolve.
The Air Force 1 Ultra Flyknit debuts in Flyknit favorite, multicolor, and University Red for Nike Sportswear, plus a classic all-white Air Force 1 colorway for NikeLab. It’s available now on Nike.com/Techbook (Nike’s interactive and shoppable lookbook) and January 28 on Nike.com and retailers worldwide.
- Interview & Photography: Edward Chiu