The following interview appears in Highsnobiety’s new book with Gestalten: The Incomplete Highsnobiety Guide to Fashion and Street Culture. It releases worldwide on September 17. You can currently preorder the book from Gestalten.
Mark Parker is the longtime chairman, president, and CEO of Nike. He joined the company as one of its first footwear designers in 1979. Under Nike’s “HTM” imprint, he still designs some of today’s most 10 innovative and best-looking sneakers alongside his HTM cohorts—Hiroshi Fujiwara and Tinker Hatfield.
Many of Nike’s products under your tenure, from the Free program to Flyknit, and basketball sneakers like the Jordan line, have found a second life in subcultures like music, skateboarding, and beyond. It’s not uncommon to see some of the most-anticipated silhouettes make their debut on a runway rather than a sporting event. How has the relationship between fashion and sneakers evolved?
I think these two questions get to the root of the same answer: How do we manage to stay true to the athlete—and then open up that access for other “subcultures,” whether that’s skate, streetwear, or high fashion—who will evolve and make our products “their own”?
We start with the athlete. The specific brief of solving an athlete’s problem ultimately dictates how a product will look. Oftentimes, that leads to an entirely new aesthetic. That’s what separates us from many other designers. And really, fashion designers have always told us it’s that authenticity that draws them to Nike.
It’s also helpful that we don’t think of sport and culture as trade-offs. In fact, I think some of the most interesting work we do comes from finding those natural intersections. We look for ways that they can fuel one another.
When it comes to wearing our product, people want both performance and style. Every athlete I’ve ever talked to wants to look good in their sport. And we know feeling like you have an edge on the field or court can translate directly to performing better.
If someone is drawn to our product because they like its style, they also don’t want to compromise. They expect it to be comfortable and something they can wear all day. I personally think there’s a lot of room for innovation in lifestyle comfort. We have some radical solutions in this space on the horizon. Overall, Nike is at our best when we’re exploring that spectrum of performance and style, and giving people more choices to meet different needs.
As far as actively connecting with “subcultures” or “style tribes,” as you have defined them, of course we do that, too. It’s about giving different consumers different connection points to Nike.
And it’s a huge source of energy for us, too. Staying open to all influences takes our designs and our brand to new places. Nike manages the largest lifestyle business in the industry, so we feel very good about our ability to deliver across the spectrum of style and sport.
At Nike, co-founder Bill Bowerman’s quote “If you have a body, you’re an athlete” still figures prominently. Has that changed today as people pursue all sorts of different active lifestyles? To what extent has Nike’s mission to merge form and function helped create a new culture of people dedicated to expressing themselves through footwear?
Bill’s quote created the foundation for our mission statement—“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” And the asterisk signals that “if you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Our bigger ambition is to bring more people into sport and fitness. Right now, there’s obviously a macro-level movement towards health and wellness around the world. That’s great for Nike, and we’ve played a very active role in driving that movement. The work we do ranges from inspiring and enabling athletes to do more—one at a time—to igniting whole new sport cultures in new markets around the world.
Sometimes, our way to bring more people in is through product. I’m proud of the work our teams have done with Nike FlyEase, creating innovative ways to get in and out of product more easily. At the end of the day, we want to widen access to sport and physical activity for people of all abilities and backgrounds. Those striving for world records and those who just want to be active. We want to serve billions of athletes.*
Building on the previous question, do you think modern sneaker culture could be defined by paraphrasing Bowerman’s quote? In essence: “If you love sneakers, you’re a sneakerhead.”
Do I think anybody can be a sneakerhead? Yes.
The HTM line debuted in 2002, starting with the Air Force 1. It was a nod to Japanese sneaker culture. What separated that from American sneaker culture?
HTM was about more than Japanese sneaker culture. Although when it started, the Tokyo mystique was very high. HTM started with the idea of how the three of us—Hiroshi, Tinker, and I—could reconstruct a classic sneaker with a new twist to appeal to a different audience. It evolved into the partnership we have today, where each of us has the opportunity to explore new concepts to push the edges for the company.
And, while it is true there were nuances between Japanese and American sneaker culture in the ‘90s, I think by the time HTM was created there were more similarities than differences. It might have been several years before Highsnobiety was created, but it was still early internet days and there was a shared culture that traveled back and forth from Tokyo to London and New York. In that way, I think people who love sneakers were ahead of many other communities in popular culture. Now, that interplay across cultures is moving at hyper-speed, thanks to the digital and mobile world we live in today. It’s really energizing.
You’ve described HTM as “a place to play and explore new concepts.” The sneakers were limited
because of the constraints of the materials and their experimental nature—sort of like concept cars for your feet. To that extent, HTM is kind of a microcosm for Nike’s current legacy of digging into the past in a way that makes sense for the future. Now that there’s a “canon” at Nike, so to speak, what challenges lie ahead in thinking about new designs that carry the company’s heritage forward? At 45 years old, Nike is still a relatively young company. But in today’s world, it could easily be considered a heritage brand whose provenance is built on some of the most iconic footwear, apparel, and branding. How does Nike’s past success determine its future?
I’ve told this story before, but many years ago I was sitting next to a woman on a plane and she asked me where I worked. I told her I was a footwear designer at Nike, and she laughed and said, “Really, what else can you do with sneakers?”
I look at today and Nike is digitally knitting and 3D printing uppers. We’ve developed footwear that can sense the body and adapt with it. We’re walking completely on air. We’ve helped create a shoe that helped one of the world’s fastest marathoners come within 25 seconds of a two-hour marathon. You can use AR [augmented reality] to shop for our shoes. In some markets, we can give you early access to a shoe that we know you want, and deliver it within hours. What can we still do with sneakers? I’d say we’re just scratching the surface.
Nike has worked not just with some of the best athletes in the world, but also designers, like Kim Jones, Chitose Abe at sacai, Rei Kawakubo at COMME des GARÇONS, Jun Takahashi at UNDERCOVER, and, more recently, Virgil Abloh. What does this diverse range of talent bring to the table
Collaboration is critical to our work at Nike—within our own teams to build on our ideas, and with outside partners who can help take us to new places. Each relationship brings a different point of view or skill that we’re interested in. Once you go through the creative process together, you always learn something. And you might not even realize what that is until you start the next project.
Your HTM collaborator, Hiroshi Fujiwara, told us that “streetwear will also grow old—in fact, it is getting old—and there will be something new in 5 to 10 years, whether it is technology or fashion.” What’s your take?
Streetwear will continue to evolve, but the trends are just going to continue to come and go at an incredible pace. As a company, we’ve embraced that. It means quickly sensing what the con-sumer wants, transforming how we make products so they can get to market quicker, and then connecting with people in a more personal way through digital so what you’re offering is most relevant. All of this change is incredibly exciting.
At the same time, we’ll never forget that what makes Nike special is that people expect us to take them someplace different. As much as we want to get people what they already love, we also want to surprise them with something they didn’t know was possible.
When did you first hear about Highsnobiety?
I don’t remember the exact moment, but it wasn’t long after your site went live.
What are your thoughts on lifestyle digital media that, in many ways, helped create a culture of
discerning consumers on the hunt for best-in-class product?
There’s no question the rise of digital media was like throwing fuel on the fire for sneaker culture. Whether it was early message boards or blogs that would later turn into media and video companies, digital media has been the definitive forum for sneaker storytelling.
When I think about someone like Hiroshi, he has a remarkable editorial sense. He selects, reinterprets, and reconstructs in a very interesting way. He looks beyond the mainstream and celebrates the obscure. In a lot of ways, that kind of passion for digging deep into the details and then sharing creative stories has always been what digital media has brought to sneakers.
As the consumer grows more discerning and educated not just about what they buy, but why they buy it, how do you see consumer behavior and their relationships with brands evolving?
There are many ways in which the relationship between brands and consumers is changing. Consumers demand more choice, they expect you to be more personal, and they want everything faster. Brands have to rethink all of their fundamentals to make that a reality. But, at the same time, it’s opening up incredible new opportunities.
Outside of the products and services, consumers also want to know what you stand for as a company. They’re looking for transparency and they’re interested in what you do outside of serving your own self-interests. We see this as part of the relationship, and that’s why we’re sharing more about how we speak out against inequalities, or help get kids off the couch to exercise, or consider the environmental footprint we leave behind. All of it matters, and we’re always looking for ways to move the world forward through sport.
For more information on sneaker culture’s evolution and a look at some of the most memorable Nike silhouettes of all time, preorder The Incomplete Highsnobiety Guide to Street Fashion and Culture.