Last week, The Business of Fashion published a fascinating and somewhat disconcerting article that speculated on the future of retail and what it may look like post-pandemic. In it, futurist Doug Stephens discussed how, as ailing businesses of all types and sizes fall victim to the unprecedented “commercial meteor” that is coronavirus, mass-market juggernauts like Amazon and Walmart would emerge stronger and more voracious than ever, penetrating new markets while further cornering industries such as banking, transport, education, and healthcare. Alexa, make me an appointment with Dr. Bezos for 9 a.m.
As the biggest sports company on the planet, Nike might be better positioned to navigate this strange new landscape than most. Yet even it is not totally immune from the so-called “apex predator.” To survive, Stephens suggests companies of this august ilk (see also, Apple) look inward, not only doubling down on the things that propelled them to greatness in the first place — style, innovation, and, of course, great storytelling — but also empowering and connecting with the community. In other words, they become media powerhouses that happen to sell cool shit. The store evolves to become a multi-faceted hub; a place to win minds, not just wallets.
If you’re a design nerd, Nike chief design officer John Hoke would rank right up there in terms of guys you'd love to talk shop with over a beer or two. Hoke is charged with orchestrating much of the company vision, which is a weighty job in anyone's book, not least in the current climate. As the Olympics world’s fair taught us back in February, these are changing times at Beaverton, with the "Move to Zero" initiative taking hold at every level. As the planet burns and ice caps melt, Hoke isn't tasked with merely changing sport — rather, he has to ensure its very survival.
To mark the opening of Nike's new House of Innovation in Paris — the third of its kind after New York and Shanghai — I welcomed Hoke into my kitchen for a Zoom call, where we discussed the evolution of design and the importance of the store going forward.
Paris holds a special place in the Nike canon of design — I’m thinking specifically of the Pompidou Centre and how it inspired Tinker Hatfield’s Air Max 1. What does the city mean to you?
I spent time at the London AA, the Architectural Association on Bedford Square. So I spent lots of time in Paris back in the '80s. There’s a lineage to the work that we do at this company, which is an important handwriting that has been with us for nearly 50 years now. That handwriting is based in problem solving — form and function coming together. And it's also based on an aesthetic. Tapping into a modern sport expression that is reflective of the times and uses cultural references, like the Pompidou Centre.
Nike is a global company and so there's a universal appeal to sports that transcends boundaries and borders. There are hyper-localized, indigenous cultures that are on top of these canvases that make our company global, yet local. One of the most telling appeals of our company is that it can do this duality extremely well.
It’s interesting that you graduated in architecture. How has your role at Nike developed over the years?
I started at Nike a long time ago, in 1992. Before that, I worked for Michael Graves, the legendary postmodernist. I spent time doing industrial design architecture, private residences, graphic design. It was a small shop. I went back to graduate school and, lo and behold, I had a chance to reconnect with a personal passion, which was Nike. I came to being a designer very naturally. It was destiny for me.
I’m dyslexic — I had a hard time reading and writing. My native tongue was drawing. I drew everything as a kid. It helped me understand. I was also an athlete as a young boy. So I was a runner, and I used to run in Nike sneakers back in the '70s. When I was done with my sneaker, I’d saw it in half, looking inside and spending my nights drawing the sneakers over and over and over again.
One summer day, I was floating on a raft in a pool, and I was thinking to myself, "I wonder if I shrank this raft and I put it on my foot, how would that cushion my rear to forefoot transition?" So I drafted up the idea. I sent this drawing to Phil Knight. Believe it or not, Phil Knight wrote me back and said, "When you get old enough, come work for me."
The rest is history.
It was important to me, because it was somebody honoring the fact that I was both an athlete and a designer. I started out working on the original Niketown stores. Then I began to move into product, footwear, apparel, accessories, and then my role kind of grew to what it is now.
As a kid who loved sports, my first visit to Niketown London in the early ‘00s was like Disneyland to me. I remember seeing all the floors — the football shirt printing, the basketball hoops — and it just blew my mind. When I think of it, that felt like experiential retail before experiential retail was supposed to be a thing. Is the HOI a progression of the Niketown idea, or something you’d consider completely removed from that?
Before where we are today — with these hardscapes and mediascapes — Niketown was intended to be a tour de force of design. Everything in the store — the vessel itself, the messaging, the media, the product — was designed together. It was this grand expression of our company. The House of Innovation was just the next chapter in the journey. And what's so exciting for me personally — having been a part of the original — is how we add these architect tonics that make up a store. So, think about the store as a physical vessel, and the decisions that you make as an architect that are fixed in the floors, the wall, the ceiling, the lighting. Those are expressive. And now you add a mediascape onto that hardscape.
Consider you have a personal computer in your phone. You don't have to leave the experience when you leave the store, and you don't have to start the experience at the front door. That experience is 365 days a year. It starts here. So you begin your journey on your phone. As you walk into the store today, the store knows you're there. We're living in a time when we have these plural realities; these plural experiences. Your phone has that intimate knowledge of what you want and like. We're pushing information to you. As you walk through the store, the mediascape is changing based on everything around the world.
It’s crazy how technology is impacting architectural design at a base level in that regard, particularly if you're a traditionalist.
Being trained classically as an architect, our architecture had a beginning and an end. The end was a fixed form, and the form was fixed permanently in history. Today, it's this combination of fixed and fluid, which I find really interesting. With mediascapes and information like this, architecture is no longer fixed. It's a platform of engagement back and forth. It doesn't have to stay locked into a genre or an era because it can be far more fluid as an expression. To me, that's fascinating.
I read a recent interview with Rem Koolhaas where he spoke of how, for the first time, architects were designing buildings not for human habitation in mind, but for automatons. To me, that kinda sums up this brave, maybe scary, new era we’re seemingly on the precipice of, or have already entered.
I think the dominant era of architecture being exclusively about inhabitation versus experience is different. We're creating architecture at HOI as an experience. And that experience is an invitation destination to a community. It’s content-rich and content-fluid, which is fascinating. And its physical parameters can change, which is also fascinating.
This links back to the unscripted joy and drama of sport. When the ball gets set in the pitch and the whistle blows, none of us know what's going to happen. That's why we're drawn to it. That's the moth to the flame. And this architecture is in a similar vein; there's an unscripted joy. There's an emotionality. There's an appeal of seeing what it's becoming and knowing that it's fluid.
It’s almost like we’re moving towards a time when the word "store" is redundant. You used the word “plurality” earlier, and I feel that is the operative word for describing the HOI. It’s a store, but it’s also a community space; an educational place where kids can come and learn about the composition of the Space Hippie, for example.
It is a store, and the plurality is that it’s not simply to transact. It is inspiration, motivation, engagement, education, feedback loops. That is our intention. The intention is that it's a portal, and that portal is an exchange of passion and information between a brand and consumers.
Form follows function, as a design ethos, has been with me since I was educated. I think it's powerful, because it’s the combination of utility and beauty, right? Form and function, art and science put together. I don’t believe that's enough for the future. I don't believe compositionally it's enough. So where I'm taking this with Nike, and the House of Innovation, is pivoting that conversation to be form and function follow footprint.
By that I mean, we as citizen designers have an even higher calling. We have a deeper responsibility beyond assembling engineering and art. We have to be thoughtful about the planet. The selections that we make, the footprint that we leave, should be as indicative of the utility and the beauty as anything we've ever done. And because of that added footprint, because of our responsibilities, I think that's going to change our dialogue as designers for the better. I think that'll change the utility of our product for the better, without any dilution of performance.
I know it'll change the aesthetics. Think Space Hippie. Nothing but good things can happen from bringing that to public consciousness. It’ll force all designers to be thoughtful. That's our responsibility. Part of our job — protect the future; in my case, protect the future of sport. Because I believe sport is a birthright for every generation, and we have to be thoughtful — everything we decide today will be in effect for quite some time. We want sport to be more accessible.
You mention post-pandemic; there’s been a lot of speculation about retail landscape and how these massive corporations are set to dominate the market even further. Their virtue is convenience, but with Nike, it's beginning to feel more about connection. You can tell stories that they can’t; inspire people in ways that they can’t. The HOI is a vital conduit to the consumer in that regard.
We are still social animals. I would take us back to the agoras in Greece — the first marketplace was people convening together in a marketplace to be with each other. And what happens in those places historically was, yes, people transacted, but people told stories.
And people connected. And it's the depth of those stories and that connection that lasts way beyond a transaction. And so I think convenience matters. We're using new technologies in our store to make that happen. I think what people are aching for today is connection, and what I would call a full sensory experience.
The House of Innovation in Paris is a tour de force of design built for all the senses. It’s this hyper-immersive landscape that we hope inspires the community to go do things, do things for themselves, which I hope helps the world.
As for the store itself, there’s a huge women's floor. It’s often thought Nike do sneakers for women better than anyone else — is this a market you really want to assert your presence in, going forward?
The sneaker market is powerful for both men and women. We've put a lot of energy into creating products, sneakers that not just fit her and help her perform, but help her feel good. Help her feel like she can show up and win races, but also simultaneously feel good about herself, flatter her form and figure.
In the apparel space, we're very thoughtful about fit and comfort, but also making sure that everything that we do has a sense of beauty to it. People don't want to buy ugly functioning. They want to buy stuff that looks really good and gives them self-confidence. So when they look in the mirror, they're saying, "God, you know what? I got this race. I can win this ball now. I feel confident about being on the street." I mean, that's really important. So a part of our design is to build that empowered confidence so that all of our female athletes can go out and just be a badass, and win personal records, and just feel comfortable and confident.
What do you hope your average Parisian kid takes away from a visit to the HOI?
We want people to remember that Nike is a company that is here for you personally. Our job is to help win each individual so that they have a sense of empowerment, a sense of self-confidence. They find a community, they find something that they're interested in, and they feel good about what we're doing as a brand. And if they transact with us, they feel good about their product. As I said, a part of the duty is always trying to make sure that we stand for everyone's human potential. And so if the kid from Paris walks out and feels like their potential is yet to be figured out and we're inspiring them to go find how high is high? How far can I go? We've done our job.