Normally you’d find contemporary art hanging in the Rook & Raven Gallery in London’s Fitzrovia. When I interview Kim Jones, there’s a rail bearing the collaboration between NikeLab and the designer himself. In this creative white space, the bright colors - inspired partly by the upcoming Rio Olympics and partly by an old Air Max 1 colorway - pop even more.
Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director of Men’s Collections has been drafted in as part of Nike’s Summer of Sport initiative, for which the Swoosh has brought its A game, and indeed team. Jones is the main subject of the current exhibition, but in the next room are rails of NikeLab x Riccardo Tisci, Nike Gyakusou by Jun Takahashi and NikeCourt x Roger Federer. They really are a team, too. “I was talking with Riccardo, Jun and Hiroshi [Fujiwara],” says Jones. “You get different ideas flowing through.” We’d kill to lurk on that WhatsApp group.
“Humble” is overused nowadays, not always sincerely. But Jones seems genuinely, endearingly surprised and flattered to be working with the sportswear giant. To the rest of us though, it’s hardly unexpected. After all, we live in a world where a luxury label’s designer wears Nikes for the curtain call of his Paris catwalk show - a world that Jones, as with the trainers, helped create.
Here he and Kurt Parker, VP of NikeLab Apparel, talk to Highsnobiety about bringing artistry to the arena of functional clothing.
How did the collaboration come about?
KJ: I’ve known Nike for a long time, and we’ve always talked about doing something together. But it had to be the right moment, and feel authentic. We talked about two key items: the Windrunner, which I used to wear when I used to BMX, and the LWP, which is very underrated. I wanted to do something with a shoe that hadn’t been touched before and it was the one I really liked. So I took Nike my old pair, which are in quite bad condition, I have to say...
KP: It was a bit of a surprise, yeah…!
KJ: The fabrics didn’t really last well. I bought mine deadstock in Miami about four years after they came out. I saw them in Boom magazine, I think, and I was like, “Oh my God, what are those?” I found a pair years later and I was just like, “Yes.”
KP: We spend a lot of time assessing athletes’ needs on the track or whatever it may be. What Kim brought was this idea of a collection of things that any athlete would need in one bag. All of the items fold, pack and roll, then they all fit into the bag along with your laptop.
KJ: I was just really thinking about making athletes’ lives as easy as possible, because time is luxury. That, and "the sport of travel." I get so bored going through airports. I love flying and reaching the destination but taking everything out of your bag in security... I’m really methodical about that now, and this bag makes it easy.
Is that why sportswear is so “fashionable” now: comfort and practicality?
KJ: I’ve always thought of it like that. I mean, my graduate collection was about that. Men like comfortable clothes. It’s just modern dressing. I enjoy doing tailoring but I wear a suit very rarely. My day consists of doing a thousand different things and running to meetings every half an hour. It’s a mini-marathon, so you want to be comfortable. And every single brand in the world is looking at the fabric and construction in sportswear, because it’s at the forefront of technology.
KP: We’re learning more and more that the same insights we get from our athletes for performance are perfectly relevant for sports-style innovation as well. Like Kim did with this Windrunner - the way that the color’s been applied is without any seaming.
KJ: It’s like origami basically. It was designed flat and we folded it up to get it like that. Then the minimizing of the seams, using heat taping. Each size is slightly a different cut because the fabric’s made in checks and the squares are uniform in dimensions.
KP: The number one thing we hear from athletes is that any seam or ridge on the garment disrupts their flow. So we try to create a zero-distraction environment, and this might be the ultimate expression. Kim’s insight on eliminating the seams for packability actually led us onto a garment with far less seams than we would have created on our own.
KJ: I was looking at a lot of Nike stuff before our meeting and thinking, “What can I bring to it?” Everything that they do is so brilliant. Like the Free Orbit: I thought they were the best piece of design I’d seen for a long time. I was obsessed by them. You have all these really amazing designers in-house. So I’ve got to bring something to the table.
Why did Nike want to bring you to the table, do you think?
KJ: I understand what sportswear is. I’ve been doing luxury purely now since 2008 and I love that - it’s brilliant. But to be able to come back and do something like this is a real honor. And my favorite thing is my name in the Nike font, which is the first time ever it’s happened. I don’t know if anybody’s asked before. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Major life goals. Nike is now the most valuable apparel company in the world, not just sportswear. From an external perspective, why are they winning so hard?
KJ: Technology. There’s really four key areas - the fleece, the nylons, Dri-Fit and then the wovens - that they focus on. That’s why we chose these fabrics. And they just excel.
KP: We focus on athletes and their needs, which keeps us very pure. Then when we work with innovators from outside the company, like Kim, it expands into things that we may not focus on. That supports the idea of NikeLab: we can try things here, and ultimately the things that we learn find their way into other parts of the product line over time.
People still draw a distinction between sportswear and “Fashion” with a capital F. Is that gradually disappearing?
KJ: I do think it’s disappearing, and I think luxury or “Fashion” is looking towards sportswear. I had to ask my CEO for permission to do this, and he was like, “I love Nike. Just make sure I get the first pair.” The technology from sportswear informs a lot of stuff. I imagine every design studio will probably buy one of these and study how it’s made.
KP: People are realizing that performance plays a part in your everyday life. Everyone expects things to look great and they expect them to work. We think if we leverage what we know about performance, and bring in the aesthetic, then we find a really unique place.
There’s this concept now of "luxury sportswear," but a lot of the time you sacrifice the performance element. Doesn’t that defeat the point somewhat?
KJ: Completely. We couldn’t do this at Vuitton because it would just be impossible: we don’t have the facilities. And I think Nike’s strength is that they have their “pillars” - different to Vuitton’s - and you can’t compete because they’re the best at doing those. Like how Vuitton knows what bags we’re good at, what clothes we’re good at.
KP: From our brand, people expect performance. They assume that if it’s from us that it’s going to work, and we want to deliver against that.
What’s most satisfying as a designer: coming up with something technically sophisticated, or seeing people wearing your clothes?
KJ: I like seeing people wear clothes, always. So I love that Nike take this into a more commercial realm. And I like that I can impress Nike, because they impress me all the time.
KP: We love solving problems. This was a really challenging problem technically.
KJ: On paper it looks simple.
KP: It’s accessible. Whether people obsess over it the way we did…
KJ: Well, the people that read your publication certainly do.
The NikeLab x Kim Jones: Packable Sport Style collection will be available July 23 at nike.com/nikelab and select NikeLab stores.