Innovation doesn’t appear out of thin air, instead, it starts with a requirement or desire to create something better for some practical application. SpaceX wanted to advance space travel, Apple wanted to upgrade technology, and Nike wanted to make athletes faster and more efficient. Fashion, on the other hand, most people would consider based purely on appearances. However, there’re more crossovers between practical innovation and fashion design than first meets the eye and Nike has been integral to making sure the two remain closely aligned since its inception.
From jeans to bumbags, many designs we now consider fashion items were originally developed as utilitarian. But unlike an old television, when the technology or purpose behind these garments becomes outdated, they can be appreciated for their aesthetic value, and their once-innovative features retain a sense of worth as a knowing nod to the design’s roots rather than characteristics of a relic. Think about it, people don’t throw out a well constructed old jacket or shirt in the same way they would an old phone.
Apparel and footwear designed yesterday for performance are the fashion crowd’s grail of tomorrow. Take Nike’s once-groundbreaking Air technology, introduced in the Air Tailwind in 1978 and made visible for the first time when the Air Max 1 released in 1987, the little air pouch now considered by many a stylistic feature was originally developed by former NASA engineer Frank Rudy for elite athletes. The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star sparks a similar comparison, initially designed as a basketball shoe, the infamous silhouette has gone on to inspire subcultures, music genres, and style tribes around the world, but you won’t catch a single basketball player on the court in Cons today.
Mark Parker, Nike Chairman, President, and CEO
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.
In developing industry-leading performance technology, Nike isn't just working towards breaking records. This has been the case since the brand was formed by track athlete Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman in 1971 with its original flagship shoe, the Cortez, another running shoe turned style icon.
Nike has proven time and time again that it’s one of the very best at balancing form and function. As a result, even once its technology is outdated, many of its classic models resurface and rediscover relevance as new fashion trends emerge. The aforementioned Air Max 1 and its follow up models provide an unparalleled example. While introduced in earlier models as a purely functional feature that Nike employees at the time agreed should be felt and not seen, the legendary Tinker Hatfield turned the air unit into a fashion symbol among discerning sneakerheads. In Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design documentary series, he describes the reaction to early Air Max sketches as negative, to say the least: “It was widely discussed that I had pushed it too far. People were trying to get us fired.”
Today’s innovations are no different and the Swoosh continues to influence both the way we run and the way we dress, pushing limits on both fronts. If anything, with performancewear having permeated fashion and streetwear significantly more since the early Air Max days, it's grown even easier for them to accommodate both athletes and fashionistas. The latest tech to break the mould: Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%.
With the infamous Breaking2 initiative, Nike hopes to support Eliud Kipchoge — called “the greatest marathoner of the modern era” by The Economist — in running the first sub-two-hour marathon and, in place of air units, we have the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%. The 4% has quickly proven its technical ability, its greatest feat supporting Kipchoge in running a 2:00:25 marathon time on May 6, 2017. Although not recognized by the governing body that ratifies world records for reasons including the use of specialized pacers, this time was over two and a half minutes faster than the official world record. Even for less elite runners, the shoe could potentially provide “an efficiency improvement worth almost six minutes to a three-hour marathoner, or about eight minutes to a four-hour marathoner,” The New York Times has reported.
The New York Times
Using public race reports and shoe records from Strava, a fitness app that calls itself the social network for athletes, The Times found that runners in Vaporflys ran 3 to 4 percent faster than similar runners wearing other shoes, and more than 1 percent faster than the next-fastest racing shoe.
On top of its technical prowess, the silhouette has quickly permeated sneaker and streetwear culture too. The Nike Zoom Vaporfly SP received the Midas touch from Virgil Abloh in 2017 as part of “The Ten” collection and surfaced again this year in a new pink colorway followed by the Zoom Fly Mercurial Flyknit during this year’s World Cup. Images of a Nike x Undercover Gyakusou Zoom Fly SP also emerged in July, however, this collaboration is yet to be confirmed.
The design’s influence extends beyond the silhouette itself though. The hugely popular React Element 87, first glimpsed during Jun Takahashi’s UNDERCOVER Fall/Winter 2018 womenswear show, has clearly taken design cues from the NikeLab Zoom Fly SP — a model that captured the early prototype phase of the Breaking2 footwear. “The translucence is a brilliant feature because they can change color based on your sock choice,” street style photographer Chris Fenimore explained to Highsnobiety back in June when we declared the 87 “fashion week’s must-cop sneaker.” Parallels could certainly be drawn with Nike’s Flyknit technology which transformed athletic footwear forever in terms of weight, breathability, and form, but perhaps, more importantly, went on to be used across almost every silhouette in Nike’s catalog and inspire countless brands to create their own knitted uppers.
Nate Jobe, Nike Senior Design Director overseeing special projects
Our collective footwear design team is putting a lot of effort into making product that is technically innovative, but also straightforward and function-driven for urban environments.
Today, you’ll struggle to find a Nike silhouette that hasn’t been given an Air Max sole or Flyknit upper at some point in its history. Nike even celebrates air each year with Air Max Day on March 26, the anniversary of the first Air Max 1 release. Can the Swoosh’s Zoom family and it’s groundbreaking technology have the same lasting impact?
Highsnobiety’s Editorial Director Jian DeLeon described the Zoom Fly SP as “arguably one of the best new silhouettes of 2017” while our Creative Director Edward Chiu previously said, “I don’t think I ever bought six variants of the same model in one single year, but I did for the Zoom Fly. This is my number one choice for 2017.” With records broken, love from arguably the most influential man in fashion right now, Virgil Abloh, and evidence of its impact on other sneakers already apparent, the potential for Nike’s latest breakthrough to survive the test of time is high.
Jian DeLeon, Highsnobiety Editorial Director
It’s a shoe that inspires you to move faster just by looking at it, and when it’s on-foot, you actually feel more aerodynamic. As much as a placebo effect that might be, I can’t deny this shoe made me want to start running again.
There’s been no shortage of releases this year helping the innovation to develop and evolve including the Zoom Fly Mercurial Flyknit, VaporFly Elite Flyprint, Zoom Pegasus Turbo, Vaporfly 4% Flyknit, Zoom Fly Flyknit, and VaporFly 4% — many of which could appear in our “best of 2018” roundups later this year. And with Nike’s track record in playing the long game and creating timeless silhouettes, we wouldn’t be surprised if today’s Zoom supported sneakers will be valuable vintage grails in years to come.
Whatever the future holds, Nike’s Chairman, President, and CEO Mark Parker is confident that the Swoosh isn’t about to run out of ideas: “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.”