After catching the eye of Nike CEO Mark Parker, Errolson Hugh, the design maverick and co-founder of progressive tech-wear label ACRONYM, was given the task of breathing an entirely new life into the sportswear giant's ACG ("All Conditions Gear") sub-label. The line's transformation, which included a rebranding under the NikeLab banner, has been met with some of the most polarized reactions in Nike history, as Hugh translated his working ethos of practical ergonomics, disruptive design and substantial build quality to ACG's former aesthetic, resulting in something radically different.
Abandoning the brightly-colored, wilderness/hiking perspective for a much darker, more urban-centric design language, NikeLab ACG, under Hugh's supervision, has been one of the most influential players in molding the relationship between stylish and pragmatic within the world of technologically-savvy apparel.
By seamlessly blending form and function, each of Hugh's designs are guaranteed to offer comfort, versatility and style in equal measures, ensuring that the wearer is able to adapt to whatever environment they may find themselves in.
Coinciding with the launch of ACG's Holiday 2016 collection, we met up with Errolson Hugh at NikeLab's newly-opened Chicago retail space to talk more about his design philosophy, what challenges he faced when he first joined the Nike family and how he's been able to make technical clothing appeal to such a broad audience.
What is it about NikeLab ACG that attracts both a more fashion-forward consumer as well as your average one that shops a bit more modestly?
Everybody appreciates the same thing in their apparel more or less. You put it on, you look good, you feel good and that’s it. Even if you don’t understand it like, say, a more avant-garde fashion consumer, who can probably get what’s going on semiotically such as why the fit does what it does and what it says, your average person, who may not have that design knowledge, can put on a garment and somehow subconsciously just get it. Fit, material, quality – all of the basic fundamentals for a designer, they’re all pretty universal for every consumer.
The line between "fashionable" and "practical" seems to more blurred than it has ever been, with consumers growing increasingly less keen on sacrificing one element over the other. Do you think that you had a heavy hand in influencing this movement with ACRONYM?
I’d like to think so! I’ll leave that for other people to answer. From the get-go with ACRONYM, so like since 2002, we’ve always tried to look at technology as an object of quality, so it’s not really about technology per say in the end; it’s more about what’s the best possible way to build this thing. A lot of the times that means using a super high-tech material, but that doesn’t always have to the case. I think that the practicality aspect of something is actually the same thing as the quality of it.
The size and weight distribution of a good pocket bag can go into any jacket, it doesn’t matter what it looks like on the outside. So if you’ve taken the time to engineer a good pocket, to me that’s a sign of quality and attention to detail. Subconsciously, the person who is wearing it is going got get that even if they don’t realize anything about the construction element, and I think that’s something that a lot of fashion designers often overlook. And it is a lot more work.
"Comfort, versatility and weather protection" were the three tagline words used in the collection's press release. If you absolutely had to pick one of these things, which one would it be and why? Do you think one can have priority over the other?
I would actually say that one can't have priority over the other; it's the entire package. There might be a clothing system, but you're not thinking about the system when you're wearing it; you just want to put the stuff on and you want it to work. Obviously the fleece inner layers don't have as much elemental protection as the outer shell, but that's the job of the designer to build the right things from the right materials so that it all becomes seamless.
All of the layers work together with each other, but you know, we don't want to necessarily explain that and be like "you have to wear this underneath that" or whatever. It should just work.
What characteristics about Chicago do you think the collection will compliment most?
The first thing I did when I got here was walk outside to look at Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture; I had just arrived and my hotel room wasn't ready and they already took my bags away. I was debating whether or not I should have pulled out my ACG Alpine jacket because the one I had on was pretty light, but then I figured, "Nah, I'll be fine" – boy did I regret that! I froze my ass off. So yeah, ACG will definitely fit right in with the city's climate, no problem.
Any major urban environment you're just going to go through all of these different climate zones – whether you're going from inside a department store to the subway or outside through a wind tunnel created by all of the skyscrapers. ACG can handle this sort of thing, that's what it's designed for.
You've mentioned that science fiction and futuristic, dystopian narratives are pretty big influences for you. What aesthetic elements about Chicago fit with these references?
I really like the skyline and I was immediately struck by the architecture because it's incredibly diverse. I really like the multilevel streets like on Wacker Drive, I find them super fascinating. It's a very Instagram-friendly city (laughs).
Noting that ACG’s earlier iterations had a more outdoorsy, wilderness perspective, what prompted this shift to fit within an urban setting?
That was all Mark Parker. From day one he was like, "Don't reference anything we've done before, I don't want to see any of the crazy color schemes that we're known for, none of the same design language. Make it triple black, stealth and sophisticated."
So the work for us was to figure out how to do this in a way that was legitimately NikeLab ACG and convey the same spirit, but without using those previous references. So yeah, that was the challenge.
How do you incorporate multiple functionality in a single garment?
I think that really comes down to experience. We've been making this stuff for close to two decades now, so we've literally made hundreds of jackets, pants, etc. It's kind of hard to sort out how to even subconsciously do it, it's just always in there. There are just things that will always work and do always work; human bodies are all the same and do the same things, bend the same way. The biomechanics, because that stays constant, those principles, from pattern-making to fit and proportion, stay the same.
And then you're just going to have preferences, like there are just things that everybody will find useful, so we do are best to always put those in and make them as unobtrusive as possible or removable – so if you don't want to have the carrying strap, you can just pop it out in two seconds. But if you do leave it in there or don't notice it, you may find that it could become useful one day, like a surprise similar to when you find a $20 bill sitting in an old pair of pants (laughs).
You've stressed how important the relationship is between your clothes and mobility; creating a garment that facilitates everyday movement. What fabrics, silhouettes and embellishments were incorporated in the collection to address this?
I think the number one thing is the fit block, which in apparel is like the chassis in a car. You don't really see it necessarily but it's the thing that everything else is built off of, it's the platform for the garment. For ACG we came up with all new fit blocks that were specifically created for the collection, and in doing that, we've ensured that all of the full-range of motion and the articulation/ergonomics of the style were built into every single piece.
We came up with this thing called an "all-conditions fit," which was inspired by the way athletes stand and how they're always in this sort of "ready" stance before they're about to make a movement – flexing the limbs and coiling yourself together so that you can ultimately uncoil to move.
So rather than drafting the patterns in a standard way, which would be a straight-standing still body, like how a suit is cut, we drafted them in motion. That gives this articulation about the range of motion and produces a really interesting silhouette, which is why you can look at a classic ACG pant, and even though there aren't many visible features on it, you get the impression that it still looks different.
It's a subtle effect, but it's definitely something that you'll notice when you don't have it, especially if you've been wearing ACG pants for a while.
See how NikeLab's ACG Holiday 2016 collection stacks up in the streets of Chicago.