Material innovation is central to Nike’s DNA. ACG, ISPA, and the brand’s famous Innovation Kitchen at its Beaverton, Oregon WHQ are a testament to that. But one of Nike’s most interesting — and frankly underrated — innovation projects is its longstanding partnership with Swarovski. That project has reached a climax this week with the announcement of the duo’s crystal-shroud-clad Air Force 1s.
On the surface, the Austrian luxury brand is a designer and manufacturer of jewelry, watches, and crystal decorations. But under the surface, Swarovski is a formidable innovator in its own right. For several years now, Nike and Swarovski have been collaborating on footwear drops ranging from the sparkling Air Max 97 to, more recently, a PE of Naomi Osaka’s signature on-court shoe.
The partnership’s product has been around since 2016, when the aforementioned AM97s dropped, but it had been in the workings for much longer. Swarovski and Nike began talks eight years ago, and every collaborative sneaker released since then has been an exercise in material innovation. Together, the two brands have explored what crystals and their reflective properties can bring to footwear. A bejeweled sneaker is nothing new (hello Jimmy Choo), but a bejeweled sneaker that serves a specific function and looks good? That’s what Swarovski and Nike have been building since their partnership kicked off.
“Swarovski and Nike have been launching covetable and innovative products together for five years now. We are great collaborators, bringing the best out of one another and proving how collaboration between creative partners elevates both to new heights,” Swarovski interim CEO Michele Molon tells Highsnobiety.
To understand the significance of the crystal shroud Nike Air Force 1, one must first understand the project as a whole. On its own, the Swarovski crystal-clad AF1 is a beautiful take on an icon that introduces a brand new reflective technology — retro reflection — to the footwear world. As part of a long-term investigation into material innovation, it represents the latest step in a move by Nike and Swarovski to reimagine visibility in sneakers.
“With all our Swarovski sneaker partnerships we had a lot of fun exploring the edges of what’s possible for shine, reflectivity, and embellishment through advanced design, development, and manufacturing,” explains Nike’s Marie Crow, senior creative director of women’s lifestyle footwear. “This AF1 takes that to the next level by incorporating our most challenging reflective development to date with generative design and modularity to get to a really fresh look and update to the AF1. It’s a kind of co-creation with the wearer, designing options that allow them to customize their reflectivity based on their look, activity, and mood.”
Each step along the way, Swarovski and Nike have brought a new innovation to the table via their co-branded drops. Spring 2016’s Air Max 97 was an exercise in using crystal fabric on a Nike sneaker for the first time. The VaporMax that followed in 2019 actually incorporated crystal beads in the knitted upper, while the Jordan Air Latitude 270 LXX in late 2019 attached fine crystal rocks to the inside of a strap on the upper, allowing the wearer to reveal and conceal the reflectivity at will. Cactus Plant Flea Market’s recent Nike Dunk Low, which is perhaps the most popular Swarovski-infused sneaker to date, featured applied crystals with an imperfect topography, resulting in a stunning light show.
The Nike Air Force 1 LXX features a shroud outfitted with specially-placed crystals that are retroreflective. This means that, like the road reflectors that directly inspired the project, the crystals reflect light directly towards the source. Normally, crystals reflect light at an angle based on where the light is coming from and where on the crystal the light hits, but the way Swarovski’s retroreflective crystals are shaped, light is always directed right back to where it came from. The shoe’s shroud consists of four pieces, all of which can be taken off individually with a special co-branded screwdriver, making the shoe highly modular. The sneakers arrive in triple black and triple white, two of the silhouette’s most iconic colorways.
What you’re getting when you buy a pair of the Swarovski-embedded AF1s is 126 years of crystal innovation, literal road reflector technology, and a totally new reflectivity concept combined with one of, if not, the most iconic sneaker in Nike’s catalog. It’s why the crop is the perfect crescendo in Swarovski and Nike’s partnership thus far. “We know style and finishes are meaningful innovation for [our female consumers], so when we multiplied that insight with Swarovski’s expertise, we were able to design industrial-strength reflectivity into a fashion application for the first time,” says Crow.
While this particular project is technically categorized as a women’s release, the evolution of the products reflects the general trend towards more unisex offerings in the sneaker industry. As Highsnobiety’s own Lucy Thorpe wrote in her think-piece on gender equality in the sneaker marketplace, women don’t want to be pandered to. They want the same iconic designs made available in their sizes.
The fact that Swarovski and Nike have worked on the Nike Dunk (via Cactus Plant Flea Market) and now the Air Force 1 speaks volumes and is a huge stride in the right direction. Without a doubt, the Air Force 1 will appeal to both female and male sneakerheads alike, which underlines the great work both brands have done to apply their respective expertise to the current sneaker zeitgeist.
“Material innovation can transcend gender, and we’ve seen our partnerships with Swarovski be widely coveted,” Crow explains. “We find when we start with women’s insights, we get to unique design outcomes. In this case, we are solving for an edge of city expression through reflective embellishment which feels bold and protective and can be styled up and down through customization. Anyone is welcome to adopt them into their AF1 rotation, to style in their own way.”
The Nike Air Force 1 LXX is set to be released on December 2 exclusively via the SNKRS app. The sneakers can be checked out in-store starting today at Swarovski Instant Wonder concept stores in Zurich, Paris, NY (Rockefeller Center and Soho), Los Angeles (Century City).