In the mid-’80s, Nike released the Air Force One. It was the first sneaker to incorporate its pressurized air technology that absorbs shock to help athletes perform better. But, to everybody’s surprise, the shoe became an instant fashion sensation on the streets of New York. They were so popular in Harlem and the Bronx that they acquired the nickname “the uptowns.” “It’s just one example of how sport and design collided,” says Adrian Fenech, Nike’s senior brand director for North America. “It created a bond between Nike and the New York City community.”
At New York Fashion Week, Nike is paying homage to its roots in New York City with events throughout the week as part of its “New York Made” series. On Thursday, Nike revealed its collaboration with Comme des Garçon, which resulted in a re-conceptualized Dunk Hi shoe with a clear panel that allows wearers to express themselves through the socks they wear underneath. On Saturday, at Bergdorf Goodman, Nike had a party to celebrate Riccardo Tisci’s new design: a Dunk made of high-end full-grain leather.
At the cult sneaker store Kith, Nike displayed a collection inspired by its 50 years of creating shoes for basketball players, featuring one iconic design to represent each decade. “We’re listening to athletes about ways that shoes impact performance, but also hearing about their passion for luxury materials,” says Fenech. “We’ve merged the two, responding to their day-to-day needs, as well as their style inspiration.
To cap things off, Nike unveiled a new version of the Air Force One designed by Acronym’s Errolson Hugh, which retains elements of the iconic shoe, but incorporates futuristic elements like a quick-release fastener to make it easier to get into the shoe. “Errolson is all about form and functionality,” Fenech explains. “The original shoe had heel tabs that allowed ease of access. But Errolson took that idea and moved it forward.”
This concept of “moving forward” is a big theme at Nike. Fenech says that the company is trying to push the boundaries in terms of innovation, by creating high tech products that improve athletic performance, but it’s also working to push ahead as a fashion brand. Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO, began his career at Nike in the late ’70s as a designer and believes that design thinking should infuse everything the company does. (To keep his own artistic instincts sharp, he still occasionally collaborates with designers Tinker Hatfield and Hiroshi Fujiwara on limited-edition sneakers as part of the Nike HTM Project.)
Nike is constantly working on deepening its fashion credentials. One place this happens is the Nike Lab, which Fenech oversees. This is where many of the experimental collaborations begin. When picking partners, he explains that it usually begins when he discovers fashion designers who already have a passion for the brand. But then, Fenech determines whether the relationship has the potential to push Nike into new territory. “We look for partners that can stretch us,” he says. “We like relationships where it is mutually beneficial to learn from each other.” These insights then trickle through the company, influencing the more than 650 designers who work at Nike.
But Nike also stays focused on the needs of its most loyal customers, who have always found ways to incorporate sneakers into cutting-edge streetwear looks, much like the New Yorkers who took to the Air Force One three decades ago. Then there’s the sneakerhead community that is passionate about each new creation that Nike brings to the market. Fenech says that these consumers tend to be drawn to narratives about how shoes fit into culture and history. “Ultimately they’re galvanized by stories,” he says. “When we spend time with consumers in this world, it’s all about collections of stories that connect our products with their day-to-day lives.” The collection of shoes inspired by five decades of basketball was a way of speaking directly to this community and showing how basketball culture has helped inform fashion trends on the streets.
Nike also tries to be as specific as possible when speaking to communities. With 63,000 employees around the world, it’s able to focus design on the cultural nuances of a city, country, and even particular historical events. Fenech says that New York Fashion Week gave Nike’s designers an opportunity to think creatively about responding to the needs of fashion-forward New Yorkers, but at every big cultural or sporting event, such as the Olympics, there’s an effort to create products that are relevant. At the 2012 Olympics, for instance, Nike developed Flyknit technology, made of ultra-light yarn, which was designed to improve athlete’s performance and manufactured in a highly sustainable way that prevented waste; Nike was deliberately sending an environmentalist message at a moment of maximum global impact. The shoe quickly became a fashion symbol in its own right. “It was picked up as a trend and now allows us to push through new expressions of style,” Fenech says.
In the end, though, while fashion and style are important, Fenech says that performance innovation must always come first for Nike to stay at the cutting edge. So it’s a constant balancing act between investing in the slow, deliberate process of developing technology and keeping up with the latest styles. “We’re very aware of trends, but in order to push forward on our innovation agenda, we work on long lead times,” he says. “This means trying to tune into moment-by-moment trends as we go along with the help of athletes and collaborations with external partners. It allows us to try new things along the way.”