It’s easy to remember the 2012 Olympic Games, when the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won gold. The image is still burned into my retinas, not from the athletes’ blinding smiles, but from what they wore on the podium that evening: Gray and black tracksuits punctuated by electrically lime Nike “Volt” colored sneakers—a color that was suddenly everywhere, and is still fetishized by the high-design techwear industry. Volt has continued to be the color of progress in sports, a literal, brighter future looking right at you—and so over the years, Nike has resurrected it for important product launches.
But at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, the tracksuits and shoes that Nike will provide athletes are a complete 180 from previous years. The uniforms are neutral in color—they appear to be white, but are actually a very faint gray. “This year . . . it’s almost a denial of color . . . that we think is gonna be [the standout],” says John Hoke, chief design officer at Nike. He jokingly calls the new aesthetic “rawthentic.”
Nike is reading the room: Both Japan and the Olympic Committee have made sustainability a big priority for the 2020 games. If all goes as planned, they will be be powered 100% by renewable energy. Disposable plates and cups will be made from 65% renewable material. The city is trapping rainwater to be used for cleaning venues. Even the medals themselves are made from recycled materials—the precious metals inside were mined from 47 tons of old electronics, donated by citizens across Japan.
Why the lack of color? It’s both a function and symbol of sustainability as Nike moves to what it calls a “zero waste” production process. The jacket is made from 100% recycled polyester. The pants are made from 100% recycled nylon and polyester. The shape of its silhouette makes some concessions for efficient, puzzle piece-like pattern cutting, which allows Nike to use almost all of the fabric on a spool in the garments. Nike could have dyed the material, but instead, the company left it raw to signal its own virtue.
“Color is a super important aspect of what people put on their bodies. We try to leverage color to announce technologies,” says Hoke, noting that Volt has been used for this in the past but a neutral like gray or beige is today. “I like to go back to how nature uses color, to attract species or repel them. There’s a power in how we use color to attract in our products.”
Nike isn’t the first company in performance apparel to consider sustainable garments, and how they could change the entire aesthetic of what we consider fashionable. Most notably, Adidas has experimented with textiles woven from plastic that could allow a “Loop” shoe to be recycled anew, much like you would dispose of a plastic bottle. Their color? White with an ever-so-subtle yellow tint. Meanwhile, its partner Yeezy recently announced shoes made in part from algae-based plastics. Their color? A dusty beige. One Adidas executive even predicted recently that the sneakerhead market could soon shift, so that worn and dirty shoes will be the hauter approach to footwear, as consumers want to signal that they are woke enough to resist buying the latest thing in the interest of our planet.
Nike’s medal uniforms do have some color, though. And where it comes in is a further advertisement for Nike’s sustainability story. The swoosh on the lapel is made of Nike grind (the branded name for ground-up old Nike shoes, which feel a lot like confetti made of rubber). The shoes are a spin on an upcoming line called Space Hippie, which will be available to consumers this summer.
“Space Hippie is a collection of products; it’s an exercise of constraint. If you were in a space capsule and something went wrong, you only use what’s onboard,” says Hoke. “You’d use ingenuity to MacGyver things together. We restrained our designers and said, ‘This [factory waste] is all you have. You have to use this to create a product.'”
Space Hippie shoes feature a Flyknit upper—Nike’s sock-like yarn that it weaves into shoes—made from 85% recycled material ranging from T-shirt scraps to water bottles. Its outsoles are made from 15% Nike grind, giving them the dotted look. The periwinkle outsole color is from the spillover of making foam outsoles for other Nike shoes.
The medal stand Space Hippie shoe uses a mix of colors in its weave—and Nike’s actual performance garments at the 2020 Olympic Games will feature plenty of color as always. But the commercial Space Hippie upper that will go to market this year is more or less a woven burlap sack on your feet. (The high-top version pictured above is particularly striking. It features a chunky set of straps and tabs on top, which seems to hint at design partner Virgil Abloh’s zip-tie tags while capturing the repurposed Apollo 11 aesthetic with gusto).
“We’re not disguising anything. The material is the material. It speaks for itself,” says Hoke. “In years, we’ll look back and say a single-use product is never a good thing. Great brands and designers [will need to] rethink and reimagine materials over, and over, and over again.”