Just under a year ago, I was watching Mo Farah cross the finishing line at the Olympics Stadium in Stratford. Remember those tripped-out happy months when we were ALL dissecting the ins and outs of anything from coxless four in rowing to slalom to dressage to double trap shooting, regardless of whether we had watched these sports beforehand? A year later, and I was lucky enough to go out to Portland and shamelessly "pose" on the track at Nike's Beaverton campus in Portland Oregon, where Farah trains on a regular basis.
That I was so giddy and excited to be stepping on to that tranquil track, surrounded by Portland's natural lush woodland, is testament to my own change of attitude towards the physical act of pushing your body. I'm still hoping the half marathon I did in San Francisco last year is the beginning, not the exception to continue that feeling of epiphany I felt when I crossed the line. I've spoken previously about being "active" and how that has permeated my personal style. In short, I don't want to be a useless potato of a being anymore.
Therefore, when Nike invited me and Steve to come to their "campus" as it is known (the word headquarters is not quite the right terminology), the beating heart of this billion dollar company, the obvious answer was to say yay. Plus, we were already on the West Coast and to go from the palm-dotted expanse of L.A. to the far more walkable/cyclable city of Portland (and to experience all of "Keep Portland Weird" isms) felt like a brilliant way to cap off our holiday.
It had been five years since Nike had gathered journalists from all over the world together at their campus and the reason being this time was to unveil two footwear and two apparel innovations guided by the Nature Amplified design ethos. Nike 101 lesson #1 Always Listen to the Athlete. This was a quote expounded by Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman of Nike and was underlined again by present CEO Mark Parker.
"Innovation is everything at Nike. It's the core of our character. We use innovation to serve human potential. It's the answer to limits," declared Parker in the opening to this media summit.
As we whizzed through the landmark innovations which Nike have pioneered – Nike Air, Free, the Speed Suit, Nike +, Fuel Band, Flyknit – the thing that we were made to understand was that you had to innovate to move forward. When Bill Bowerman, the acclaimed track and field coach at the University of Oregon, poured rubber into his wife's waffle iron and created the successful 1974 Waffle Trainer, that waffle iron duly went into the bin. He had moved on. And so it is that Nike continues to push it and I, the person who works in the ever-schizophrenic, style-over-substance world of fashion, looks on in awe. You can ignore what I said about not being one to fangirl because I fan-girled pretty hard on Parker during our interview. Not my finest hour but I did get some good wordage from Parker.
"We're not afraid to go some place new," said Parker when asked about why it is that Nike has retained such a monopoly in its field and also physically on the streets. "I'm always conscious about getting too comfortable with success. Thinking that 'This is working, and let's just keep doing it.' We have to keep pushing forward – not new for new's sake, but new because it's better. Many companies have problems with that. I don't want to feel like a big company. I want to feel small and entrepreneurial." That's a stretch of a thought for a company that has over 40,000 employees and just posted profits of over $2 billion but the proof is in the way Parker still involves himself in the design process, observing and connecting with all the relevant teams to have open dialogue about ideas.
"We have a very open culture where we try to minimise hierarchical structure," said Parker. "I see good ideas coming from interns. It's fresh and insightful thinking and we celebrate that and encourage them. We'll have charrettes where we get a group of designers together – graphic, product, architectural design - we put out a problem and see what they come up with. So often the best ideas don't necessarily come from product design."
The best example of this would be Tinker Hatfield, another Nike don entrenched in its hall of fame. On the second day we were lucky enough to listen to Hatfield speak about designing the Air Max shoe, an iconic gamechanger in footwear design in general, let alone the trainer field. Hatfield came from a corporate architect background but he was also a cartoonist and a cross-discipline athlete. When he joined Nike's design team, he said the atmosphere was "utilitarian" and the company was also in dire straits as its profitability was down. Hatfield's mighty inspiration brainwave for the visible window in the Air Max shoe was looking at the Centre of Pompidou in Paris, and marrying up its inside-out aesthetic with a technically advanced shoe. The Air Max 1 debut was initially met with derision and controversy. Hatfield obviously had the last laugh though as the Air Max, in all its subsequent incarnations has been something of a benchmark shoe for Nike. Therefore Hatfield's design legacy was that by serving the athlete and striving for high levels of innovation that might appear renegade at first, you could also capture the wider populace's imagination. Hence why Nikes do dominate the feet of the street at large. Why sneaker heads foam at the mouth at every new release. Why Nike' authenticity has seduced the fickle beings of the style world and why have had the ability to crossover seamlessly from the performance world.
On that note, I probed Parker about the balance between functionality and aesthetics. How does he see that balance at Nike? An interesting story concerning the late Alexander McQueen came up. "We don't start with aesthetics," asserted Parker. "We start with the functional. We're able to solve problems in very unique ways ways – new manufacturing methods, new materials, new constructions, new ways of prototyping – you will create a new aesthetic in that process."
"I've spent time with designers from the fashion world. For example, we had a great meeting with Lee McQueen at his height. He wanted to come and partner with Nike and create a collection as he was a big sneaker head. I was curious as to why. He said 'With Nike, you are pursuing performance in a pure way. The aesthetic comes from the process of solving problems. As a designer, I'm somewhat jealous.'"
A similar sentiment is felt by many designers that I've spoken to as they often have admiration for Nike's ability to a) give time and b) resources to devoting themselves to pure unadulterated functionality. The incredible thing is that the bi-product of that devotion is a completely new aesthetic – something that we've not seen before. Innovation is a word that we're often seeking in fashion but time and time again, come up short because the current timeframe of the fashion world doesn't allow for real innovation to develop and come to fruition. As an example, Parker compares the cut-and-sew techniques of trainer making to a collage and the technology of Flyknit to airbrushing, allowing for precision and that has become a powerful tool.
That tool forms the basis of the two shoes we saw but with wildly different results from when we first saw the debut of Flyknit last year. We padded around different surfaces – grass, gravel, woodchip, foam – in just our socks to connect feet to ground. That's the basis of the Nike Free Hyperfeel. It's the first time where the Lunarlon cushioned insole touches the foot and has been worked with a Flyknit upper for that seamless and light quality, that makes Flyknit so mind bogglingly wicked. It was indeed a bit of a strange "feet" sensation (feetsation? footsense?)when we tried it on, bouncing about on the grounds of Nike campus, both grass and tarmac. It felt like the shoe wasn't there and that when you did run or walk, the shoe would absorb all outside pressure. The shoe makes its presence known though with the neon waffle outsole and the Flyknit lines dancing across the foot.
Another Flyknit hybrid is the Free Flyknit where you could visibly see the technology of Flyknit working its way all over the foot in bands of colour that accentuate pressure points on a foot. It's supposed to be like a second skin, fitting your feet like a sock and when combined with the Free sole that moves with the body. The designers spoke of different "rides" when talking about the shoes and the sort of running experience you had with them. Techno mumbo-jumbo means nothing unless it functions well and that's down to the run. The Free Hyperfeel would give you a "nice and smooth" ride and the Free Flyknit was a more "natural" ride. Unfortunately it would always be in my nature to ignore any potential "ride" experiences and hone straight into the glorious colourways, which the Free Flyknit will be available in from 1st August. Tri-colour neon green, orange and blue were obviously my combo of choice.
On the apparel side, we saw natural meets manmade as the slubby feel of a cotton tee, the warmth of wool and the breathability of a knit worked with Nike's Dri-Fit technology so that you basically don't sweat when you're running. Climate control is the main agenda for Nike in their running gear as they also develop Aeroloft – a perforated down material, which gives you warmth but also for heat to escape when you're running up a sweat, tested in the most rugged of conditions in New Zealand and Japan. Having run in all manner of garments – a mix of high street, sports brands and miscellaneous – I've found that function is one of those things that takes precedence. The shoes are where you can go all out in aesthetics, but when you're working up a sweat and materials start to rub causing heat rashes that's when the technology of material really comes into its own.
The second part to our Nike campus experience took place in the Nike Sport Research Lab, where all the "science" comes. The real secret lair to Nike is their innovation "kitchen" where all of the juicy stuff gets cooked up but seeing NSRL was the next best thing. I'm not one to throw science around for effect but basically they look at the way a human body moves, gathering as much data about how muscles are exerted during a run, how a foot takes off when a basketball player goes for the kill, how feet swell up in size during physical activity, how a body's temperature changes in different environments etc etc. It's a seemingly infinite laboratory where physiologists and scientists extract as much data as possible to then inject into design. How that is done? That would be telling apparently. The point is that all of NSRL's gadgetry and gizmos exist for a very real and accountable purpose at Nike – to always listen to the athlete.
Nike's need for secrecy is justified were some elements we weren't allowed to divulge but could only glimpse at. Nike Sportswear for S/S 14 and all the new Air Maxes for instance are looking quite insane. There were audible gasps in the room when we were shown this product. Grown journalists, writers and photographers literally sallivating when secretive white boxes were removed to reveal the shoes.
After speaking to Parker, Nike's various designers and seeing the campus itself, you can see why onwards and upwards is ingrained into all its endeavours. A tour of the campus was like going on a life-enhancing motivational walk. The rough cobblestoned steps through a fountain was meant to symbolise the fact that you had to watch your step as you grow. A case of numerous Air Jordans showcase Nike's most successful partnership with Michael Jordan, which almost didn't happen because he originally wanted to wear adidas. The $35 swoosh logo designed by Carolyn Davidson in 1971, which didn't impress Knight at first but became a "grower" – something asymmetrical and odd can dominate if given the right context. "There is no finish line" and the all powerful "Just do it!" slogans resonate not because they're relevant to just Nike's products and ethos but because they can be applied in so many other instances. I come back to the that beautiful track where the surrounding trees and seclusion made the path look like it would go on and on forever without a definite finishing point. It was exactly the right sentiment to take back home from Portland.