As a fashion journalist, when you attend a two-day beast of an event drawn out to the extent of say, Nike’s Innovation Summit, you often wonder why it is that mega maisons can’t immerse you into a similar level of technical nous. I’ve come close, scratching at factories, ateliers and studios but it’s not really the same as members of Nike’s design team giving you the nitty gritty of every seam, material choice and dazzle.
In a mostly male-dominated room – yeah, Hypebeast, Soccer Journal, Runner’s World I’m looking at ya – the level of reverance and geeky-based fandom bestowed on each Nike product unveiling was visibly palpable. By the end of the two day summit, held in New York last month, “dope” had unwittingly entered into my vocabulary. Everything was in their eyes, “dope” and you’re inclined to agree with them. It’s precisely why I signed up for the two-days of indepth immersion. It IS a lot of terminology and tech specs, leaving the way a product is created, exposed and that somehow feels like an antithesis to a mainstream fashion world that glosses over those details.
Nike’s overarching theme this year for their Innovation Summit was themed around the idea of personalisation. Or as president and CEO of Nike, Mark Parker put it in his opening speech, we have entered the “era of personalised performance.” What this means is that somehow, the sort of language that was perhaps once the domain of luxury brands, such as words like “customise”, “personalised”, “tailor fit” – is now being filtered through Nike’s product and service offering. Trevor Edwards, Nike brand president sees this as the company’s missive to bring these once-elite values to everyone. “It’s democratic yet premium. Those two things don’t have to be at odds. Technology has enabled us to give what was once reserved for elite athletes, to everyone.”
The most obvious high-low unveiling of the event is Nike Lab’s more fleshed out and heftier collaboration with Riccardo Tisci. After a successful series of riffs on the Air Force 1, Tisci, with the encouragement of Nike Lab, wades into training apparel for the first time. The results are unsurprisingly clothes that will see life outside of the gym or running route with cheeky slogans like “Engineered to the exacting specifications of Riccardo Tisci”, a 2-in-1shorts over leggings combo garment and a multi-genus floral pattern combining flowers from Oregon (Nike’s home), Taranto in Italy where Tisci hails from and Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics will be hosted.
The first part of NikeLab x RT Training Redefined collection
The second drop of Nike Lab x RT Training Redefined collection
The product that perhaps caught the most headlines is Nike’s HyperAdapt 1.0. Translation = the physical and real incarnation of vice president Tinker Hatfield’s original self-lacing trainer design for Marty McFly in Back to the Future. “In the future, product will come alive,” remarked Hatfield as he envisioned this as a theoretical concept back in 1989 as a shoe for 2015. That year has been and gone but the idea has now become a reality.
In the flesh, we gawped, oohed and aahed as Hatfield and Tiffany Beers, senior innovator at Nike explained to us that after years of testing, a shoe designed primarily for basketball would self-lace once your heels slide in and hit the sensor the push of a button. One by one, we got to try a pair on, and despite the prototype being three sizes too large, it was still something of a giddy shock to feel the lace guard section of a pair of trainers tightening around the arches of your feet, and loosening, depending on which button you pressed. There’s of course an immediate danger that a shoe that makes it onto the headlines of Fox News, might be perceived as a gimmick. Hatfield and Beers were keen to stress that HyperAdapt is a platform to build on so that a real automated and symbiotic relationship between foot and shoe could be developed.
This initial incarnation will be available exclusively for Nike+ members later this year but the goal is to evolve that technology so that it feels essential and indispensable – the holy grail for almost new tech innovations, and in particular in wearables, where we’ve yet to see that milestone lightbulb moment. “The trick is to make the person not feel like they’re loaded up with sensors,” said Edwards. “You don’t want to give people another thing to charge. The product will become more simple and more intuitive and more adaptive for the everyday consumer.”
Gary Warnett of Gwarizm trying Nike HyperAdapt 1.0 on
A close-up of Nike HyperAdapt 1.0
Then there are practical problems that Nike Innovation Summit seemed to be dealing with – almost putting the solution in the forefront of the design. There’s Nike’s Anti-Clog technology for football boots, where a specially formulated sole is able to repel the accumulation of mud that get stuck in the cleats. There’s the new advanced Air bag placed in the VaporMax Air shoe, where the traditional foam midsole is discarded and makes the idea of an entirely cushioned air-filled sole a physical reality. For advanced runners who prefer a barefooted feeling “ride”, the Nike Free RN Motion Flyknit sole has been retooled with new fusing techniques. Am I beginning to lose you? Is it all starting to sound like gobbledygook?
Demonstrating Anti-Clog technology on football boots
Nike Air VaporMax featuring an entirely unobscured Air bag unit
New Nike Free RN Motion Flyknit with the newly tooled sole
Air Force 1 Flyknit making it the lightest Air Force 1 ever
Multi-coloured yarns visually representing Nike FlyKnit’s currently more precise and targeted way of constructing uppers down to the individual pixel
That’s par for course in Nike land when such jargon won’t matter to 98% of their customers. The proof is in the physical pounding of pavement. It seemed to me that problem solving was also strategically placed centre stage at this Innovation Summit. Competition is building up from both major players and newcomers and the range of aesthetics in sportswear is now mind boggling. How do you differentiate in the invisible areas outside of aesthetics? They’re banking on the benefits of say a pair of leggings that will cool your legs down versus a pair that don’t.
Nike’s new line of “tights” for spring 2016
Nike Vapor kits reduced in weight and increased in elasticity
Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit made with a custom shoe last and spike plate for athlete Alyson Felix
In the athlete specific innovations seen in these Olympics 2016 kits, notable features such as the fabric being made out of recycled polyester and an anti-drag design of Nike AeroBlades stood out.
Athletes from Brasil, USA, Germany and China demonstrating the kits that will be in action in Rio
The other major push for Nike was in the servicing aspect, specifically integrated into the new Nike+ app that will be relaunching in June. This is Nike again, going beyond mere aesthetics to try and make the “invisible” more invaluable. “It’s your all-access pass to your potential,” explained Edwards. “Everyone can come in as an individual and we can service that individual with product and service customisation. It’s like having a personal trainer and equipment manager with you all the time.” This shifts Nike+ from previously being an information dashboard – i.e. something that the FitBit or their separate Nike+ Running app fulfils – to being more like a member’s shopping and training club, where you’re alerted to new product releases and Nike events and can speak to Nike experts one on one. At one portion of the Innovation event, everyone was given a gold box (mine contained a pair of NikeLab x Riccardo Tisci Dunk Lux High) to physically represent that sneaker head golden-ticket feeling of scoring a pair of limited release shoes.
In my follow-up post, I’ll be delving into Nike’s idea of design personalisation from the development of their ID services to their less publicised “Bespoke” service for that ultra level of product customisation. From the Innovation event though, the main take away was that in a crowded market, Nike is distinguishing itself further with technical prowess as well as extra added value services. Beyond Nike, the word “personal” will only become more important in the way we interact with brands. For Edwards, this is how he sees the future of Nike’s domain – sport. “Products can become increasingly more personal. It’s this idea of putting technology in the background and people in the foreground.”