Launched 30 years ago, the Air Max 1 put an entirely new spring in Nike’s step. The transparent bubble in its sole promised increased lift and a soft landing, but it was the shoe’s design and the sole unit’s open architecture – its designer, sneaker-freak deity Tinker Hatfield, said he was inspired by the Pompidou Centre – that gave the Air Max 1 its iconic appeal.
Now, after eight years of development and thousands (126,000 to be exactish) of miles of testing, the sportswear giant has launched VaporMax, a radical new sole of sculpted air-pumped plastic. Nike insists its minimalist series of pressurised ridges and canyons represents an evolutionary leap as altitudinal as the Air Max 1. Matched with a Flyknit upper, VaporMax-equipped shoes can do without the structural support that, as even Nike admits, created a frustrating gap between what the air-filled bags promised and what they delivered. There is now much less between you and your air.
The new sole was first previewed on a limited-run Commes des Garçons design, which has just debuted, alongside the more standard issue Nike Air VaporMax. But to give the launch extra lift, Nike, or more properly NikeLab, is also putting out a second collaboration with the industrial designer Marc Newson.
Newson and Nike first collaborated on the Zvezdochka, or Z-Doc as Nike insiders understandably prefer, launched in 2004 and reissued ten years later. The shoe was made of four interchangeable parts, including an injection-moulded outer shell. Although produced in a limited run, the shoe’s innovations in terms of design and manufacturing had a huge impact on Nike’s thinking.
Newson’s NikeLab Air VaporMax has a different ambition. ‘With the VaporMax project, the mandate wasn’t to reinvent the wheel,’ Newson says. ‘It was just to take the sole and build on top of it. The sole is inherently high tech. And I think that it is fairly literal from a visual perspective. You look at it and it looks techy and you can see the amount of time that has gone into figuring out how this thing works. And it does work, really well.’
In design terms, though, Newson has gently jogged in another direction, adding a leather moccasin-like upper – a full-grain leather chassis is cross-stitched to a Flyknit woven sock liner and features a Velcro strap. The look is comfortable, casual and almost earthy. ‘I wanted to demystify the rest of the shoe, to create something that wasn’t too intimidating. I looked at the sole – and of course it didn’t exist in any other product at the time – and thought, “What would I like to own, what would I spend my money on?” I’ve come up with the type of shoe I could wear every day. And that is the approach I take with most of the things that I do. It is ultimately a very utilitarian thing and you have to feel comfortable wearing it. And I have been.’
Newson also understood that Nike wanted him to be part of a serious pivot for the company. ‘Well, I had been aware of this technology for a long time. I witnessed it evolve over the last eight years, I knew enough to know how profound a development it was within the company and how important it was. I knew it was going to be iconic.’
As originally featured in the May issue of Wallpaper* (W*218)