Lots of surreal flower arrangements are dotted around the Blue Ribbon Studio in the heart of Nike’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. They were made by the Nike designers who had attended an ikebana class there a few days before.
“We had a blast,” recalls Angela Snow, who, as Nike’s senior director of design culture and community, runs Blue Ribbon. “Nike has all these great studios and labs, but we were missing a place where our designers could experiment by working hands-on and trying out new things. This is it. They can come here and make mistakes, like the guy who tried screen printing for the first time. He did everything the wrong way, but people were coming up, saying, ‘How did you do that?’ ”
Not that flower arranging and screen printing are the only things that the 1,000-plus designers employed by the $100 billion sportswear behemoth can do there. Blue Ribbon, named after Blue Ribbon Sports, the company started in 1964 by Nike’s cofounders, the accountant Phil Knight and his University of Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman, occupies an entire building on the Beaverton site. It is equipped with, among other things, carpentry and metalworking tools, 3-D printers, stonewashing machines, a library with more than 2,000 art and design books, and locally roasted Stumptown coffee on tap.
Indulgent as it sounds, Blue Ribbon has a robust commercial agenda. In addition to inspiring ideas for new products, the experiments invigorate the designers and encourage them to look at their work from different perspectives. Another benefit is that the more those designers enjoy life at Nike, the longer they are likely to stay; the possibility of hanging out at Blue Ribbon also helps lure highly sought-after candidates to join the company.
“We want to hire the brightest and the best design graduates from all over the world,” Snow says. “They have lots of options, but when they see this space, it often seals the deal, because it proves how important design is to us.”
Nike’s zeal for design has made it a defining force not only in sportswear but in popular culture. Its sneakers have become so ubiquitous that millions of people scarcely wear any other brand of shoe, and so fetishized that fashion designers as varied as Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garçons, and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing clamor to design them. Coveted Nike dead stock, like its vintage Air Jordan and Air Force 1 basketball shoes, sell for thousands of dollars a pair on the $1 billion–a–year resale market. And Nike is the biggest brand on Instagram, with more than 69 million followers.
“Nike was founded on the very essence of design,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. “The company begun by a track athlete and a coach has designed whole new sports, new markets, and new ways of life.” Among the 99 examples of archetypal 20th- and 21st-century clothing and footwear that will be on view as part of “Items: Is Fashion Modern?,” opening at MoMA in the fall, is a Nike Air Force 1 sneaker.
There is plenty of evidence of Nike’s commitment to design on the 400 acres of Oregon forest and marsh now occupied by the Nike campus, with its running tracks and trails, soccer fields, volleyball and tennis courts, and six-acre lake. The on-site gallery and numerous displays are packed with lovingly conserved relics of the company’s design heritage, beginning with the battered waffle iron with which Bowerman made the soles of his track team’s shoes in 1971. Gleaming studios are equipped with advanced prototyping technologies and chunks of surreally futuristic materials, and decorated with photos of designers posing alongside LeBron James, Serena Williams, and other Nike-sponsored athletes. There are more arsenals of technology in the Nike Explore Team Sports Research Lab, Innovation Kitchen, and the newly built manufacturing research center. The work in those facilities is so confidential that only a few hundred of Nike’s 70,700 worldwide employees are allowed inside.
Nike is also one of very few big global corporations whose chairman, president, and chief executive has a background in design.
“When I look out into the world, I realize that I’m unusual in evolving from designer to CEO, but not here,” says Mark Parker, a lithe, tracksuit-clad 61-year-old. He joined Nike in 1979 as one of its first footwear designers. “Our culture is an obsession with innovation and making things better by listening to the voice of the athlete and combining that with incredible advances in technology. It’s a natural part of who we are, and who I am,” Parker says.
Design means different things to different companies. Most apparel brands are dominated by style, but Nike’s focus is on function—specifically, on helping athletes to shave seconds off their times, or to jump that extra inch higher on the basketball court. The seeds of its design culture were sown when Bowerman started making adjustments to his track team’s shoes, Knight’s among them, in the late 1950s. By the early ’70s, Bowerman and Knight were selling soccer cleats, as well as Bowerman’s own designs. They called the shoes Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory. Bowerman, who also coached the U.S. track team in the 1972 Olympics, continued his experiments at home and tested the results on his students, including a talented sprinter and pole-vaulter, Tinker Hatfield.
“I’d try on a pair of his experimental track spikes, run around the track in them, and report back,” Hatfield recounts. “I wouldn’t just give him a verbal report, I’d draw my ideas—and he loved that.” Hatfield joined Nike in 1981 and is now, at 64, vice president of innovation and creative concepts. He has designed hundreds of athletic shoes, including 18 different Air Jordans with Michael Jordan, and bespoke footwear for Kobe Bryant and Roger Federer. He dresses for his role as Nike’s superstar designer in a fedora—“kind of my prop”—and 1998 Air Jordan XIVs that were inspired by the Ferrari 550 Maranello. He and his brother, Tobie, Nike’s athlete innovation director, have designed special shoes for the past six Olympics for competitors in their favorite—if not particularly lucrative—sport, pole-vaulting.
Like Hatfield, both Parker and John Hoke, the vice president of global design, are sports nuts and self-taught sneaker designers who have spent most of their working lives at Nike. Parker is a political-science graduate who, as a member of the track team at Penn State University, customized his running shoes and still develops design ideas with Hatfield the old-fashioned way, by exchanging sketches. Hoke, 52, ran cross-country as a kid and was so curious about the construction of his Nike sneakers that when he was 12 he cut them in half to see how they were made, and sent his design suggestions to Knight.
There is a cultish air to life at Nike. Employees can be seen jogging or cycling across the campus in beswooshed sneakers and fleeces throughout the day. gone running signs are hung on office doors. The canteen menus feature forensic-level nutritional analyses of every dish. The bigger campus buildings are named after elite Nike athletes, including Bowerman’s early 1970s protégé, the track star Steve Prefontaine, and the tennis legend John McEnroe.
Tributes to their triumphs are displayed in the foyers beside rousing quotations, such as Knight’s “Always listen to the voice of the athlete” and Bowerman’s “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” There is even a corporate lingo. The orange campus bikes are called by-kees, as in ny-kee, and the sales team includes product specialists known as EKINs, Nike spelled backward.
Nike still tests its design innovations on athletes, just like Bowerman did with his students, but the methods have evolved dramatically. Secreted in the basement of the Sports Research Lab is HAL, a high-tech dummy that sweats, enabling technicians to measure airflow and test how apparel responds to extreme temperatures. Environmental chambers replicate the climatic conditions of global sporting events to determine whether an athlete’s gear needs modifying. Motion-capture studios tricked out as miniature soccer fields and basketball courts use high-speed 3-D cameras to record the minutiae of athletes’ movements, down to the soles of their feet, which are filmed through transparent floors. Some athletes, like long-distance runners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, do the bulk of their training right on the campus, but most go there specifically to be tested, and the process often fleshes out product ideas.
One of Hoke’s favorite recent examples came from Nike’s work with the sprinter Allyson Felix.
“When we studied what happens to her feet as she goes around the curve in the track, we realized that the left and right need to do different things,” he explains. “So we designed the plate in each shoe differently. We’re beginning to think about how to apply that to all our shoes.” Another innovation was inspired by Kyrie Irving, a point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“He spends a lot of time on the sides of his feet, because he’s attacking the angles of the game, and a conventional flat shoe doesn’t give him the traction he needs,” Hoke notes. “We redesigned his shoes by bringing some of the outsole up on top. By doing that, we helped Kyrie to change the way he plays and to make the game more exciting. Also, he’s a modern athlete—heavy on social media. Kids will grow up looking at the way he plays on clips of games on their cell phones, and emulating it.”
Not that all Nike products are worn by—or designed for—Olympic medalists or NBA champs. Most are bought “just to look cool,” as Hatfield puts it, and some never leave their box. Yet their functionality fuels their popularity in the booming athleisure market. Legions of sports fans relish the association with athletics, while fashion insiders like Kim Jones, artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton, who owns more than 500 pairs of Nike sneakers, value the technological ingenuity and the purity of the brand’s design ethos. Parker recalls meeting the late
Alexander McQueen, who, like Jones, owned several hundred pairs of Nikes. “When I asked why he liked Nike so much, he said, ‘Because you’re real; I make things up,’ ” Parker recalls. “He did incredible, beautifully crafted work, but he was envious of this company that was designing with pure purpose—for function and performance.”
Nike has redefined its concept of performance over the years. An important new focus is meeting ever higher ethical and environmental standards. The company was criticized on both counts during the 1990s and early 2000s, but its response has been unusually rigorous: It now uses the specially developed Nike Grind range of recycled materials in more than two thirds of its products.
Another major shift is Nike’s newfound zest for collaboration. It is working with Hewlett Packard on the development of 3-D-printing technologies, and with NASA on new sustainable materials. And it has stepped up its collaborations with fashion designers on capsule collections of clothing and footwear. Chitose Abe, of Sacai, and Undercover’s Jun Takahashi have produced recent editions, along with Riccardo Tisci, who was then at Givenchy, Kawakubo, and Rousteing; Kim Jones designed a natty travel wardrobe that folds into a bag for last summer’s Rio Olympics. This infusion of fashion energizes Nike’s designers, and inspires the amateurs (like me) who make stylistic tweaks to their sneakers by customizing the colors, laces, and other details using design tools on the NikeiD website.
All of these developments fused brilliantly in Nike’s last major breakthrough: the launch, in 2012, of the Flyknit footwear that took 10 years to develop. For centuries, shoes have been made by cutting and sewing pieces of material. By knitting them from recycled polyester yarn, Nike now makes them seamless, lighter, stronger, and more flexible. Slipping into Flyknit sneakers, as opposed to traditional Nikes, feels like donning a sweater rather than a tailored jacket. Flyknit technology is also more sustainable. Only the exact amount of yarn required is used, reducing waste by 60 percent. And the knitting process enables the designers to create deeply subtle visual effects from the knots that resemble the pixels in digital images.
The latest Flyknit innovation is the Air VaporMax, a new sole made from translucent rubber pods bonded onto the uppers, eliminating the need for foam midsoles. At the Comme de Garçons show in Paris last October, models wore Kawakubo’s slip-on versions, which come in all white and all black, and have the austerely technocratic air of a 21st-century space crew’s uniform. An edition by the industrial designer Marc Newson will follow. Currently, the shoes are available in a palette of neutral grays.
The next Nike design innovations remain shrouded in secrecy. One area with huge potential is 3-D printing—once the light, pliable materials required to make athletic footwear have been perfected for it. Another is embedding what Hoke calls “onboard intelligence” inside products to monitor the wearer’s movements and, ultimately, suggest ways to enhance his or her performance. A third area is customization. Nike is collaborating with DreamWorks to develop digital-imaging technology allowing consumers to personalize their products to a far greater degree than is currently possible under the umbrella of NikeiD. In the not-too-distant future, we may be able to buy 3-D-printed sneakers that fit our feet as neatly as Allyson Felix’s and Mo Farah’s do theirs.
“Our job is to constantly challenge ourselves by obsessing over creating things that are really beautiful and wildly innovative,” Parker says. “There’s a saying around here: ‘There is no finish line.’ That means that however good we might be, we can always be much better. I know that sounds like a line, but it’s Nike’s obsession.”
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