Representing the creative future

Designing speed, air and touch for Nike

A look behind the scenes of Nike with Design Director Brett Holts and three young students involved in the collaboration.

What happens to creativity when function is a designer’s priority? When a product’s success is directly linked to its practicality? Turns out one doesn’t exclude the other. Function can be an inspiration when pragmatism becomes a guide instead of a dictator. Recently, students from Central Saint Martins, Domus Academy Milan and the Parsons School of Design were asked to find inspiration in the most practical of garments: a Nike shoe. With the help of Nike’s research lab, the young designers created powerful and mesmerising silhouettes made to compliment the shoe. CSM student Liam Johnson’s designs recreated a vortex, a negative darkness encapsulating the body. His classmate Paula Canovas found inspiration for her orange design in movement and looked to redesign floating dynamics. Shizhe He from Parsons aimed to juxtapose the way a garment is perceived, with how it feels when touched. To celebrate the power of collaboration, we asked Taro Ray (CSM-grad, ex Lanvin menswear designer and head designer at Mackintosh 0001) to interview Brett Holts, Senior Design Director for Nike. They discussed the difficulties of performance-led design and the necessity of a “fresh perspective”. Paired with the student interviews, we got a glimpse of the way design is approached at Nike.

Brett Holts, Senior Design Director Nike

When you design, is performance the most important part of the process?

That’s really where it starts. We look at the athlete and the problems they have with an existing product, and then we dig in to see how we can improve their experience. We let that lead the direction of the design, the development and the engineering of the shoe.

How do you initiate a process like that?

We always start with the athlete or the consumer – whoever that is – and really try to take our own personal opinion and bias out, and make sure that we have a focus; starting with that key person in mind.

You remove yourself from the equation.

Precisely. At the moment, with our Flyknit, we’re working on weatherised and waterproof yarns, and reflectivity in yarns for the darker months of the year. When we go to the brief, we really start thinking of how to design. We try and do it with a full year’s worth of solutions, whether it’s a different material or design approach. That’s something that is very relevant and very real, especially for runners. Runners don’t take a season off. They’re still going to get out there when it’s raining, or snowy or cold and dark. I used to be a competitive runner so I found it easier to get into this mind space.

What did you wear as a runner?

I spent time with shoes like the Pegasus and some of our Track and Field products; Lunar Racers as well. That’s where my background originates from, as well as some of my influences in how I approach projects. I think it’s important to remember those products of the past and how they influenced and informed how you got here, but also to continue to push forward.

How did those running shoes influence the way you look at how a shoe should work?

I think there are fundamentals to how any shoe built for running should be. Fit is paramount, no matter how good it looks. But essentially, the shoes that I remember the most, firstly, were able to catch my eye. Secondly, they gave me an emotional connection – whether it’s a specific colour or a specific way a shoe was blocked. Some of the very earliest shoes I remember were in the colour Volt that Nike invented. That neon highlighter yellow… those were some of the first racing shoes that I ever bought. The colour was so different compared to anything else, especially in a competitive environment, where you want to stand out and make a statement.

How did the collaboration with Marc Newson and the Vapormax model come about?

Nike has worked with Marc in the past. He has a good relationship with our CEO Mark Parker. Anytime we have something new, something juxtaposing, it really interests Marc because of his approach, because of the way he looks at things as more of an industrial designer. I think it’s something he can relate to, from the amount of engineering that goes into them.

What does collaboration mean within Nike, considering the amount of collaborations you, as a whole, have been involved in?

I think collaborations can be very meaningful, and they need to feel purposeful. When done the right way, pairing up the right collaborator with the right product, you can create something very compelling and very conversational. The designer can take the brand somewhere new. When we’ve been looking at something so specific for so long, someone with a fresh perspective can come in and reinvent something we’ve had our eyes on for too long.

Have there been any specific collaborations that are a highlight for you?

The most recent was this shoe with the Commes des Garçons collaboration, which was a very last-minute opportunity where they had seen the shoe at our innovation event and reached out to see what they could do. It helped us understand that we had something that resonated with a consumer who’s different than usual. But it shows that the sneaker can also be a statement.

In fact, we did something not typical for our recent history: Marc Parker held this model up at our innovation event last March, almost a year ago. I think everyone was a little nervous, as we were over a year from bringing it to market. It’s something that we hadn’t been doing with some of our most recent innovation projects. I think it really helped us understand that letting consumers and retailers respond helps inform how we treat this product, and how we should bring it to market.

Did that give you the chance to rework the product afterwards?

We went back and totally re-invented our ‘go to market’ plan, based on consumer and retailer feedback from what they said and saw.

Sounds like it could be a better way of releasing product: to have more of a conversation with your consumers…

I think it can be and it gives people time to adjust and understand a product, to get comfortable and familiar with it. Internally, it helps to inform us. We went back and looked at colour in a whole new way. We went back and looked at our distribution. It opened up collaboration opportunities, like with Newson and Comme des Garçons. Those things that would not have happened if it hadn’t been done this way.

What kind of products deserve this sort of treatment?

I think if something feels new and different, after looking at it for so many years internally, you start to have a skewed perception.

How long do you find yourself working on an innovation project like this?

A lot of innovation products can take anywhere from 3+ years. We have prototypes from the 70’s – teams back then had a very similar look to what you see here, but there were manufacturing and engineering complications, which is why in the past we’ve had to put a mid-sole and out-sole on it, to create protection and durability. Now with a whole new method of manufacturing we’re able to finally fully realise that vision from almost 40 years ago.

Do you have technical designers and visual designers?

We have specific teams that work only in innovation from a design side, who really work on the bigger concepts. Then as you get closer to market, we have inline design teams that will really take a concept and refine it, finish it, figure out how to manufacture it. We have material designers who focus on upper materials, any foams and airbags; and we have colour designers who apply the colour concept.

What have you found innovative in your lifestyle, outside of footwear?

Right now in such a hectic world, with so many things engaging us on a day-to-day basis and with the amount of options we’re faced with, what feels the most valuable are the things that make people’s lives simpler and make it easier to get through the day. It’s the importance of intuition. When we approach a product, we want to make sure that it’s very intuitive and that it’s clear what the product does when you see it sitting on a shelf. It should be very simple to understand when you pick it up. You know that it’s lightweight, you know that it’s minimal and there’s a nod to the innovation. You should be able touch it and have an idea of what this is going to feel like, what that experience is going to be.

Has social media changed the way you look at product?

I think the way we make things and the pace at which we make things has accelerated. In today’s world, whenever anyone goes into a store, they expect to see something new. The speed of consumption is very rapid. We have to keep up with the metabolism of the marketplace, we need to bring something new. Even if it’s with the same manufacturing, we need to keep compelling the consumer to keep their interest. To keep it fresh.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

As long as we don’t let that allow us to take shortcuts, and really compromise. I think you can always put more into the market place and say it’s new, but people still respect and want innovation on some level, not just more stuff.

Liam Johnson: MA Fashion CSM

How did the collaboration between you and Nike work?

The collaboration came through Stavros Karelis from Machine-A. The NikeLab team was really into the work I had done previously on my BA and thought that I would suit the brief.

Was the Nike brief different from how you are briefed in college? If so, in what way?

Nike was super open to my interpretation and I had absolute freedom to design what I wanted within the given theme. I guess the only difference is that I was really aware of the fact that it was a global brand. Consulting with a team in London, Italy and America, you become really aware of the scale of the business and how influential the brand is on a global scale.

How were you guided during your development?

I would talk regularly with the team here in London and we would have design consultations every two to three days. This involved documenting everything so that we could consult the Nike team in Portland. We would talk about construction, timing and the finish of the costume.

How was that different from how you work in college and your internships at other fashion brands?

To be honest, every company is always going to have different set of rules. Every project or job is going to have different limitations and I think it’s a good exercise to be able to adapt and explore personal and professional boundaries. Last year I didn’t think I would be able to adapt myself for anyone and now I’ve managed to create and style for one of the biggest sports brands in the world.

What was your starting point?

I was thinking about how buoyancy and lightness could be expressed through the concept of air, I wanted to create something really graphic, something opposite to an airy-fairy stereotype. It was more about trying to make it stark and equally light. It was important for the image to be arresting and feel big and full. At first I was studying nuclear clouds and then moved on to a vortex. I also knew that there was going to have to be an element of movement within the costume so that played a huge part… movement and the quality of finish!

How did this translate to the techniques you used?

I wanted to continue the techniques I developed for my BA, I think it has a unique quality that really translates. As I mentioned, movement was a huge part of the project, thinking how certain elements would move around the body and unravel was key. Weaving, wrapping, building and placing the straps was important. The garment needed to have a good composition because I had to be thinking about how all these elements would look on screen and translate in a digital format. It was also important for it to stand out and really transform the graphic line I had in mind, to jolt and jump with the body.

How was designing for this project different from how you usually work in college? Was it comparable to what you did during your placement year, or entirely different again?

I don’t think it is that different. I explore extremities within my work and it manifests within me as an internal reality. I think that’s what I am all about. This project is just another transportation and a way of expressing that. You can look at this and interpret it in a lot of different ways. But in the end it’s just a tease or an expression. I would say it was a completely different experience to working at a fashion house, because this was solely my vision for Nike. Whereas in the industry, you’re always bastardising your creativity for someone above you, for instance the merchandising team, the legal team or a creative director. There is always going to be that last say or initiation, because you’re working for that house or for that designer, and in that situation it’s your duty.

How did you overcome these differences?

I just do me.

Shizhe He: MFA Fashion Design and Society Parsons

How did the collaboration between you and Nike work?
The collaboration with Nike was a lucky chance. Our Parsons MFA professor Shelley Fox showed Nike my work, which led to me meeting the team. They gave me a pair of Nike Air Vapormax and asked me what my first impression of the shoe was. Then we began to discuss the functionality and appearance of the shoe.

How was designing for this project different from how you usually work in college?

For me there was not much difference. I like to try different possibilities in fashion to look at the world from a different perspective. This may be because I studied painting from an early age. I often painted people, I still like to watch people and I am very interested in what they choose to wear everyday. Clothing is a medium that helps me express my thoughts. So I do not want to be strictly defined. I know that Nike has been a bold and innovative brand for a long time.

How were you guided during your development?

I would start with a feeling and ask myself what I want. Hard or soft? Light or heavy? Tedious or concise? Traditional or innovative? There is no absolute opposition. Through comparison and mutual integrations I find out what I want. And then I start from the texture or pattern cutting to do research and experiment.

What was your starting point?

My starting point and basic design philosophy is to try and approach the balance between art and reality through a tenacious process of research and experimentation. I’m interested in the relationship between clothes and their wearer. The wearer gives the clothes movement; clothes bring social meaning and identity to the wearer. The space between the garment and the human body is hidden to me, with great fun.

How did this translate to the techniques you used?

My practice is based on skilled pattern cutting where I explore small details and moments that are usually ignored. I like to observe the most obvious and accustomed things we take for granted and therefore pass over. In this space I disrupt quiet moments through cutting and fabric manipulation. Subtle and steady, I reexamine the relationship between clothes and the wearer, the wearer and the clothes. I believe that alternative ways of cutting create infinite possibilities. My aim is to bring a craftsman’s wisdom and discipline to my practice, and as a designer achieve a balance of art and function through my garments.

Nike is known to use high-tech materials, what fabrics did you use?

I used plastic packaging film. It is used to protect furniture in the transport process. I chose this material because it is not a traditional clothing fabric. I think the design needs to be brave, and I wanted to try different ways experience the process. Nike has this spirit of innovation. I wanted my dress to look like a hard sculpture. In fact it is very light and flexible, and the body can easily move with the garment.

Paula Canovas: MA Fashion CSM

How did the collaboration between you and Nike work?

Stavros Karelis from Machine-A and Fabio Piras originally introduced my work to the NikeLab team in London. I believe what resonated between my approach and the new VaporMax was my use of globoid, organic-looking shapes in previous projects and collections. One of my projects commissioned for Grayson Perry (2015) through Central Saint Martins employed large airy volumes, which they were notably interested to explore in this new project.

Was the Nike brief different from how you are briefed in college?

The Nike team made it clear from the beginning that they wanted my own interpretation from the project. Of course, there were guidelines that needed to be taken into account, but the team really invested into making me feel that I had complete freedom to create my own interpretation of what that garment would look like.

How were you guided during your development?

From day one we started working on how to translate those ideas to work for the VaporMax. More than directive guidance, this project felt like an open conversation with NikeLab´s creative team. Having constant feedback helped determine the ideas we wanted to test and ultimately push forward. Once the garment was completed, Milan´s production helped me place this concept into perspective in a physical environment by creating a display window for NikeLab in Milan.

How was that different from how you work in college and your internships at other fashion brands?

Oftentimes larger fashion houses can be creatively framed by large commercial or marketing imperatives which ultimately results in failing to respond to creative possibilities. What struck me with Nike was the creative agility, the openness to ideas and the trust employed throughout this collaboration. As a creative, not having the pressure of being told off when an idea surfaces results in creating better work. Obviously, that doesn’t mean any idea is a good idea, but it means you can take risks and won’t be penalised for it. That freedom in the creative process is unfortunately a rarely permitted luxury.

What was your starting point?

The VaporMax´s ultra lightness and flexibility acted as the starting point. I tried to apply those design principles to my garment by studying the air’s movement as it passes through fabrics, its relationship with inertia and gravity.

My design process is intrinsically influenced by art. I studied the way Lars Englund creates spaces that encapsulate air, fostering a sense of cushioning. In order to display this bouncy dynamic, I was interested in incorporating interweaved knots while padding the drapes with wadding gave a singularly inflated effect. I found this organic construction allowed for the intangible to permeate through the apparel while giving the body a complete freedom of movement. Andreas Zingerle sculptures and Penique Productions studies of space also served as key influences.

How did this translate to the techniques you used?

My approach has been 3D from the very beginning, trying to find ways to translate the cushioned and knotted shapes onto the body while allowing for freedom of movement. Graphically, I chose a subtle monochromatic palette of the same intensive red and orange as the VaporMax, so that the focus remained on the structure of the piece, and the VaporMax.

Nike is known to use high-tech materials, what fabrics did you use?

I chose various types of polyesters, which have a wide range of industrial and aeolian applications. Their lightness allowed to create great volumes which gave the dancer featured in Nike’s video a complete freedom of movement.