air-trainer sketch

The Great Sneaker Revolution

Three decades ago, UO-trained shoe designers created a new generation of basketball shoes that changed forever the way we think about athletic footwear.

Tinker Hatfield, BArch ’77, was on an airplane, somewhere high above the Pacific, when the realization struck.

Just a few years into his new career as an athletic footwear designer at Nike, Hatfield was on his way home from Tokyo with fellow designer Mark Parker, who was still a couple of decades away from leading the company as CEO. They had traveled east to solve some production puzzles for a new shoe they were designing, a still-in-development hybrid of sorts called the Air Trainer. The name, generic and vague, didn’t exactly inspire a sense of the revolution it implied, but in that moment, Hatfield knew.

Tinker Hatfield sketch

“I remember looking at this prototype, and it was just so different, and difficult to even describe,” Hatfield says. “Mark and I are sitting on this plane, thinking, ‘Man, if we can make this . . . this is going to change the way people look at shoes.’”

History long ago proved Hatfield prophetic. Released in 1987, the Nike Air Trainer 1 was like nothing before it: an amalgam of traits borrowed from running shoes, basketball high-tops, and the sort of generic “training” shoes one might wear to lift weights or ride a stationary bike at the gym, it managed—somehow, in spite of its Frankensteinian origins—to look cool. It wasn’t the first athletic shoe designed with versatility in mind, but it was the first to effectively pair visual appeal with performance—and certainly the first to be marketed with help from John McEnroe and (briefly, if without consent) the Beatles. Its release remains one of the watershed moments in the industry.

In the 30 years since, of course, that industry has grown into one that generates billions of dollars annually, reaching far beyond the confines of hardwood courts and grass fields to infiltrate, and influence, global popular culture. The shoes, and the collectors who obsess over them, have inspired books and documentary films. Rappers make their case alongside world-class athletes for signature lines in their name. An army of savvy buyers and resellers has created  a multimillion-dollar secondary market. And last year, the Brooklyn Museum hosted The Rise of Sneaker Culture, an exhibition that examined “the evolution of the sneaker from its beginnings to its current role as status symbol and urban icon.” Sneakers are now high art.

“At the end of the day, when you think Nike, you think amazing-looking shoes,” says Ben Osborne, editor of the book SLAM Kicks: Basketball Sneakers That Changed the Game. “Technology matters, advertising matters, signing amazing athletes matters, but it’s really about the shoes. You can’t overemphasize the visual genius there.”

In that, the influence of designers like Hatfield, now Nike’s vice president for innovation and creative concepts, has played a pivotal and lasting role. A still-thriving legend in the design field, Hatfield more than anyone personifies the lineage of technologic and stylistic innovation that runs through that famous company in Beaverton and throughout the industry it came to dominate. A lineage, of course, that has Duck prints all over it.

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In the beginning, they were just sneakers, canvas-sided, rubber-soled footwear made for kids at play. For most of the 20th century, a small handful of models and brands—the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star, the Adidas Superstar—became widespread and familiar enough in the United States to register as classics of a sort, but only because they’d managed to endure. The idea that these cheap, no-tech, disposable items could have any use beyond grubby utility was too strange to even consider.

Tinker Hatfield
Tinker Hatfield, BArch ’77, circa 1990. Are those tassel loafers he’s wearing?

The first signs of change came in the 1970s, when Adidas gave NBA superstar Kareem-Abdul Jabbar a signature shoe—quite literally; his signature and silhouette were printed on the shoe’s tongue—and Puma released a sleek, suede-leather model named for NBA All-Star Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Kids could own a piece of their heroes, and—because basketball shoes translate rather better to casual everyday use than baseball spikes or hockey skates—they could wear them, too. Then came the early 1980s, and an early convergence of the trends that would define the coming decades: just as more and more athletes signed deals that identified them with certain sneaker brands, Adidas Superstar–clad rappers Run-D.M.C. helped push hip-hop and sneaker culture into the national consciousness.

Nike had been making popular basketball shoes since the early ’70s, but—unsurprisingly for a company founded by passionate track-and-field veterans Phil Knight, BBA ’59, and Bill Bowerman—most of its efforts at innovation had gone into revolutionizing running shoes. That changed, loudly and comprehensively, with the 1985 release of the Air Jordan 1. Ironically, given Nike’s reputation for relentless technological advancement, the single most iconic model in the history of athletic shoes was not a great leap forward in performance. But Michael Jordan was. With the combination of his dazzling, dynamic game, the shoe’s bold red-and-black color scheme, and Nike’s emerging marketing approach, the Jordan 1 was a sensation. The shoe’s success was helped greatly by the NBA’s insistence on fining Jordan for wearing a design that clashed with its uniform standards, fines that Nike happily covered and capitalized on with a memorable commercial campaign—and so it remains: even today, untold millions of pairs later, reissued versions of the Jordan I regularly outsell most new basketball sneakers. For Nike, and for the industry, nothing was ever the same.

Scott Reames, BA ’89, Nike’s longtime corporate historian, understands better than most the company’s unlikely path to global marketing powerhouse. Nodding to the possibly apocryphal story of Phil Knight introducing himself to ad man Dan Wieden in the early ’80s with the pronouncement, “I hate advertising,” Reames says Knight’s early philosophy emphasized the importance of “word of foot.” “It was about one athlete talking to another,” Reames says. “That’s where he saw the strength and power of the brand.”

In the wake of the Air Jordan 1—and thanks in no small part to that ad man’s firm, Wieden+Kennedy—Nike entered an era in which innovation in both marketing and design roared forward on nearly parallel paths. Converse, whose Chuck Taylors had helped create the modern sneaker industry back in 1917, interrupted that momentum briefly in 1986 with the Weapon, worn and endorsed by established stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. But from there, and for years to come, seemingly all the buzz, influence, and innovation in the industry would have its origins at Nike.

Wilson Smith, BArch ’80, came to the company in 1983, a few years after graduating from the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, which he says instilled in him an understanding of the importance of “form following function, of really paying attention to the context of what you’re designing, and whom you’re designing it for.” In Beaverton, he found the perfect setting to implement that philosophy. Hired by Hatfield as an assistant in Nike’s corporate architecture office, he soon followed his mentor into footwear, where he had both a front-row seat and played an active role in what he calls “a renaissance in design.”

This renaissance had its share of masterpieces, most of them built on a bubble of nothing. Well, not nothing: Nike had introduced “air” technology to running shoes in the late ’70s, and in 1982, the Air Force 1 became the first basketball shoe to carry the gas-filled polyurethane pouches that evolved into the company’s signature support innovation. Initially, those pouches had been hidden, felt but unseen by the wearer (or anyone else). That changed in 1987 with the Air Max 1, a Hatfield-designed running shoe with an “air-sole unit” visible in the midsole. Hatfield, who worked as an architect before joining Nike in 1981, cited as his inspiration the Pompidou Centre in Paris, famed for its skeletal, inside-out design.

That same year, Nike released the Air Trainer, the hybrid whose impact Hatfield had pondered on that flight back from Tokyo. Sensing the consumer appeal of its new “visible air” technology, Nike spent a reported $500,000 on the commercial rights to the Beatles song “Revolution,” placing the song in a TV spot featuring Jordan, tennis star John McEnroe, and lots of anonymous athletes doing athletic things with Nike Air on their feet. The choice of song hinted at the sense of overthrowing the status quo represented in the shoe’s design; the choice of band guaranteed consumers would pay attention.

Air Jordan XVII

This sketch illustrates part of the design process for the Air Jordan XVII, circa 2002.

“The ‘Revolution’ ad was huge,” says Reames. “You’ve got the Beatles essentially supporting the visible air platform” (although not for long: lawyers for the Beatles, who no longer owned the rights but didn’t want the song to be featured in advertising, sued Nike, which discontinued the ads the following year).

Adds Hatfield, “At the time, we didn’t really look at shoes through the lens of anything other than its benefits to a specific sport or athlete. The impact of that shoe showed me the true influence of the design on culture.”

It was only a start. Hatfield took a lead role in designing Jordan’s signature line, beginning a run that would make the designer, at least among an emerging community of obsessives known as “sneaker heads,” nearly as famous as Jordan himself. His first was the Air Jordan III, of which Hatfield says, “Going in, I really was conscious of the impact that the design could have. I was thinking, now I get it: As I’m trying to solve problems for an athlete, there is a cultural component here that I need to incorporate. I realized there was this great potential: to serve the athlete, but also jump over the railing into modern culture.”

The Jordan III saw the first application of visible air to the Jordan line, and the debut of the “Jumpman” silhouette that became Jordan’s personal logo and hinted at Jordan Brand’s eventual growth into its own company under the Nike umbrella. Later designs, chosen as always through close consultation with Jordan himself, found inspiration in everything from fighter jets to Ferraris. (Worth noting: Not long after the Jordan III came out, Hatfield designed the self-lacing shoes worn by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future II; versions of the Nike Air Mag were auctioned off for charity in 2011.)

Along the way, Jordan evolved from exciting young player to the best on the planet, and a pop-culture icon in his own right. In that, he paralleled what Smith calls “the marriage of performance and personality” that in many ways came to define Nike’s approach. And there was no lack of personalities: Bo Jackson, the two-sport dynamo who personified the idea of cross-training, starred in the “Bo Knows” campaign that promoted the next generation of the Air Trainer. Charles Barkley and Andre Agassi arrived in the ’90s, each with a signature shoe and marketing campaigns built around their reputation as sporting and cultural renegades.

Wilson Smith Nike

Wilson Smith, BArch ’80, shown here in a Nike design studio circa 1993, is the creative force behind the Air Jordan XVII.

Smith, who has designed shoes with and for Agassi and later Serena Williams, describes a trait shared by the tennis stars: “Irreverence justified.” Of working with Agassi, whose punk-rock mullet and fluorescent tennis gear challenged the sport’s orthodoxy, Smith says, “We were waking up the country club. That changed tennis forever.” It’s a strain of rebellion that runs deep at Nike, a company that still draws inspiration from Steve Prefontaine’s legacy of, as Smith puts it, “breaking through with attitude as well as performance.”

“Pre” might never have sketched or built a sneaker, but given the company’s roots in the Ducks’ track-and-field program, the mentality he personified has unsurprisingly had a lasting influence on design as well. Hatfield, a standout competitor for Bowerman’s program during his undergraduate days, says, “The push to get better, and do better, is part of what makes Nike special. That was born at Hayward Field with Bill Bowerman and continues today. There is always an opportunity to make something better.”

Adds Reames, the historian, “We’re a competitive group, not only with other brands, but within our own company. We have a phrase, ‘There is no finish line,’ and I would say that’s more our mantra than ‘Just do it.’” As such, it’s not difficult to draw a line from Bowerman’s ingenious use of his wife’s waffle iron to create a new running sole to the buzzing hives of envelope-pushing in Beaverton today. At the Sport Research Lab, a team of dozens of scientists and engineers study biomechanics, physiology, sensory perception, and data science, essentially lifting sneaker design to the heights of rocket science; at the Innovation Kitchen, led by Hatfield, designers work with tools, materials, and data that Bowerman could never have imagined, forever looking for the next step forward. The latest steps include Flyknit, the ultralight, precision-fit technology that Time named one of the year’s best inventions in 2012; and the HyperAdapt 1.0, announced in March and due for a late 2016 release, that promises to make the Back to the Future fantasy of push-button lacing a reality.

There is no finish line. If that’s the mantra that has inspired so much stylistic, technological, and cultural trailblazing, it makes sense that it also keeps Hatfield and his colleagues from dwelling on the ground they’ve broken. Of seeing his and other Nike designs in that Brooklyn Museum show last year, Hatfield says, “I’m a bit indifferent about it. I try not to look back. I think that’s why I’m still designing.” No doubt, his coach would be proud to hear it.

 

Ryan Jones, a former editor at SLAM magazine, is deputy editor of The Penn Stater.

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