Why, back in my day, we had real innovations in Nike’s footwear. Yeah, you might be going all gaga at the new Air Zoom Alphafly Next% and certainly, the thing is pretty impressive, embodying the modern sporting good ideals of marginal gains.
But when we were younger, we didn’t just have marginal gains, we had big gains. Not milliseconds, but minutes, to use the running metaphor.
And the story started back in 1972, when Bill Bowerman used his waffle iron to create a revolutionary runner, the Waffle. The logic behind it, as with most brilliant ideas, was to create a track spike that wasn’t only usable on the track. Artificial surfaces, tarmac, whatever.
The Waffle’s exposed studs mimicked a track spike, gave it insane grip on mixed surfaces, and you have to admit, made it look pretty sick. And to me, that’s always been at the core of Nike’s appeal, in that it made performance sexy as all heck. Similar to the way a Ferrari is.
And that sweet, sweet low profile, too.
But it was seven years after the debut of the Waffle that Nike gave its greatest gift to the sneaker world. It gave us the gift of air. Or Air, if you want to be more accurate.
The Air Tailwind was the first to incorporate its now-famous airbag into the heel, the purpose of which was, obviously, to provide additional cushioning on heelstrike while running. Again, a ridiculously simple idea, but one that is so brilliant in its sheer simplicity.
But Nike’s biggest coup with Air came in 1987 with the Air Max. By simply cutting away a portion of the midsole to reveal the air bubble within, I can’t even begin to say what a masterstroke it was.
Over time, the Air Max’s visible air bubble would be adopted on countless other Nike sneakers, and it grew and grew. Most notably with the visible Air on the forefoot of the Air Max 95, the Air Max 360 and culminating some two decades later with the Vapormax, whose sole was composed entirely of air pockets.
Then again, it could be argued that all the above innovations are pretty gimmicky. I mean, do you really need a go-anywhere track spike? Do you really need to see the cushioning tech under your heel? Do you really need a shoe that looks like a sci-fi runner from the year 2050 just to shave that thousandth of a second off your weekly jog?
Well, frankly, no. In all fairness, however, usefulness, cool factor desirability are completely separate things. Which brings me to Nike’s maddest innovation of all. And no, I’m not talking about the time Nike ripped off Reebok’s Pump with its own inflatable support tech in the Air Pressure.
Nah, if you want to really get nuts, there’s the Nike Mag with its motorised self-lacing system. First seen in Back to the Future 2, I lusted after a pair so badly and aside from some props being made for the 1989 film, actual pairs were never made… until 2011.
The first ‘retro’ (if you can call it that) was a 1:1 replica of the shoes seen in the movie and lit up, but crucially the self-lacing system wasn’t present in the 2011 pairs, of which 1,500 were made and sold to benefit Michael J Fox’s Parkinson’s Disease charity.
Nike would set right that glaring omission in 2016, when it released the Mag with the motorised laces, though this time limited to 89 pairs, referencing the original release date of BttF2. Good luck getting a pair, though. The first retro in 2011 is commanding prices of around USD11,000 on StockX, with the self-lacing 2016 model going for over USD20,000.
All for a pair of shoes that you’re not actually supposed to wear (they’re apparently too fragile to be worn even just for walking around, let alone for sport) and ones that will eventually crumble. But anyway, if you can afford to drop money you could well use to buy a car with on a pair of shoes, you can also probably afford a climate-and-humidity controlled room for your kicks.
As for what the next(%) innovation Nike will come up with, that’s anyone’s guess. But if I had to guess, going by its recent track (heh) record, it’ll probably be mildly gimmicky. Which is absolutely fine by me. After all, gimmicky makes for great flexing opportunities.