Inside the megalithic Nike Store on Oxford Circus, central London, a small area has been cordoned off to showcase the arrival of the world’s most futuristic shoe to Europe. Amid the blue lights flashing away like a space-age disco, sits Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s vice-president for innovation design and special projects, designer of the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0.
Sneaker obsessives won’t need any introduction to Hatfield or to the HyperAdapt. He’s one of the most influential men in footwear, the technically ambitious cult creator of such classic trainers as the Air Max 1, Air Trainer 1, Air Safari and the Air Jordan III. And the HyperAdapt? That’s Nike’s first commercial self-lacing trainer, inspired by the shoes teenager Marty McFly wears in the film Back to the Future Part II.
Remember the scene where McFly visits the year 2015, and puts on a pair of high-tops that lace up on their own? Hatfield made those shoes for the film in 1989, and now — almost 30 years later — he’s brought them to market. After creating 89 versions called the Nike Mag in 2016, the sales of which raised $6.75m for Michael J Fox’s Parkinson’s charity, a limited number of the more wearable HyperAdapt went on sale in the US at the end of last year. Today a limited number will be available via the Nike app in 19 European countries, and the Oxford Street Niketown.
Hatfield joined Nike in 1981 and later worked with director Robert Zemeckis on Back to the Future. The baseball cap-wearing American says the filmmakers initially suggested “a shoe that’s magnetic so you could walk up a wall or stand on the ceiling, and I told them that was an old gag”.
He didn’t immediately see the shoes’ commercial potential. “We didn’t think about trying to actually make them until 20 years later because the technology wasn’t there.” The shoes work via a concealed motor that is attached to five cables that come down either side of the foot. They are battery-operated and need to be charged every two weeks.
Of course, the mechanism seems irrelevant when you put them on, an experience akin to a sportswear Cinderella moment — you shall go to the basketball court! You slip your foot inside the shoes — the battery-pack sole glowing with a sci-fi luminescence — and, as if by magic, the shoes vacuum pack around your foot. You can press a button to loosen and tighten rapidly.
As well as Back to the Future, the shoe’s styling was also inspired by the robot Eve in the Pixar movie Wall-E. Hatfield adds: “Innovation is a word that gets thrown out all over the place. That is always going to be our guiding light but, knowing that, we try to add storyline and art to our designs.”
Nike will doubtless be hoping that the latest bit of buzz around the shoes gives the brand a boost and helps bolster their influence as Adidas eats into market share. Nike Inc announced results for its most recent quarter on Wednesday and reported a 4 per cent fall in share price before closing the day 1.9 per cent lower. Sales declined in its most recent quarter, to $9.07bn, only a minor change from the same time last year, and less of a fall than expected. The sportswear giant is set to overhaul the business; in June it shared plans to cut 2 per cent of its international workforce. The limited-edition shoes cost £620, so individual sales aren’t exactly going to single-handedly lift Nike’s profits, but the mix of innovation, story and an emotional connection between consumer and product is part of what informs Nike’s brand identity.
Hatfield says: “Apple is kind of our model; they want to be first and they are doing something that no one else is doing, so they get it out there and tell a good story. We have different strategies: some shoes are designed to shake up the country club a little bit and others are going to be more evolutionary in nature, not revolutionary. Sometimes you have to back off from being too crazy.”
Sometimes, though, the public do catch on, as with the Sock Dart, a stretchy, tubular sock on top of a sole, which Hatfield launched 15 years ago, only to see it “catch fire” in recent sales.
But how many customers actually need the sporting technology of the self-lacing shoe? Hatfield says: “Our primary customer is the athlete, but we also know the bulk of our sales come from people looking for comfort and fashion. It’s like the car that goes at 150mph. No one drives at that speed, but it’s the coolest cars that go fast.”
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.