If you’re wearing running shoes while you read this, take a closer look at your feet. You’ll see that there are multiple layers of different material, some stitched and some stuck into place, with cushioning, support and structural material everywhere.
The shoes will have around 35 different parts which are assembled together in an expensive process which also leads to material being wasted. What’s more, they might not even be the most efficient shoes to run in.
To get around the problem of waste, Nike has designed a completely new process that involves “weaving” shoes into shape instead of using multiple parts.
We discussed this with Ben Shaffer, a studio director at Nike’s design workshop, the Innovation Kitchen, US, and the man responsible for Nike’s latest, and most unique product, the Flyknit Lunar 1+ shoes.
The first thing you’ll note is that the shoes look a bit like handmade woollen socks. That’s not coincidental—the Flyknit uses a special high-strength material which is turned into threads and literally woven into its shape.
In this case, the Flyknit concept was preceded by the Nike Zoom Victory Elite, which had its 15 minutes of fame during the London Olympics in 2012, and was worn by British athlete Mo Farah among other runners.
This comes on the heels of a renewed interest in minimalist running wear; while speciality brands such as Vivobarefoot and Vibram have been gaining a cult following for some time now, the big brands have also taken note.
Both Nike Free and Reebok RealFlex owe a lot to the Vivobarefoot line, while Adidas’ adiPure Trainer is an indoor version of Vibram Five Fingers, as are the Fila Skeletoes.
This demand would lead to the unique process for the Flyknit as well. Shaffer says: “We had been hearing a lot of people ask for a sock-like fit, something that was tight and wouldn’t slip, but still remained flexible and allowed the feet to breathe. So we started to think about this problem and it was really a five-year process that would lead to these shoes.”
The Innovation Kitchen is Nike’s skunkworks, and the birthplace of the Air Jordan. As you can imagine, a lot of experimental work is done there, even if it doesn’t have any immediate application. Shaffer says: “We do all our research in-house, and in this case, when I was looking for the requirements, I saw something created by the advanced materials research group in the Kitchen.” The material was called Flywire, and it had been developed some years ago. Flywire is a nylon-like material called Vectran, forming threads, which was made by Nike to form softer, more flexible shoe uppers in 2008.
“Flywire has some interesting properties, which we were able to exploit to make the Flyknit shoes. Basically, there are some parts of the shoe that have to be kept rigid and some parts can be allowed to flex, this is what gives the runner support. Using a particular weave, parts that we need to make rigid come together like a lattice, or corset, hugging your foot,” Shaffer explains.
The entire process of controlling the threads and bringing them together sounds a little like 3D printing. Shaffer demurs when asked about this, saying there are certain details he cannot go into.
The net result, however, is a soft, light and flexible upper which literally stretches like a sock. For runners, this isn’t different from the meshes used in other minimalist shoes, such as the Vivobarefoot Evo II, for example. Shaffer agrees, but adds, “I can’t comment on the shoes made by other companies because I’m not really familiar with them, but we have experimented with building meshes too, and there’s a lot of waste generated in the process, and it is pretty labour-intensive. We’re happy with the fact that the weaving process has almost no waste, and the whole thing is controlled with computers.”
The Flyknit Lunar 1+ combines this upper with a Lunarlon sole. Shaffer says: “Like Flywire, Lunarlon has also been used by Nike for a while now. When we started work on the Flyknit, it seemed obvious to pair it with Lunarlon, because that can give a lot of support and ‘springiness’.”
This isn’t the first time that Nike has experimented with a sock-type design. In the early 1980s, the company had released the Sock Racer, which was not a success. “The materials weren’t in place, and the resulting shoe was very comfortable, but it wasn’t durable. We’ve done a lot of research since then, and the Flyknit is much more minimal, which means that there are less things which can go wrong,” says Shaffer.
The shoes have been launched globally and will be available in India from 1 March, though they don’t come cheap—the men’s shoe starts at Rs.8,995, while the women’s model starts at Rs.8,450.