#GlobalExclusive: 032c Unveils Nike’s Latest HTM Shoe and Start of NIKELAB

Nike Inc. CEO Mark Parker’s role in the concept-shoe creativity of the Nike HTM line, alongside creative consultant Hiroshi Fujiwara and designer Tinker Hatfield, was deeply documented in 032c’s feature last fall. This collaborative project is one that keeps on quietly evolving. Gary Warnett interviews Nike CEO Mark Parker about the release of the latest HTM edition, the Free Mercurial Superfly HTM.

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The newly-released Nike Free Mercurial Superfly HTM

New Nike football technologies, like the Dynamic Fit collection of ankle-high boots, have made bombastic debuts over the last few months, but the introduction of the newest HTM design was significantly more low key. Prior to the cameo-heavy video premiere and appearance of Cristiano Ronaldo for the introduction of the latest Mercurial Superfly in Madrid, Parker had been wearing a mystery shoe. While its cleated counterpart took the spotlight, the unnamed shoe went unmentioned.

A direct union of football and fashion is traditionally a tough mix—the brief popularity of the Firenza Street shoe in the late 1980s and the Total 90 collection in the early 2000s are standouts. Although the last three tournaments have been accompanied by tie-in footwear at lifestyle level from every brand, out of all these strikes several have hit the post. After all, a football boot is worn solely for its purpose and is incapable of being casual wear—to translate its DNA beyond the turf can prove problematic.

HTM’s emphasis on innovation has created the Nike Free Mercurial Superfly HTM. Merging the Mercurial Superfly’s Dynamic Fit and Flyknit construction with the flexibility of the new Nike Free 5.0’s flexible running sole, it’s an exploration of how the body is meant to move. From the Stetson leather heel foxing to the speckled sole and transparent fuse skin Swoosh, this is a shoe rooted in the new.

From his days as a designer and developer after joining the young company in 1979, Parker’s history at the brand bears witness to Nike’s escalating commitment to the game. While other brands had decades of football history (and Nike had football in the catalogues since 1971), boots with a Swoosh hadn’t been widely accepted until the 1994 World Cup in America, when key Brazilian and Italian players wore an amended version of the 1992 Tiempo Premier for the tournament final.

Although experiments in lightweight performance would follow, for the next World Cup in 1998, Nike unleashed something completely different: the Mercurial boot. A forefather of Hyperfuse and Flyknit, the shoe’s light alternative to leather was its selling point. Later, the 2002 introduction of the Mercurial Vapor—a running spike for the pitch—reinforced its sense of speed.

HTM might have debuted in 2002 as a mix of premium remakes or altered versions of cult favorites, but when Somalian distance runner Abdihakem Abdirahman crossed the finish line in third place at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials wearing the HTM Flyknit Racer (one month ahead of the shoe’s official announcement), it was clear that HTM wasn’t just a showcase of trend-level design. The recent Milan-only introduction of the Kobe 9 Elite Low HTM was another of the project’s performance-ready models.

To coincide with the start of 2014 World Cup, the Nike Free Mercurial Superfly HTM will be released on June 12 at NikeLAB spaces in New York, Paris, Milan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. It represents a new HTM proposition—a football-inspired shoe for everyday wear.

NIKELAB is the brand’s new consumer destination that combines both physical spaces with e-commerce offering its most vanguard products. Engineered to give top-tier product a cohesive treatment in collaboration with key creative partners worldwide — from architects to fashion designers to artists — the platform brings Nike principles and collaborative interpretations to life beyond product. At the intersection of performance and culture, each NIKELAB is a geographically specific expression of disruptive creativity. (A NIKELAB showcase and presentation of HTM Free Mercurial Superfly HTM opens June 11th at 032c Workshop).

NIKELAB embodies the brand’s approach to product design. Nike principles such as less is more, lightweight, functionality, and modularity inform the fixtures, materials used in the construction, and functionality of the spaces. The product range includes reinterpretations of Nike heritage such as NIKE x TISCI AF1, as well as capsule collections such as GYAKUSOU and FCRB. NIKELAB launches in New York, London, Shanghai, Paris, Milan, and Hong Kong today, with @NIKELAB providing news, release updates, and a channel for the collaborations on Twitter, Instagram, and Wechat (CHINA).

Parker was on hand at the Mercurial Superfly’s launch to talk exclusively to 032c about the relevance of football innovation and to hint at what the trio currently has simmering in the Innovation Kitchen.

nike.com/NikeLAB

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Nike CEO Mark Parker showing some leg… and the Free Mercurial Superfly HTM

GARY WARNETT: The Nike Free Mercurial Superfly HTM has roots in a number of shoes, but the Mercurial boot really set it off. Do you think that shoe was the real game changer as far as defining what Nike Football could be?

MARK PARKER: I think the 1998 Mercurial was one of the singular most important shoes for football in the history of Nike—and arguably for any sport shoe at Nike — in that it drives a truly distinctive and unique performance vision. I have to admit that in the earlier years at Nike there were a lot of people saying that we could never, ever truly lead in the category, but we quickly got over that by looking at the product and talking to athletes to get their help. This allows us to innovate and create something incredibly meaningful to the athlete while also bringing something new, different, and better to the table. Different and better are the keywords here. It put us on a path to truly lead. It was a confidence builder, truly innovative in a unique Nike sense, and it was all about performance. It was as much a reflection of the athlete-input process as any other shoe that we’ve had, and it really set us on a course that we’re still building on today.

Past generations grew up with the black leather boot as a given, but seeing as it’s been around for 16 years, do you think the Mercurial’s look might be a norm for the 16-to-20-year-old consumer? Could that audience be an open-minded one that keeps hunting the next thing rather than obsessing over shoes of the past?

I think that’s a great question. I would agree that the new performance product is incredibly compelling in its own right and there’s still huge appetite for retro and everything that that represents—that period of time, the fashion, and the connection to events of that time and that sense of style. But I think that there are so many new innovative performance products that are so unique—not only in performance, but in aesthetic—and that are really capturing the attention of younger consumers. One of the good examples of many is the new Kobe. It’s Flyknit, it’s a new silhouette … Have you seen the Lows?

The Kobe 9 Elite HTM Low

The Kobe 9 Elite Low HTM

The Kobe 9 HTMs are a real object of desire.

I almost wore those today! I love the HTM Lows, though I’m biased of course. It’s a beautiful shoe—it’s almost a modern classic in a way. There’s a pride in new, innovative design—it’s important to not just go back to the Air Max and the Dunks and the Jordans. That’s great and I love all of that myself. There’s a lot of mash up, going back in time and mixing it up—bringing it back with different looks in terms of apparel. I think this mix of influences and styles makes contemporary design a lot more interesting.

Is football a tougher sport to cross over into the lifestyle arena? A running or basketball shoe seems to have that crossover, but a boot exists solely for its purpose.

I think it has its challenges, but I like to look at it more as an opportunity. I really believe that there’s an opportunity with some of the modern performance design that might be more on pitch or on field—competitive product to inspire product that’s more of an everyday style. You will see examples of that coming up. I can’t show you now, but I would use the word opportunity instead of challenge. I find it very liberating.

The Dynamic Fit seems to be present in some pinnacle designs across categories. It started with the Sock Racer in 1985, then appeared in the Jordan II, and in an evolved form on the Huarache. Was the resemblance between the Kobe 9, Mercurial Superfly, and the Free Flyknit 3.0 a deliberate move to unite Nike’s performance aesthetic into a singular language?

You’re very accurate in your genealogy of Dynamic Fit, starting with the Sock Racer and coming through to the Huaraches and whatnot. We are in the very early stages  of Flyknit and what I’ve seen from it as an innovation. Recently I’ve been looking at Flyknits that will come out in two or three years—I’m a product and design geek—and it’s absolute amazing. I think we’re wearing through various stages of what’s possible with Flyknit. So many of the Flyknit shoes you see today in running or basketball and football—with the Magista or the Mercurial—have a similar DNA, if you will, and that DNA will actually evolve as the technology evolves. There’s a lot of things that are very similar, like the Brio cables that provide support, which is an important element no matter what sport you’re in. The ability to change the knit in certain parts of the shoe to create a different performance characteristic is really evident in the Kobe. The zonal changes that you can do in Flyknit are much more precise than in cut-and-sew. So as the technology develops—the threads, the material, and the sophistication of the knitting machines—all the stuff that we’re currently working on is going to create new possibilities that will definitely affect the successive generations of Flyknit.

That Dynamic Fit collar on these new silhouettes seems like an evolution. Nike has focused on the foot’s natural motion, but are you now starting to look at the leg and the body as a whole?

Yes, that’s an opportunity. The thinking behind the higher-cut silhouette of the Kobe shoe was actually influenced by wrestling and boxing boots. We were sitting with Kobe looking at different silhouettes like the Manny Pacquiao shoe, which isn’t actually about support, but a sense of security and confidence, if you will—and that’s an adjustment. Kobe found that was something important to him and I think Ronaldo felt the same thing—that sense of connecting the foot to the ankle to the leg in such a seamless integration that lacks sensation; it feels like it’s not even there. You mentioned the Sock Racer. I was at the R&D facility in Exeter, New Hampshire, when the first Sock Racer prototype was developed—it was a sock with EVA pads of foam attached to it. The discussion around that very crude prototype was about a lack of sensation—we didn’t want to feel the shoe, which is the ultimate compliment from an athlete. But having the sense of security and stability is important—it’s just that you don’t want to feel it all the time, something that goes all the way back to the first Dynamic Fit shoes.

The HTM Presto Roam from 2002 feels like a dry run for what we’re seeing now in some ways.

In some ways, yup.

When the Presto debuted in 2000, it got Hiroshi Fujiwara's cosignature from the start. The HTM Presto Roam was early evidence that HTM was going to be more than just new colors and materials – it would be a test bed for new silhouettes entirely. Presto's sock-like fit spawned a dynasty that includes the Presto Cage, Gym, Ridge, Glide, Faze, Clip, Chanjo, and Tent. The Roam is a trail-take on the technology that switched stretch neoprene to suede and upped the collar for protection, akin to the 1991 Tinker Hatfield-designed ACG Air Mowabb. Non-HTM editions appeared too, albeit in less memorable make ups.

When the Presto debuted in 2000, it got Hiroshi Fujiwara’s cosignature from the start. The HTM Presto Roam was early evidence that HTM was going to be more than just new colors and materials – it would be a test bed for new silhouettes entirely. Presto’s sock-like fit spawned a dynasty that includes the Presto Cage, Gym, Ridge, Glide, Faze, Clip, Chanjo, and Tent. The Roam is a trail-take on the technology that switched stretch neoprene to suede and upped the collar for protection, akin to the 1991 Tinker Hatfield-designed ACG Air Mowabb. Non-HTM editions appeared too, albeit in less memorable make ups.

Did you, Hiroshi, and Tinker foresee HTM as something more rooted in performance than in lifestyle?

Yes. HTM is somewhat organic by design and that’s just how Hiroshi, Tinker, and I work together. We have other influences. We didn’t want it be some formulaic kind of thing, to have something out every six months. We wanted it to feel more natural. I think as you see HTM going forward, you’re going to see more and more performance design coming through. Sometimes it might be the first place that you see it.

Abdihakem Abdirahman at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston

Abdihakem Abdirahman at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston

It was pretty crazy when Abdihakem Abdirahman wore the HTM Flyknit Racer past the finishing line in 2012. It seemed far removed from HTM’s debut in 2002.

Well get used to that craziness, because you’ll see more of it, which I think is a great thing. Tinker and I have talked through this a lot—we really want to push the performance envelope and use HTM as another real vehicle to do that. It feels like a great place for really unique things to come.