Leather. Mesh. Plastic. Synthetic. These were the four options manufacturers had to make shoes three years ago. They worked well. There are tons of leathers, ranging from pigskin to python. Synthetic composites allowed companies to lower the prices of shoes and make certain styles more breathable and flexible. But they were all variations on a similar theme. Then, in 2012, the world received a fifth option when something new burst onto the scene: Nike’s Flyknit technology.
Flyknit is yarn that enormous knitting machines—created specifically to make the shoes, and run by computers with immense processing power—weave, translating complex textural designs into single-piece uppers. According to the company press release, Nike programmers, engineers, and designers “embarked on a four-year mission of micro-engineering static properties into pliable materials” to develop the technology. They worked alongside marathoners in order to fulfill the specific needs of long-distance runners, and ultimately produced the first two Flyknit silhouettes: the Racer and the Trainer. The single-piece constructions meant that Nike had to distill all its running tech into one-time creations. It was an engineering marvel.
Introduced as pure athletic tech, the shoes weren’t immediately successful. The debut models, now colloquially referred to as the “OG Trainer” and “OG Racer,” featured a thin, light sole that was low on visual impact, highlighting the upper’s unique design. But it wasn’t an instant hit with runners. The sole didn’t last as long as other sneakers of the same ilk, but featured a higher price point that started at $150. Less durable and more expensive, the cost-prohibitive shoes sat on the shelves of running shops.
“When people are going through shoes every 350 to 400 miles, that price is not justified,” says Duncan Cragg, committee leads for certification on fit for the Texas running store chain Luke’s Locker. “Our customer base is for function, not fashion.”
That’s not to say that the sneaker wasn’t a great running shoe. The Flyknit technology that Nike touted was legit, but it wasn’t going to find a home as a pillar in the running community without a more robust sole.
It also needed a story or association to help sell it. The power of Air Jordans didn’t come from the shoes, at least not at first. Sure, out of context, the Jordan 1 is clean as hell, but it didn’t give consumers much more aesthetically than its older brother, the Dunk, and likely would have found itself obsolete if it weren’t for how it fits into the Michael Jordan story.
Flyknit got its shot at fame at the 2012 Olympics in London. Nike’s sponsorships put the shoe on the podium in nearly every event. While the whole world watched, the heroes of the summer donned a shoe that was largely untested in the wider market. It created a cosign roster that proved impossible to beat. When Michael Phelps won his 22nd medal to become the winningest medal-earner in Olympic history, he laced up Flyknits to stand on that podium. That was the summer that the Flyknit found its sure footing.
Using the sneaker as a podium shoe associated the sneaker with cultural heroes, but it wasn’t a performance-based association exactly. Phelps wore Flyknits no fewer than six times on internationally syndicated television, but he didn’t wear them in competition, he wore them as a winner. They were tied to his success, not to his athletic ability. This is how you make cultural heroes, not how you make an athletic icon. (It didn’t help that the dopest Flyknit of all time, the multicolored IOA pairs, were only given to the four Independent Olympic Athletes competing without a country, under the Olympic flag. When multicolored Flyknits like the IOA pairs eventually became available to the masses, they proved to be the most valuable pairs on the market.)
Nike invited fans to be a part of the shoe’s history, introducing the FSB Chukka immediately after the games in celebration of all the U.S. wins. Buyers could own a piece of the technology they saw on the podiums. They were not buying a game-winning cleat, or the sneakers a championship winner wore during the game-winning dunk, though. At $200, it was an exorbitant amount of money for a shoe, and still is, and the shoe made no gesture to even pretend it was a tech shoe. It was a lifestyle shoe. Nike continued to find new ways to incorporate it into running programs, but it seemed that the Swoosh had put most of its effort behind selling a Flyknit lifestyle.
Oddly enough, the next step in the evolution of the Flyknit as a lifestyle shoe started with another athletic performance shoe. Entering into 2014, Kobe Bryant’s signature sneakers needed reinvention. From 2012 to 2013, sales of his shoes remained static at $50 million while Kevin Durant’s jumped from $35 million to $145 million. (LeBron James’ sales had plateaued, too, but at $300 million.) The Kobe 9, which Nike officially unveiled on Dec. 4, 2013, at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was a huge departure in his series. Following a string of low-top signature shoes, the 9, which was seven-and-five-eighths inches tall, was one of the highest high-top basketball sneakers ever made. It was also the first hoops shoe to utilize a lightweight Flyknit upper, combining it with Flywire, for midfoot security, and Lunarlon cushioning. (The Kobe 9 Low, like the 8, featured an upper of Engineered Mesh, a woven textile that is similar in texture and movement to Flyknit, but less labor-intensive and less customizable.) Eric Avar, creative director and vice president of innovation at Nike, boasted that Flyknit “acts as a second skin for Kobe, giving him engineered strength similar to the design of a spider web—tension and strength just where it’s needed.”
But as with any new technology, there were trade-offs. In the case of the 9, on-court security and durability came at the cost of comfort. “The material change between the Kobe 8 and Kobe 9 Flyknit was sort of an upgrade, but I felt it wasn’t quite ready for basketball,” says Chris Chase, a.k.a. Nightwing2303 of WearTesters.com, who has wear-tested hundreds of basketball performance sneakers. “[Nike] had to reinforce the hell out of the Flyknit with glues in order to make it supportive enough for basketball movement. Doing so ended up making the Flyknit much stiffer than what you’d receive in a runner. Durability is the main difference between the [Kobe 8 and 9]. The Flyknit will last longer with the glue reinforcement. While the Engineered Mesh from the Kobe 8 and Kobe 9 Low will feel better initially, it has greater potential to tear after continuous wear. The 9s were beautifully designed, and the knit looks amazing, but the lows were much more functional for me.”
The high-tops weren’t perfect for the hardwood, but that didn’t stop adventurous sneakerheads from rocking them off the court, as the Flyknit upper gave them a stylish option to add to their collections. The unique, skyscraping design meant that only bold, brave, and snappy dressers were willing to wear the shoes casually. Some sneakerheads who felt the exciting new shoes were too tall made them wearable by cutting off the high throat. It was a necessary modification until Nike finally launched a low-top version of the Flyknit 9s.
In April 2014, Nike unveiled the Kobe 9 Elite Low amid much fanfare in Milan with a super-limited, HTM-designed collection. The Flyknit, Flywire, and Lunarlon technology of the off-putting, high-top 9s remained, but the multicolored low-tops were far more fashion-friendly. Added to the roster of customizable shoes on NikeiD after the successful releases of the HTM pairs and the famous black-and-white “Beethovens,” which dropped last August, the Kobe 9 Elite Low has had a long life cycle. Once again, Nike found a way to bridge the gap between the technological needs of its athletes and the aesthetic desires of the style-conscious.
When Kanye West, who was first spotted wearing Flyknit in London in 2012, stepped out in the White/Black colorway of the OG Trainer while traveling with Kim Kardashian in Paris in April 2013, that particular colorway became the hardest to find. To this day, it fetches resale prices that rival some of the most limited runner collabs, eclipsed in the Flyknit collections only by the initial six-pair HTM collection. Kanye picked up the Flyknit early, when only fashionable early adopters were starting to rock the shoe, and his styling helped to bring attention to the shoe’s potential as a seriously styleable shoe. Suddenly, the shoe had two possible life cycles, and Nike took advantage of both.
The key to fashion and style are not just being visually appealing, but hitting at the right time. New styles can flounder until consumers decide a trend is worth their time, and sometimes those consumers need convincing. A lot of what lead to the success of the Flyknit as a fashionable sneaker was that stylists sat up and paid attention. “The design was something completely new with the innovative knit structure and original colorways being appealing to the masses,” says Viktor Ekblom, stylist and product manager at Très Bien in Sweden. “I think that Nike realized the potential of the style outside of the sports arenas pretty quickly and started to focus a lot of resources in that direction. The timing just felt good all around.”
Although Nike lagged on the athletic front, Flyknit came up serendipitously at the same time that sportswear was becoming a popular alternative to a culture dominated by jeans and T-shirts. 2012 saw the birth or development of some of the biggest names in high-fashion streetwear. Brands like Pyrex, Hood By Air, and En Noir were starting to get their sea legs, while brands like Publish were getting more serious about higher-end style. Alexander Wang was suddenly making $800 sweatpants and they were a reasonable alternative to the casual uniform of the style minded young professional. As selvage denim became more and more cultish, the casually stylish looked for new ways to express themselves with fashion. The wider streetwear community woke up to the potential blur between indulgent fashion and sporty looks. That overlap struck at the heart of what Flyknit offered. “Most people today like to wear comfortable shoes and clothes that at the same time look a bit better than what everyone else is wearing,” explains Ekblom. “And the Flyknit is a perfect style in that sense.”
The same trend breath that raised up Flyknit and elevated streetwear saw the rise of Nike’s Fuel Band and the social technology built into it. The line between fitness and social expression began to blur. Coworkers and strangers were brought into the gym thanks to Instagram selfies and progress tweets, and the gym was brought into the street. When a $200 rose gold Fuel Band is a status symbol whose points are being tracked and compared all day, it’s a lifestyle element that’s pulled into fashion. When CrossFit demands a Fight Club-like commitment, it bleeds into other elements of life. Flyknit rose on this stylization of fitness, becoming the sporty alternative to the street sneaker, blending hoodies that cost a rack with leather jackets and Python-billed snapbacks.
When Nike introduced Flyknit in 2012, it was top of the line but wasn’t what the targeted distance-running community wanted or needed. In the intervening seasons, Nike has combined the Flyknit with other technologies. The light dynamism of the Free soles, full footbed support of Air Max soles, and robustness of Lunar soles have lead to open-armed acceptance within the wider runner community, each sole catering to its own constituency. But almost since day one, the streetwise stylish have found a go-to with Flyknit. The contemporary stylization of athleticism and popularization of high-end sportswear outside of the weekend has made Flyknit an obvious choice for the sportsman who has to look good. We live in a culture that brings the world with it at every stop, and the Flyknit can be what we wear at the gym and on the street. And in 2015, the line between the two is blurrier than ever.