This feature originally appears in Complex's April/May issue.
Nike Design Director Graeme McMillan came upon an old sketch by legendary designer Tinker Hatfield that predated Hatfield’s iconic Air Max 1 model. It served as the starting point for the Air Max Zero. According to Hatfield, the sketch was literally ahead of its time: “Not just in regards to its appearance, but also in terms of the construction it required,” he says. Now, the technology and materials have advanced enough to execute Hatfield’s original vision. “Inspiration can come from many places. You can’t be afraid to learn from a pre-existing design and make it your own,” says Hatfield. What a nice present from the past.
The Nike Air Max Zero costs $150, available for pre-order on March 22 via the SNKRS app, officially releasing March 26 at Nike.
Read the full interview with designer Tinker Hatfield below, courtesy of Nike:
What is the story behind the Air Max Zero?
There was no brief or research, just a single revelation. I thought why couldn’t we design an exciting new running shoe that reveals to the world what Nike Air really is.
I remember thinking about how we were building these bigger and bigger Air-Sole units, and thinking that people needed to see them and understand them. They needed to be exposed to this new technology, and not only just to the technology, but also to an entire package that presents it the right way—one that could be worn on a run.
So the very first drawings were all about showing these Air-Sole units. Some of them were just drawings of an Air-Sole unit in a heel that you can see. Other drawings would show them in the forefoot and in the midfoot.
It wasn’t just about the Air-Sole unit. It was about the entire design. We were creating a different kind of shoe that just feels different, feels better and has a unique visual character. When you put it all together, that's when people get excited and you may have a better shot at changing the landscape.
Often when people talk about the Air Max 1, they reference the Centre Georges Pompidou as the location where you had your visible air epiphany. Did that inspire the Air Max 1 as we know it today? Or was that moment something that preceded the Air Max Zero?
My recollection is that I had traveled to Paris, and as an architect, was quite aware of new and interesting architecture around the world. I specifically went to Paris to see the city, but also to visit the Pompidou Center. It was controversial, and there were a lot of people around the world who thought it was just too different.
The Pompidou is a building turned inside out, with a glass skin underneath. Even some of what would normally be on the inside of the skin was on the outside. Everything is exposed, from heating and cooling ducts to escalators and elevators. You could just see everything.
As a designer, you look for examples of design where people take risks and try something different. I remember that being stuck in my head. Coming back to Oregon, I had meetings with the technicians who were working on these larger Air-Sole units and relayed my thoughts. Essentially, here is this building that's like no other building and here is this technology. Maybe we could also take our technology and expose it and create a shoe that's like no other.
So that's how it started. I did see the building before I did the shoe, so it is true that there was some inspiration from that. But give Nike technology its due. If our technicians hadn't been working on a bigger Air-Sole unit that was getting larger and closer to the edge of the midsole, we probably wouldn't have wanted to cut the hole because it would have been like a cave. So it was a combination of the Pompidou Center and the fact that we were making bigger Air-Sole units.
What were you thinking about when you sketched your first shoe with visible Nike Air?
Aside from that visible air idea, I thought about sculpting the midsole to be more minimalist, rising up where it needed to rise up for support and dropping down where it wasn’t needed.
I also spent some time sketching the upper, which was meant to be a good-fitting upper with a traditional saddle. This is the centerpiece that rises up in the midfoot and has the Swoosh on it. The saddle is a way to make a good-fitting shoe, because you can take that one piece and form it to the shape of a foot. So the shoe employed what you would call best practices today.
Yet what was more unique in this drawing was the fact that there was no tip, which you could probably say was borrowed from the Sock Racer. The Sock Racer didn't have a tip. It was a stretchy shoe, but the product was not meant to be a stretchy shoe. I was simply trying to get rid of stuff we didn't need. While it has no tip or tongue, it does have a lateral forefoot reinforcement overlay. You need to make sure that the shoe doesn't fall apart around your little toe and the side of your foot, especially if you are running around a track or running through the woods and you make a little bit of a move. Something we call lateral stability.
Another really different aspect of the design was the inclusion of an external heel strap with no heel counter. It was pre-Huarache, pre-sandal, if you will. It was kind of like how you would design a sandal, you know, where a sandal would wrap around your heel and have the ability to cinch up over the top of your heel bone. I just thought that was a nice, minimalist approach.
Why did the Air Max Zero not get made back when you originally designed it?
In many ways, it was a shoe ahead of its time—not just in regards to its appearance, but also in terms of the construction it required. Very practically, the technology and materials available to us at the time wasn’t advanced enough to execute the original vision.
Your original design has now been reinterpreted into the Air Max Zero, which releases in March. What are your impressions of it?
I love it. It features modern materials and construction, and I think that's the only way to do it. Otherwise, when you dig up something from the past and you just stick strictly to that, you're tying one arm behind your back because it's not the past anymore. That was then. This is now. If you had handed me the project, I would have chose same new materials similar to what the team did today.
I also think it's cool that you can be inspired by something, but you don't have to copy it. In fact, I design architecture all the time. I do homes for people. I do big buildings. I may be inspired by an old building but I always bring a new material or new spin into my designs. That’s in part what good designers do. Inspiration can come from many places. You can’t be afraid to learn from a pre-existing design and make it your own.
And below is Nike's full interview with design director Graeme McMillan on the process of designing the Air Max Zero:
How did the Air Max Zero come about?
In 2014, Nike celebrated the Air Max family’s birthday with the first Air Max Day. For 2015 we wanted to do something special. We started our ideation with a search of the archives, where we revisited all the executions we had done in the past around Air Max. We wanted to find something that spoke to the relevance of Air Max with contemporary culture and innovation. That led us to a sketch of what became the Air Max Zero.
How did you find the sketch in the archives?
I was at the archives for a different meeting a couple of months before this project was a blip on the radar. They had a retrospective of Air Max on display, complete with early prototypes and first-round samples of different models. There was a wealth of archival pieces and prototypes to excavate. It was like an archaeological dig in terms of these items you don’t usually get to see unless you work there.
I had actually seen the sketch prior to the archive visit, although I didn’t know its relevance. One of the other members of our team found out that it was actually an early idea for the Air Max 1 and then brought that idea to the design team. The sketch was something that was never fully realized. We thought it would be great if we could share this with the world and shed some light on the development of the franchise.
Were you aware of an Air Max model that preexisted the Air Max 1 before starting this project?
I wasn’t aware of what really happened, but I knew that there were different iterations and early concept sketches for the Air Max 1. It wasn’t until we actually dug a little deeper and got some information about this one particular sketch that we uncovered the story behind it.
What did you think when you first saw the sketch and heard the story that accompanied it?
My first thought was that it looked like a more contemporary version of the Air Max 1 in certain ways. It’s a little bit simpler in terms of the design. I also saw cues that, to me, were connected to other shoes, whether it was the Air Huarache via the inner sleeve, or the Sock Racer via its clean vamp. There were so many details that ended up being found in shoes that came later on. After talking with Tinker Hatfield, we found out that all the details of the shoe were considered to achieve this idea of comfort and fit.
How did you feel knowing that it was your responsibility to take something drawn more than 30 years ago, by such a storied designer, and make it into an actual product?
It’s a little daunting to take on a sketch from one of your design heroes and someone that’s such an important figure in sneaker culture design. There is a responsibility to do the design justice in a way that is faithful to the design intent, but also to add another element of innovation to it by building the shoe in a way we couldn't have back in 1987. Basically we took the concept around comfort, fit, and lightweight and married it with some contemporary methods of make and innovation. For instance, fuse construction, engineered mesh, and Nike Flyknit didn't exist back then. So we had an entire toolbox of different constructions and innovations that we could apply to this concept. For me, it had to go back to that initial idea, something comfortable enough to wear all day.
Can you remember anything specific that Tinker mentioned that gave you a North Star or an idea of how to get things started?
Tinker mentioned his original design intent was to achieve supreme comfort using different materials and construction methods. We took those ideas and put them through a filter of new innovation that wasn’t available then. Also, Tinker pointed out that he couldn't find materials to accomplish the fit he wanted. Specifically, he wasn’t able to find a vamp material that had the right amount of stretch and structure to produce the sock-like fit he wanted.
Can you walk us through your Air Max Zero design process from beginning to finish?
We started with the 30-year-old concept sketch. All we had to do was bring it to life. There were a couple of considerations that we attacked from the beginning, one being, ‘How do we build the shoe in a relevant way that supports the design intent?’ We also had to decide what midsole and outsole we were going to use. It just so happened that we had just finished designing the Air Max 1 Ultra Moire, which was the lightest Air Max 1 sneaker we’ve made. What makes it so light and different from the original is that we’ve cored out the forefoot material and have moved away from poured PU construction. It’s now made of Phylon foam. Once we had that sorted, it was a matter of exploring different materials and construction methods for the upper. We didn’t want to build a conventional cut-and-sew upper. Instead we used fuse construction to apply thin films to the meshes. This allowed us to build up structure and support where necessary. We also used mesh containing monofilament yarn, which wasn’t available back in 1987. This allowed us to achieve the clean vamp without sacrificing breathability. It has a unique two-tone effect that gives the shoe added dimension.
How did Tinker feel about building the shoe using contemporary innovation?
Tinker was extremely supportive of the concept, since when he originally drew the sketch, he didn’t feel like he had the material to create the forefoot of the shoe.
Please describe the Air Max Zero and its ideology in one word.